How many lives have been saved by Jack McDevitt’s work? How much suffering has been alleviated?
McDevitt, a professor of the practice in criminology and criminal justice as well as director of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice, is retiring after 45 years of research and mediation that have resulted in meaningful change throughout the United States as well as in the communities within and around the Boston campus.
“It is always in the back of my mind,” says Lisa Laguerre, the institute’s associate director of community relations, who has known McDevitt since she was a freshman in his 1990 “Introduction to Criminal Justice” class. “He’s created such a legacy that when you ask me, ‘What will it be like without him?’ I can’t wrap my mind around that.”
McDevitt has made a difference by taking on several of the most contentious issues in American life. In the early stage of his career, he researched and helped define hate crimes at a time when the classification was not widely known. That work led him to study and advise police departments. From there he found himself in the middle of the gun control debate.
McDevitt has maintained his spirit and energy without being worn down by the vitriol and obstacles that so often envelop the issues of hate crimes, guns and police oversight.
“These are real problems that need solutions,” says McDevitt, his bright eyes enframed by his distinctive white hair and beard. “And, you know, I’m arrogant enough to think that I can come up with some small solutions. In some cases.”
One such case was the 2014 passage of 43 task force recommendations that helped make Massachusetts the safest state in the U.S. based on firearm suicides and homicides. In response to the 2012 killings of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, McDevitt was asked by Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo—now University Fellow for Public Life at Northeastern—to lead the commission that formulated the proposals.
McDevitt’s stubborn talent for hearing all sides of an argument enables him to explain in simple terms why the U.S. has failed to enact reasonable gun laws that are supported by a majority of the population.
“There is a minority of people across the country—their group has grown larger and the messages have become more public—that believes that the federal government has a list of everybody that has a gun,” McDevitt says. “And these people believe that the government is going to come to your house and take your guns so that you can’t protect yourself when they do whatever they’re going to do—whether it’s bring more Black people into the country, or take over all the banks, or whatever it is. But they believe the first step is to take away your guns.
“So there’s this real feeling that the federal government is in some kind of conspiracy to come to your house, take your guns, and then enact whatever conspiracy they are currently engaged with to push a strategy that’s going to make white people less successful in our society. That’s the theme.”
McDevitt was introduced to these issues when he enrolled at Northeastern in 1976 to earn a master’s degree in public administration.
“I got a work-study job—how Husky is this—in a research center doing death-penalty research,” he says. “We were looking at what role race plays in the administration of the death penalty, and the work that I was a small part of was cited in a Supreme Court decision. And at that point, I was hooked. I saw how research can help influence policy. This was so exciting.”
He had been asked to catalog 300 homicides that were prosecuted for the death penalty, which had been reinstituted by Georgia in 1972. The first impression of that Northeastern project has stayed with him.
“In order to be a death penalty case in Georgia, it had to be a pretty heinous homicide,” McDevitt says. “To this day, I can still remember some of those cases. Because it’s just incredible what one human being can do to another human being.”
McDevitt began researching hate crimes 35 years ago. He helped design the FBI’s system for collecting data and then traveled to more than 60 U.S. cities, helping train police departments across the nation to recognize and deal with hate crimes.
“He’s one of the foremost experts on hate crimes in the country,” says Amy Farrell, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern and co-director of the Violence and Justice Research Lab. “He’s changed policies within the FBI around the identification of hate crime in addition to his work on racial profiling and racial bias. He’s interested in hard problems that don’t get solved right away, that they are one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes those problems are like screaming into the wind, but he taught me that you just keep going and stepping forward.”
Farrell, who was mentored by McDevitt as a Northeastern student, calls him “my hero.”
“He receives hate mail, death threats,” Farrell says. “But he’s always put himself out there to be a person that can take that hit, and I think in many ways it’s because he’s had an acute recognition that as a well-educated, well-off white male, he can handle that. When I was a younger scholar and getting a death threat was really emotionally difficult for me, he was willing to say, ‘I’m going to step in front of this for you’—and not in a patronizing way, but in a way that really said, ‘I recognize that this is part of my role because of the privileges that I have.’ And I think he’s always been very aware of that.”
“Retirement” is a misnomer for McDevitt, who plans to remain involved in projects at Northeastern. He’s also preparing to write a third book on hate crimes that explores the apparent increase in use of guns—a new dynamic that has led to an increase in random suffering and, he says, intensified the need for hate crime victims to be joined by non-victims in broad-based coalitions that confront bigotry and violence.
The Institute for Racial Justice was launched in 2002 to research and understand racial disparities in the criminal justice system. McDevitt and Laguerre created a 15-person Community Advisory Board to address issues with the Boston Police Department. That initiative has “exceeded expectations,” says its co-chair, Sam Williams, an original member of the board.
“My initial concern was that I’ve seen major institutions use the community for research purposes, but there was never a direct benefit to the community,” says Williams, executive director of Concord Prison Outreach, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that provides support to incarcerated people. “It was important that any work that we did with Northeastern would have a community benefit.”
The board oversaw the development of a statewide racial profiling report that led to a variety of new training methods for police departments. Another initiative has enabled people in Boston to file complaints against police officers without having to enter police department headquarters.
“We were definitely ahead of the curve here in Massachusetts,” says Williams, who calls McDevitt “a visionary.”
The institute’s work in the community is highly unusual, Laguerre says.
“Many of the partners that sit around the table have been with us since the beginning,” Laguerre says. “Or if they’ve transitioned out, they’ve been very willing to offer recommendations for other community practitioners to get involved with the work that we do. That’s not common for relationships between community members and academic institutions—usually there is a legacy of distrust and it’s very hard to get people to stay involved for that amount of time.
“The success is largely due to the reputation and the integrity that Jack McDevitt brings to the table,” Laguerre says. “He allows for voices that may not otherwise be brought into conversations to have a say and for their perspectives to be shared.”
After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun asked McDevitt to chair an advisory board for the Northeastern University Police Department that resulted in more collection and sharing of data, greater transparency and improved communication between Northeastern police and the university community. It has also yielded a new sensitivity: When parents are unable to reach a Northeastern student, police officers are no longer routinely dispatched to the dorm room for a wellness check.
“We did public forums where students, faculty and staff could say anything they wanted about Northeastern police,” McDevitt. “One thing we heard over and over again from our students of color was that having a police officer show up at your room is a very, very difficult situation. All of the things you see in the news flash in front of your eyes and you’re wondering why they’re there. And that causes a lot of angst.”
Resident assistants are now sent to knock on doors, McDevitt says.
“They’re already in the residence hall, they know these people and they can say, ‘Hey, call your mom,’” McDevitt says. “Things like that have helped, and we’ll be doing more of those things in the future.”
As the self-deprecating son of a bartender and a waitress from suburban Boston, McDevitt says he focuses on communicating in everyday language that expresses authority while piercing through the emotions that erupt around issues of race and guns. His enduring sense of patience helps McDevitt pursue the answers that are hard to come by.
“I’m a social scientist,” he says. “I’m not an advocate. Advocates are really important in this world, but that’s not who I am. If I go into a police department, they have to believe that I’ll look at their data and tell them the truth about their data. Recommendations have to be based on the data and not on what I think personally.”