Legal Scholar Makes His Case on How to Advance Justice

Issue Date: 
February 1, 2016

David Harris is something of a provocateur.

Not that he tries to be. But as one of the leading authorities on some of today’s most controversial topics— race, criminal justice, and police-community relations—the respected lawyer and legal scholar makes people around the country think hard about complex issues.

In fact, his research and writings help to inform local, national, and international debate.

Harris, a professor and Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, teaches and writes about law enforcement, racial profiling,  and police behavior and regulation, as well as national security and other related issues. He has testified on such issues before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives—and numerous state legislative bodies. He travels nationally, training law-enforcement agencies on ways to improve police procedures and community relations and to enhance public safety. His work has led to federal efforts to address racial profiling and has spurred legislation and voluntary efforts in multiple states and hundreds of police departments.

Harris was born and raised in Chicago, a city making national headlines in the aftermath of the October 2014 police shooting death of Black teen Laquan McDonald. There were no police officers or attorneys in Harris’ family, but his belief in fairness and equality for all people attracted him to criminal law.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at Northwestern University and graduating from Yale Law School in 1983, Harris worked as a law clerk to a federal judge in Delaware. A brief stint in corporate law in Philadelphia was followed by a two-year fellowship at Georgetown University School of Law, where he earned a master of laws degree. The fellowship, he says, “changed my life and got me back to what I wanted to do originally”—criminal law as a trial attorney.

So that’s what he did, and he loved it. “Every day, I had the opportunity to make the government obey the law and follow the Constitution. I defended people who couldn’t afford a lawyer. There’s great value in helping to make sure people’s rights are protected. Otherwise, we lose our way.”

A fan of Pirates baseball, working out, and the arts—especially jazz—Harris has both corporate law and criminal trial work under his belt. But the roles of professor and legal scholar, especially, evoke his passion across the legal, academic, and broader communities.

“I like the opportunity to awaken students’ minds to some of the very difficult issues that come up in criminal law,” he says. “Criminal law is a reflection of who we are as a society. Studying it gives students a chance to see how the power of the state affects individuals in the most basic ways, and therefore how it should be restrained.” 

Harris has devoted the past 25 years to researching, writing, and teaching about law and its impact on society. The calling has taken him around the world.

“I couldn’t feel luckier,” he says.

His writings are routinely cited by lawyers, judges, and other scholars—and his books have furthered discussion on sensitive law-enforcement subjects: Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work (The New Press, 2002); Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing” (The New Press, 2005); and Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012). Another, he says, is in the works.

Pitt law school Dean William M. Carter Jr. cites Profiles in Injustice as “an important inspiration for and cornerstone of my own scholarly work on racial profiling.” 

And, in fact, the opportunity to work with Harris is one reason Carter accepted the opportunity to become the Pitt law school’s dean in 2012, leaving a teaching position at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.

“Professor Harris represents the best among us,” says Carter. “A teacher’s teacher and a scholar’s scholar, his work in criminal justice and civil rights is universally respected both by ordinary citizens as well as officials at the highest levels of power. Very few law professors have had the impact he has had on the development of the law and the public discourse about civil rights and criminal justice. The entire University of Pittsburgh is fortunate to have a scholar of such global prominence and a teacher of such excellence among our faculty.”

Ralph Bangs, former associate director of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems, says Harris’ books, like his research and writing, “are always on new and important policy issues that deserve a lot more attention than the country usually gives them.”

Harris’ presentations at Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems—and his lectures elsewhere—combine social science with legal research, providing “some of the most useful information on race and criminal justice issues in America for more than 20 years,” says Bangs.

Last November, the White House invited Harris to attend the 10th National Prosecution Summit in connection with President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The Pitt law professor participated in a presentation designed to help prosecutors and police understand how “implicit, subconscious racial bias” affects law enforcement and the justice system. Employing his research at that level, Harris says, “was an incredibly empowering and affirming experience.”

Based on these and other contributions to community and country, Harris was honored in 2015 with a prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service. The recognition, he says, was humbling and encouraging. “It’s a special privilege to have the opportunity to use what I know and what I do to address problems that affect the lives of so many people.”

Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, relishes opportunities to work with Harris locally on issues such as police-community relations that are particularly important to African Americans.

“He brings more to the table than opinions,” she says. “He provides academic information, national trends, what’s working and what isn’t. And he listens. I have just found him to be a good human being who truly cares about these two critically important issues—policing and community—and working together so all of us have a better life.”