Faculty Spotlight: Professor Mari Kong, Structural Inequality and the Criminal Justice System

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Mari Kong
Photo: Mari Kong

When Dr. Mari Kong isn’t researching, teaching, or surfing, she is serving her community as an 18-year veteran with the San Diego Police Department. Kong is a life-long learner with a passion for justice and a particular interest in structural inequality that informs her approach to policework.

She began her career as a patrol officer in 2001 and currently serves as acting detective, investigating a wide range of criminal cases. Professor Kong earned a BS in Health Education, an MA in Criminal Justice and a PhD Human and Organizational Systems. She is an active member of the National Latino Peace Officers Association and the Pan Pacific Law Enforcement Association.

Professor Kong shares what it means to be a detective and a woman of color in law enforcement today, as well as the importance of understanding the world through a race, class, and gender lens.

Was there a particular experience in your life that influenced your decision to pursue a career in law enforcement?

When I was a little girl, and even as a teenager, I never considered a profession in policing. It was actually my father, a criminalist for San Diego Police department, who encouraged me to apply. At the time, I was 24 years old, recently laid off from my job, and unsure about what I wanted to do. I took the police entrance exam, but didn’t understand what profession I was entering. Then September 11, 2001 happened. I still remember watching the television helplessly, as hundreds of first responders ran into crumbling buildings to save the lives of strangers. My mother asked me if I was ready to do the same thing, and for the first time, I felt a true push toward this line of work. My first day with the City of San Diego was September 14, 2001.

Tell us about your responsibilities as a detective in the San Diego Police Department and how does your work fit within the larger context of the criminal justice system?

As an acting detective, I get a broad range of cases; everything from petty thefts to serious cases like kidnappings, stabbings, or robberies. After receiving a crime report from a patrol officer, it is my job to fill in all the missing details. This can entail a variety of investigatory tactics, from interviewing witnesses, visiting the crime scene, and organizing and analyzing paperwork, documenting the crime alleged.

It is up to the detective to uncover the history and context surrounding the crime before eventually submitting the case for prosecution. Gathering evidence carries a very heavy ethical burden — a detective must ensure that the true criminal is discovered and never incriminate the innocent. I believe that my work as a detective is the first and sometimes most important step in ensuring justice for all parties involved.

You have a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems. How do you apply your expertise in this field to your detective work?

My skills as a researcher have altered the manner in which I approach each situation, victim and suspect. I realize the value of using inquiry rather than using positional power to control situations and people. Asking the right questions and actively listening helps me in my search for the truth and justice.

Additionally, through the process of obtaining my PhD and working on my dissertation, I experienced a major shift in my epistemology. I have learned how the pervasiveness of societal habits, norms, and rules negatively influence and impact people on macro and meso levels.

I see and experience these issues as both a police officer and as a woman of color. Because of my two vantage points, it is both interesting and exhausting to constantly be aware of these systems in which structural inequality is at work all around me.

Can you describe what you mean by structural inequality and how you have seen it in practice?

Structural inequality is an imbalance of power, access, and privilege that favors one group of people by objectifying and dehumanizing minority groups. Societal structures that support, perpetuate, and sustain these inequalities are maintained implicitly and explicitly throughout the system.

In all areas of the criminal justice system, from the policing, to the conviction, to the incarceration, the imbalance of power, access and privilege are evident. Therefore, the criminal justice system is often the power or mechanism that is used to explicitly maintain the societal structures of inequality to favor one group over another. This is at the core of the dissonance our country is experiencing right now.

I live my life through a race, class and gender lens. I am fully aware of the structural inequality that exists in the institution of policing. Equipped with this knowledge and high level of awareness, I take measures to ensure that I focus on maintaining peace and bringing justice based on merit and not on bias. This requires mindfulness and attention to the needs of every individual.

What inspires you the most about teaching in the MS in Criminal Justice program?

I am excited to share and discuss all aspects of criminal justice with my students. I always find these discussions promote my own learning, as well. I like to help them apply the learning to their own life experiences. I take being a scholar-practitioner very seriously and want to encourage my students to develop their own critical thinking skills.

As a woman of color and an 18-year police force veteran, I have a unique perspective to offer my students. I want to show students how to see and honor humanity in policing. I believe the pursuit of criminal justice is about applying justice regardless of race, class or gender. The moment when students confront and challenge their deeply held, but implicit biased ideologies about policing, inspires my teaching practice. It is my hope and intention to transform students’ conceptions of policing to be more inclusive, compassionate, service-orientated and intuitive.

What do you see as the future of criminal justice?

The criminal justice system in America has lost its sense of direction and purpose, as evidenced by the last four months of uprisings across the country. While the focus recently has been on policing reform, I believe the entire institution of criminal justice needs to follow the same path of exploration and transformation.

I believe the solution lies in the ability of the criminal justice system to integrate the tenants of humanity into both policy and practice. My research in this area shows how the patriarchal culture of the criminal justice system actively dismisses institutive and compassionate-humanistic ways of justice. One way, I discovered, that humanity in criminal justice can be established is to allow a women’s spirit, energy and perspective to inform all aspects of the criminal justice system. Women have a unique and important approach to criminal justice founded on caring, seeking equal justice and acting from a place of compassion and desire to serve.

Learn more about the MS in Criminal Justice program.

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