Ellen Paddock: World Traveler Becomes Expert on Durham Gangs

As the child of a military dad, Ellen Paddock grew up in many different countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Germany. With a background in the Middle East and many of its cultures, she came to Duke and quickly chose Arabic as her major. After her freshman year, she interned at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. 

But her trajectory changed course after her sophomore year, when she accepted a DukeEngage internship with the Durham Economic Resource Center. She spent the summer teaching job and life skills to men and women who faced barriers to employment for reasons such as a criminal history. After this experience she decided to add a second major in public policy and to spend her next summer in Durham as well, as a research assistant for the Criminal Justice Resource Center. 

"I knew that I wanted to learn more about the juvenile justice system, and my thought process was that this was such a complex issue and I had no idea where to start," said Paddock. "So I actually approached the head of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC) in Durham and said, 'If you could put a researcher for free on any question that you guys want to know about right now, what would it be?'" 

The JCPC was struggling with the paradox of why the number of young people involved in gangs was rising while youth crime was staying relatively flat. This seemed counterintuitive, and it gave Paddock the starting point for her senior thesis project. She looked at police data on gang-specific crimes and surveyed Durham Public School teachers about gang violence in schools to assess gang prevalence in schools and neighborhoods. 

"Ellen is one of the hardest-working, most determined students I've supervised," said Professor Phil Cook, her thesis advisor. "To gather data on gang members in Durham required that she go through difficult human-subject review processes by Duke, the schools and the courts. She finally succeeded in clearing those hurdles and gathered an amazing amount of data from interviews with the youths, teachers, court counselors and others. By the end she knew as much about gangs in Durham as any cop or social worker."

Paddock discovered that the metrics for determining the number of members in a gang were severely flawed. There is a stark difference between gang members and gang associates, and it is important to differentiate between the two when assessing the number of youths involved in gang activity. The original data did not account for the fact that gang members go through a formal induction process, whereas gang associates can display an affiliation through the clothes they wear or simply the neighborhoods they live in. 

Another trend, according to Paddock, is "younger kids, more girls and more middle-class kids" involved in gangs. Much of this is a repercussion of a large boom in gang membership in the 1980s and 1990s. These members are now having children, who in turn become involved with gang activities. 

Paddock narrowed her focus to Durham's current gang reduction strategies. She found that Durham's gang intervention program relied on referrals, which were only provided to those arrested for gang violence. This meant that many who might be interested in disassociating with a gang did not have access to the intervention program unless they were arrested first. 

Paddock suggested starting a hotline in Durham that gang members or their teachers could call anonymously in order to seek help leaving a gang. Paddock presented her work before the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and has been working with the Project BUILD gang intervention program in Durham, but so far the hotline has not been implemented. She has, however, seen an increase in gang-intervention resources geared towards Hispanic youth, including a new bilingual outreach worker who will soon begin work with BUILD, as she had recommended in her thesis. 

"Her findings were of considerable interest to the county's Criminal Justice Resource Center," Cook said. "At the Sanford School we place a high value on engaging with local agencies and public officials. Ellen's research can help make our community safer and more just. "

Paddock has accepted a job as a research assistant at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center.

"As much as I learned while writing my thesis, it barely scratched the surface of all of the complexities, inefficiencies and often injustices that permeate the U.S. criminal justice system," Paddock said. "In the long term, this is something I'd like to help change, but for now I think an important first step is to learn as much as I can."