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Investigating the ‘Cyber Sleuths’

| Monday, September 23, 2019

As Notre Dame graduates from Michiana who are now working in the criminal legal system, we feel compelled to comment on last Saturday’s installment in the “What Would You Fight For” advertising campaign. For those unfamiliar with the campaign, installments in the series air during halftimes of Notre Dame football games on NBC. They generally “[showcase] the work, scholarly achievements and global impact of Notre Dame faculty, students and alumni . . . who fight to bring solutions to a world in need.” They generally make us feel proud. The most recent installment, “Fighting to Uncover the Evidence,” breaks with this tradition, in that it is less an advertisement for Notre Dame and more propaganda for Michiana law enforcement.

We are taken aback by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications’ representation of the “Cyber Sleuths” program and local law enforcement, and the University’s level of comfort with holding this out as a fair and accurate representation of our institution and values. This ad is tone deaf and blind to recent policing controversies, particularly in Michiana.

It is intellectually dishonest in its presentation of police as “experts in criminal law and criminal procedure.” It irresponsibly presents technology in the hands of law enforcement as an unqualified good. And it tacitly suggests that one gets furthest and does the most good by cooperating — even volunteering — with the law enforcement apparatus than by critically examining its impact, holding it accountable for its abundant failures and questioning how it is deployed. These are not the University’s values. At least, we hope they are not.

Lionizing law enforcement and partnering with it in public ineluctably comes with baggage. Take St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter, a “Double Domer” prominently featured in the ad. We’re shown Mr. Cotter solemnly interacting with what must be a “Law and Order” set, like a network TV version of the experienced, decorated prosecutor he is. He is in the ad to acknowledge and reify the role that the Notre Dame Cyber Sleuths play in “holding people accountable for the crimes they commit, and getting justice for our victims,” as he says.

The other side of Mr. Cotter’s legacy is left unacknowledged. Many South Bend residents will remember Mr. Cotter by his failure, last summer, to get a grand jury to indict an SBPD officer on reckless homicide charges after he sped down a city street going over 90 mph, without engaging his sirens until just before he struck a car and killed a Latina mother of two. The controversial racial disparities in the makeup of the South Bend police force as well as recent police shootings will likely play roles in determining the legacy of South Bend’s top prosecutor. In a criminal trial, when you preemptively rehabilitate your witness, you “open the door” to rebuttal evidence. Why feature Mr. Cotter — or local law enforcement — at all?

We are not saying the University must air local law enforcement’s dirty laundry in an ad like this.  We’re saying this ad should not have gone to air in the first place. We encourage those skeptical of our claims to check out coverage of recent law enforcement failures — like ProPublica’s recent reporting on law enforcement in Elkhart, Indiana.

We do not think absolutely everyone in law enforcement — particularly the Notre Dame Cyber Sleuths — is unworthy of praise. We only hope they take a more nuanced view of law enforcement than what is on offer in the ad, and that they are committed to making law enforcement function much better than it currently does. Moreover, we encourage students to intern at public defender offices like the one we work at if they want to see a fuller picture or — more to the point — if they are interested in actualizing the mission of this University by fighting for justice and equality.

Arnav Dutt

class of 2013

Sean Paulsen 

class of 2015


Sept. 22

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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