Erin Kearns, Ph.D.

University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa

Country: United States (Alabama)

Research Interests


Crime Politics

Experimental Research

Political Violence

Public Policy

My Research:

Broadly speaking, my research examines relationships among the public, law enforcement, and terrorist organizations. There are four streams of my research that address the following questions: How can interactions between police and communities increase cooperation in counterterrorism? How do terrorist groups strategically communicate? What impact do media have on perceptions of terrorism and counterterrorism? And, why do some people become engaged in terrorism? To examine these questions, I rely primarily on quantitative methods and randomized experiments. I am a criminologist with an interdisciplinary focus drawing from literatures in communications, political science, psychology, public policy, and sociology. My work has been funded through a number of sources, including the National Consortium for the Study of and Responses to Terrorism (START). My research has been featured on CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, and Vox.


Journal Articles:

(2018) Exploring officer views of community policing in counterterrorism, Police Practice and Research

Recently there has been increased emphasis on actionable intelligence in counterterrorism. Building from the process-based model of regulation, police chiefs and scholars generally agree that community policing has promise in this regard. Yet, it is not clear the extent to which police officers concur. Since officers are in a position to implement community policing practices, it is important to understand variants in officer-level support. Using data collected from 741 officers in three departments, this project explores officer-level views of community policing’s utility to address terrorism and more common crimes. Overall, officers view community policing as appropriate to address both common crimes and terrorism. Results suggest that department-level policy itself is not the key driver of support. Rather, an officer’s own experience with community policing and support for the practice in general determine views on community policing in counterterrorism. Results also highlight the importance of comparative research across departments.

(2018) Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?, Justice Quarterly

Tags: Terrorism

Terrorist attacks often dominate news coverage as reporters seek to provide the public with information. Yet, not all incidents receive equal attention. Why do some terrorist attacks receive more media coverage than others? We argue that perpetrator religion is the largest predictor of news coverage, while target type, being arrested, and fatalities will also impact coverage. We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2006 and 2015 (N=136). Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 357% more coverage than other attacks. Our results are robust against a number of counterarguments. The disparities in news coverage of attacks based on the perpetrator’s religion may explain why members of the public tend to fear the “Muslim terrorist” while ignoring other threats. More representative coverage could help to bring public perception in line with reality.

(2017) Why Are Some Officers More Supportive of Community Policing with Minorities than Others?, Justice Quarterly

Officers are not equally supportive of community policing despite its potential for improving police–citizen relationships. Research has yet to identify and explain variations in officer support for community policing with racial minori- ties. Using roll-call surveys with 741 officers in three departments, this project addressed two questions: Do officers differ in their support for com- munity policing across racial groups? And, if so, why? Officers are less support- ive of community policing with racial minorities and perceive greater social distance from minority groups. General support for community policing and lower perceived social distance from a minority community are linked with greater support for community policing with that group. Community policing experience is not related to support for the practice across racial groups. By understanding differences at the officer-level, departments can build support for community policing—particularly with minority communities—through reducing perceived social distance. Additionally, department-level differ- ences highlight the importance of comparative research.

(2017) Support for political mobilization and protest in Egypt and Morocco: an online experimental study, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict

Tags: Conflict Processes & War, Race, Ethnicity and Politics

Why do individuals engage in or support acts of contentious politics? Building from previous work, this article uses a 2 (high/low grievance) × 2 (high/low risk) × 2 (high/low opportunity) online experimental design to examine the impact of these factors on political action with participants from Egypt (n = 517) and Morocco (n = 462). Participants assumed a rst-person perspective as a member of a ctional oppressed ethnic minority group in one of eight vignettes. Participants then indicated the extent to which they would engage in various forms of protest and violence, and how justi ed such actions were. Participants answered several social-personality measures: Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), and Activism and Radicalism Intentions Scale (AIS and RIS). Analyses show that higher SDO and RIS scores largely drive violent engagement and justi cation for these actions. Higher AIS scores predicted protest engagement and justi cation, while SDO negatively in uenced non-violence. RWA scores decreased engagement in and support for any form of political action. In contrast with previous experimental ndings, grievance did not impact decisions about political mobilization.

(2017) “If Torture Is Wrong, What About 24?” Torture and the Hollywood Effect, Crime & Delinquency

Tags: Human Rights, Public Opinion, Political Violence

Since 9/11, entertainment media has focused on depictions of terrorism and counterterrorism. How do dramatic depictions of counterterrorism practices—specifically torture—affect public opinion and policy? Using a mixed within-subjects and between-subjects experimental design, we examine how framing affects support for torture. Participants (n = 150) were randomly assigned to a condition for dramatic depictions showing torture as (a) effective, (b) ineffective, or (c) not present (control). Participants who saw torture as effective increased their stated support for it. Participants who saw torture—regardless of whether or not it was effective—were more likely to sign a petition on torture. We discuss the policy implications of our findings on how framing affects opinion and action regarding torture.

(2015) The Study of Torture: Why It Persists, Why Perceptions of It are Malleable, and Why It is Difficult to Eradicate, Laws

Tags: Terrorism, Human Rights

Why does torture persist despite its prohibition? Scholars, policymakers, and the public have heavily debated this topic in the past decade. Yet, many puzzles remain about the practice of torture. Scholarship on torture spans academic disciplines, which adds diversity in perspectives brought to these questions but also can lead to redundancy and stunted progress in research on the issue as a whole. This article assesses the state of the multidisciplinary literature on torture in counterterrorism with specific focus on why democracies torture despite prohibiting it, how public perception of torture is malleable, and why so few countries are able to move from commitment to compliance in the prohibition of torture. In each section, the article also identifies underexplored areas in the research and suggests avenues for future investigation.

(2014) Lying About Terrorism, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism

Tags: Terrorism, Political Violence

Conventional wisdom holds that terrorism is committed for strategic reasons as a form of costly signaling to an audience. However, since over half of terrorist attacks are not credibly claimed, conventional wisdom does not explain many acts of terrorism. This article suggests that there are four lies about terrorism that can be incorporated in a rationalist framework: false claiming, false flag, the hot-potato problem, and the lie of omission. Each of these lies about terrorism can be strategically employed to help a group achieve its desired goal(s) without necessitating that an attack be truthfully claimed.

Media Appearances:

TV Appearances:

(2014) CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin,

Interview about my research on entertainment media's impact on public support for torture.

Radio Appearances:

(2017) Colorado Public Radio

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) ABC Australia, Radio National

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) NPR's Morning Edition

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) CBS/KCBS Radio San Francisco

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

Newspaper Quotes:

(2017) Think Progress

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) Foreign Policy

Reference to my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) Cato Institute

Reference to my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) Think Progress

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) Reason

Reference to my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) The Independent

Reference to my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2015) Pacific Standard

Interview about my research on entertainment media's impact on public perception of torture.

(2014) The Washington Post

Interview about my research on entertainment media's impact on public perception of torture.

(2014) Vox

Reference to my research on entertainment media's impact on public perception of torture.


(2017) NPR's Hidden Brain Podcast

Interview about my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2017) The Trace

Op-ed discussing my research on factors that increase the likelihood of protest and violence in the context of recent NRA ads.

(2017) The Washington Post

Op-ed discussing my research on media coverage of terrorism.

(2014) The Washington Post

Op-ed discussing my research on entertainment media and public support for torture.