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Debra MackinnonSociologist Debra Mackinnon is the first UWindsor researcher to receive a Banting Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Researcher examining intersection of business and private policing

A postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology is the first member of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to be awarded a Banting Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Fellowship.

Debra Mackinnon is a sociologist with a background in surveillance, urban, and technology studies. After completing her doctorate at Queen’s University, she was an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Calgary. She came to the University of Windsor after she was awarded the Banting Fellowship under the supervision of sociology professor Randy Lippert.

“It is fantastic to formally work with Dr. Lippert. He was my PhD external examiner, and since then we’ve been collaborating on a couple of projects and grants,” says Dr. Mackinnon. “He is one of the few people in Canada who has researched BIAs (business improvement areas) and their intersections with policing and surveillance. So, it just made sense.”

Mackinnon’s Banting project is titled “In the Business of Policing: Examining the intersections of private security, surveillance technologies, and public private partnerships in North American business improvement areas.”

“Business Improvement Areas are a particular form of public private partnership,” she says. “The first one was developed in Toronto in the 1970s to try to bring back business to commercial main streets and address ‘free rider’ problems. The premise was for groups of businesses to form associations and collect a levy that would supplement and direct resources to improve the area.”

BIA activities can range from street beautification to safety, security, and crime prevention initiatives, Mackinnon notes: “You will find some form of BIA in most North American cities today.”

This study builds on Mackinnon’s dissertation, which examined early smart city apps used to manage, police, and govern urban spaces and populations in Canadian BIAs, as well as a comparative study of BIAs in London, UK.

“Over the past several years, we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic fuel and exacerbate urban decline and commercial vacancy in some cities,” she says. “This has resulted in increased private security foot patrols. And at the same time, social inequalities and discriminatory policing have resulted in widespread calls for police defunding movements and policing alternatives.”

She says her specific interest is in public-private policing partnerships and the adoption of surveillance technologies by North American BIAs.

“I had questions about how the role of private security might have the potential to further limit accountability, deepen systemic racism, and exacerbate unequal service delivery –– or not,” she says.

The goal is to analyze the convergence of public and private technologies used to patrol urban spaces, and specifically the implications for policing and community relationships, in Windsor, Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago.

“Like it or not, BIAs are one of the current forms of corporate governance that we have, and they are doing, in some cases, interesting and inclusive work,” says Dr. Mackinnon. “There is so much going on at the community level, and I want to focus on these grassroots community driven alternatives. This is an important piece often missing from our policy discussions.”

To learn more about Mackinnon’s research, or to read her publications, visit her website: https://debramackinnon.com.