In 2010, Maria Ponomarenko was well on her way to becoming a historian. But, as she neared completion of her doctoral thesis in Stanford University’s history program, she had the nagging sense that her subject matter—the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. in the 1930s and 40s—was calling her to something more current.
“I started to feel like my work was too removed from contemporary debates,” says Ponomarenko.
Today, as a Texas Law assistant professor teaching and writing on administrative, local government, and Constitutional law, as well as criminal procedure, Ponomarenko is working to make a major impact on policing in America.
Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Ponomarenko’s family left when she was five, eventually settling in California. Ponomarenko earned undergraduate degrees in History and Economics and a master’s in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, a doctorate in History from Stanford University, and a J.D. summa cum laude from New York University School of Law.
She’s the co-founder and counsel at NYU’s Policing Project, a nonprofit that works with police departments, legislators, and community groups to promote more transparent, equitable, and just policing. Much of the focus of the organization’s work is on bringing more public accountability to policing. “In most jurisdictions, police operate with very little public oversight,” Ponomarenko says. “Mostly we leave it to departments themselves to decide how their officers will police—instead of bringing elected officials and members of the public into the conversation in a meaningful way.”
This fall, she presented an early draft of her next paper, tentatively titled “Localism and Preemption through a Criminal Justice Lens,” at the State and Local Government Law Works in Progress Conference at Northwestern University, as well as the Criminal Justice Roundtables at Vanderbilt University. Meanwhile, her article, “The Small Agency Problem in American Policing,” has been selected as the winner of the 2024 Scholarly Papers Competition sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools.
We spoke about her move from history to law, governance in policing, and the cross pollination between her work with The Policing Project, teaching, and other research.
You earned a doctorate in history before going to law school. Can you describe that path?
I initially planned to become an academic historian—which is how I ended up in the history doctoral program at Stanford. But as I wrapped up my Ph.D. I started to feel like my work was too removed from contemporary debates. Going to law school offered an opportunity to pursue an academic career in a way that was more connected to the policy world.
I went to NYU Law in order to participate in the Furman Scholars Program, which trains students for a career in the legal academy. It turned out to be a great fit.
What prompted your focus on policing?
I’ve always been interested in policing. I wrote my history Ph.D. on the Department of Justice in the ‘30s and ‘40s, focusing in particular on the FBI’s relationship with state and local law enforcement. At NYU I worked closely with Professor Barry Friedman, who was the head of the Furman Program. We ended up writing a paper together called “Democratic Policing.” Barry was looking for a new project. We decided to start a center at the law school that brought some of the ideas we were writing about to fruition.
Can you describe your argument in “Democratic Policing”?
The argument we make is that we treat policing very differently from all other agencies of government. Throughout government, there’s a traditional way of doing things: legislation sets out broad parameters for what agencies are expected to do, agencies enact a bunch of rules to refine them, and there are opportunities for public input. There’s judicial review, and the public is very much involved in the policymaking process.
When it comes to critical policing decisions—how to allocate priorities, what sorts of tactics to use, what technologies to acquire—the police just do it on their own and there’s not an opportunity for public input.
In starting the Policing Project, our goal was to start to develop models for how to bring some of these ideas to policing. “What would it look like to involve the public more in policing? What models of oversight could you adopt?”
Having done that work for many years now, have your views evolved?
When we wrote “Democratic Policing” we were focused primarily on traditional administrative tools like notice and comment rulemaking. I’m now very skeptical that these sorts of approaches would work in policing. In “Rethinking Police Rulemaking” I argued in favor of systemic, structural oversight—through police commissions and inspectors general. And I now oversee the Policing Project’s legislative efforts. We have developed model legislation on a variety of policing issues and have been working with legislators and grassroots organizations across the country to promote more robust state oversight of local policing.
What sort of cross-pollination is there between your work with The Policing Project and teaching?
When I teach criminal procedure, I draw a lot on my Policing Project work. I bring in data, sample legislation. As we discuss various cases, I tell lots of stories about the ways in which the doctrines they’re learning shape policing on the ground.
How, if at all, does your work on policing influence your other areas of interest?
I also write about more traditional local government agencies—like public health boards and various municipal regulatory agencies—that also have tended to escape academic scrutiny. And as is true of my policing work, I often try to bridge together different fields that are not always in conversation. In “Substance and Procedure in Local Administrative Law,” for example, I draw on federal administrative law theory and scholarship to show how we might do a better job of overseeing local regulatory policymaking.
You recently won an AALS competition with “The Small Agency Problem in American Policing.” Can you describe that paper?
The goal of the paper was to shed light on small agency policing. Those of us who write about policing tend to focus on big city agencies in places like Chicago and New York. But there are more than 17,000 U.S. police departments—nearly half of which have fewer than 10 police officers. We know virtually nothing about policing in these agencies. The goal of my paper was to use what data there is on small agency policing—along with case studies, newspaper articles, and the like—to develop a better understanding of policing in these jurisdictions. Are the familiar problems of big city policing occurring in small departments? Are there problems that crop up in smaller agencies that we miss by focusing on the bigger cities alone?
What were your findings?
Small departments are as varied as the jurisdictions they’re part of. Some departments—especially in more affluent suburbs—have all the resources of big city departments and indeed tend to poach officers from neighboring cities. Others work in deeply impoverished communities and struggle to provide even basic policing services to their constituents.
Still, some themes emerge. For example, there’s a tendency in smaller towns, particularly around traffic enforcement, to target people from outside the jurisdiction. This is particularly common in small towns that straddle interstate highways. Officers pull drivers over as soon as they cross over into the jurisdiction. There are literally hundreds of these small-town “speed traps” across the country. This is worrisome because to the extent that policing practices fall on people from outside the jurisdiction, there is little hope that local political processes will fix whatever problems occur.
How do you address that?
At the end of the day, I argue for a much stronger role for states to regulate policing. States have increasingly started to do this in the wake of George Floyd. In the paper I argue that the proliferation of small agencies, and the unlikelihood that a lot of the problems will get resolved locally, makes an even stronger case for state intervention.
That makes sense. To shift gears, now that you’ve been at Texas Law for a year, how are you enjoying it?
I’ve been very happy here. The law school has been a terrific academic home. It’s a big place with lots of folks doing really exciting work. I’ve been impressed by just how talented and welcoming the students are. It’s been a very easy and fun place to teach. And my family loves Austin. We like warm weather and great food, and on both counts, Austin is hard to beat.