The Chief Historian

A funny thing happens when your city’s chief of police earns a doctorate: you get a police force versed in academic texts. “Anyone up for promotion gets a required reading list,” says David Livingstone, PhD ’18, police chief for Simi Valley, California. “I give them books that take them out of their comfort zone—Edward Said’s Orientalism, for instance, which explores how one perceives those who are different from them. That’s a critical thing for officers to be aware of in their work.”

Talk about leaving a comfort zone: Livingstone became a graduate student at age 42, while working full-time as a commander heading up his city’s SWAT units. But his passion for history and the drive to study under professor Frank Biess was enough motivation to adopt a second life pursuing his degree. For years, Livingstone made the 300-mile round-trip to campus for classes and to TA for “Making of the Modern World,” only to drive back home and head straight into the station. Despite 4 a.m. mornings grading papers and writing dissertation chapters, Livingstone rose through the ranks to be appointed chief in 2017 and swiftly set out to make change in his department and community.

One of the most profound changes would come from reopening a decades-old murder case that didn’t seem right to his historian’s eye. Acting on longstanding doubt that the wrong man had been convicted, Livingstone used his archival research skills to find evidence believed to have been destroyed decades ago. A DNA test cleared the man’s name, and he was ultimately released after 39 years in prison. “My mindset as a historian and being trained to deal with archives made me believe there had to be something out there that could lead to the truth,” says Livingstone. “We just had to find it.”

Whether restoring the life of one man or improving the service to his entire community, Livingstone believes in the transformative power of education, especially in his line of work. “There is so much in the liberal arts and humanities that can make for better police officers,” he says. “History teaches you to weigh the facts and to avoid biased judgments. Now more than ever, we need police officers who can do the same thing.”