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Oct. 28, 2011

Faculty conversations: Steve Chermak

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 1,002 hate groups in the United States in 2010. Thirty-five were in Michigan.

Steve Chermak, professor in the School of Criminal Justice, studies domestic terrorism and hate groups. He examines the characteristics of these groups – such as structural characteristics, ideological differences, strategies they use – and studies the differences between violent and nonviolent groups.

"For legal reasons, law enforcement organizations can only study violent terrorist organizations because of free speech and free assembly and all those great protections," Chermak said. "The advantage of being an academic is we’re sort of not held to that, and so we can look at violent and nonviolent groups."

Chermak has helped develop a database of U.S. extremist crime using a sampling of data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala., that tracks these groups.

"In our database, there’s close to 300 groups, and of those, about 20 percent are actually violent offending groups," he said. "And we say violence, we’re talking about extreme violence – homicide or a series of assaults."

Groups that are larger and have existed longer tend to be more violent.

"If a group has a legal business, it actually decreases the likelihood that they’re involved in violence. And this, again, I think, makes sense in some ways – they’re protecting their assets," Chermak said.

He also studies the intelligence practices of local, state and tribal law enforcement agencies post-9/11, as well as the nature of “lone wolf” terrorists – extremists who are not affiliated with a specific group.

"I think it really opens up opportunities for responding and thinking about how better to identify lone wolves and actually react to lone wolves," he said.