Four people standing next to each other.
Amy Clifton-Mills (right) created the premade quizzes that were included in Chernoh Wurie's textbook “Introduction to Policing.” Together with Wurie’s wife, Jennifer, they presented the book to then Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel Jr. (Courtesy photo)

VCU criminal justice student embraces insider perspectives and making an impact outside the classroom

Ph.D. candidate Amy Clifton-Mills embraces “the Wilder School ethos” of applying an evidence-based lens to real-world issues and policy reform.

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For Amy Clifton-Mills, pursuing criminal justice was an obvious choice. Raised on the TV shows “Law & Order” and “CSI,” she developed a curiosity and self-proclaimed “nosiness” that grew into a passion for social sciences.

Now a student in the Ph.D. in public policy and administration program at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, with a concentration in criminal justice policy, Clifton-Mills is putting a childhood dream into action.

Her academic journey began at Old Dominion University, where she double-majored in criminal justice and sociology and minored in psychology. A decision to move closer to her hometown of Fredericksburg brought her to the Wilder School to pursue an M.S. in criminal justice

Clifton-Mills originally planned to study for the Law School Admission Test while working on her graduate degree. But she quickly returned to her interest in the inner workings of the criminal justice system.

From classroom to community 

A range of courses at the Wilder School helped Clifton-Mills identify a trajectory. In her first semester, she took a course that focused on terrorism. Encouraged to think outside the box, she wrote about the KKK as a terrorist organization. She was the first person in the course’s history to pursue this topic, and she was enthusiastic about applying her knowledge in innovative ways.

Clifton-Mills also took a course with Hayley Cleary, Ph.D., an associate professor of criminal justice and public policy.

“The course was focused on how to turn your research into a marketable product, for lack of a better term,” Clifton-Mills said. “I learned how to explain research to nonresearchers. It was during that class that I decided to get my Ph.D. I finally had one of those moments where I realized I could do that kind of work forever.”

While Clifton-Mills was finishing the master’s program, her husband was attending police academy.

A portrait of a woman from the best up
Amy Clifton-Mills, a student in the Ph.D. in public policy and administration program at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who also graduated from VCU with an M.S. in criminal justice, hopes to engage in policy and criminal justice reform. (Courtesy photo)

“That's when I realized that I wanted to look into how police are trained,” she said. “I wanted to know how we can better train police so that certain groups of people — specifically people of color — are not disproportionately, negatively affected by interactions with police. All of my research has always had a focus on racial discrepancies and inequities.”

As she continues her journey in the public policy and administration program, Clifton-Mills is motivated to apply her work to the benefit of communities.

“I want to be a professor and do research,” she said. “My goal is to work with policymakers, lawmakers and police departments to combine research, experience and the voices of police officers and community members to bridge gaps and solve issues.’”

Getting an inside view

Internships with the Richmond Police Department and the Virginia General Assembly helped Clifton-Mills gain an insider perspective on the institutions that she hopes can advance equity. 

“A common sentiment in political discourse is that if you haven't taken the time to learn about an organization, then you can’t truly understand its policies,” she said. “I realized that to do policing research, I wanted to be able to say that I've interned with a police department and I've been in those meetings with the higher-ups. It’s the same thing with the General Assembly. I wanted to be able to say that I was involved in those conversations to lend to my future credibility as a researcher.”

This credibility has served her well. Clifton-Mills currently is a project coordinator for the Sexual Awareness and Viewpoints among Virginia Youth study led by Cleary. SAVVY is a National Science Foundation-funded grant project that aims to understand how teens conceptualize risks in their own behaviors.

“The survey includes all kinds of different social, legal and health-risk-related questions,” Clifton-Mills said. “We ask teens about their own behavior. My role is to make sure that the data is coming in without missing pieces. A lot of my work so far has been overseeing our data management tool, developing the second survey and keeping track of data as it comes in.”

She plays an integral role in Cleary’s work.

“I've had the pleasure of working with Amy in so many capacities — as a master's student, a doctoral student and a graduate research and teaching assistant,” said Cleary, who now serves as Clifton-Mills’ dissertation chair. “Amy really embodies the Wilder School ethos: a strong scientific focus on real-world problems to drive evidence-based policy reform. She's a quick thinker, hard worker and eager learner. I can't wait to see where she goes next."

Extending her network

Clifton-Mills continues to embrace new learning opportunities. She recently was named a recipient of the 2023 Doctoral Summit Scholarship from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and she attended the ACJS annual conference this year.

“Conferences are so important because they introduce you to new research, ideas and potential collaborators,” she said. “I am especially excited about this scholarship and the opportunity to attend this conference because I started the Ph.D. program in August of 2019, and with the pandemic and having a baby, I wasn't able to go to conferences earlier in my academic career.”

Clifton-Mills also is committed to expanding her robust network of academic and professional contacts.

“Without the support and trust that my network has had in my abilities, I don't know that I would still be in the program,” she said.