Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Make a Better Cop: Hire Liberal Arts Graduates

Two nights ago I sat riveted and horrified by the LiveFeed coming out of Ferguson, MO.  Police advanced like shock troops against protesting citizens and journalists doing their jobs.  For days, no one in the police department of St. Louis County seemed to have any idea what to do except bring out heavier and more intimidating equipment.

Facts have emerged about the Ferguson cops that make some of this conflict more understandable – e.g., only 5 of the 53 officers serving the mostly-black suburb are black. But I also wondered how these officers view the situation. How did their leadership (mis)understand what was going on?

My colleague in the Sociology and Anthropology department here at Wheaton College has studied crime and race for many years.  In a brief conversation, he noted reports from 1968 (40 years ago!) produced after major American riots explaining the relationship of political disenfranchisement and violence. He talked about the insufficient training police receive in community relations and social dynamics. He noted the lack of nuance law enforcement leadership regularly exhibit when they seek to explain complex social contexts.  History, social science, empathy. Complex problem solving, critical thinking, curiosity.  These were patently missing from the police response in Ferguson. And these are exactly what we, in the liberal arts college, teach our students. 

This raised the question for me: How do we get our students to become cops?

I had a recent student, a bright and engaged young mind, who choose to do a short ethnographic study of policing a few years ago. He did a ride-along with a cop in a nearby suburb, interviewed the officer and several others, and observed dynamics of police culture and those they served. He found the whole thing fascinating. But when I suggested that perhaps he’d found a career path, he brushed it off. “It was fun for a project,” he said, “but I could never become a cop.”

Why not? 

My students want to serve. They want to make a difference in people’s lives. They often point to the social problems and underserved communities currently suffering from inept and unjust policing.
At the same time, police work has a reputation as blue-collar, almost grunt work.  It’s masculine in traditional ways that intimidates the bookish sort and offends the feminist.  It has a kind of class context that my soon-to-be college graduate students are seeking to avoid (or escape) rather than enter. 

There needs to be a shift in who is recruited to be police, and how we, in higher ed, talk about law enforcement as a career.

The police should be actively recruiting my students because they have the skills and dispositions to become the kinds of leaders who will understand Ferguson and the thousands of communities like it.  They should be seeking out majors in anthropology, sociology, students of literature, and physicists who graduate with liberal arts backgrounds. They know how to study new situations and understand them, read human behavior, and think critically about problems. 

For our part, we in the liberal arts should demonstrate the relevance and importance of law enforcement as a multi-faceted career. From prosecuting attorney or public defender, to officers on the beat with the potential to rise in rank and responsibility, we should be encouraging our graduates to consider these as valid career fields.

Our nation is only becoming more complex and diverse. We need police prepared to interact with complex and diverse people.  Training in tactical procedures and weapon use, without a comparable ability for the police to think differently, learn quickly, and engage complexity is an invitation for more chaos. 

Liberal arts graduates, if you want to make a difference in the world, consider this: become a cop.


Anonymous said...

Great piece, Brian. I totally agree! There should be a requirement to get at least an Associate's degree (if not a B.A. in anything but economics—ha, kidding, not kidding), with a preference for students who exhibit strong critical thinking skills (which would be great for actual investigations and solving actual crimes, i.e., police work), a strong grasp of the complexities of society through one of the different social disciplines, etc..

Sadly, however, I think that we are going to see more of the same in the U.S. I think the police force will serve as the most secure job for soldiers leaving the burgeoning post-9/11, "War on Terror," never-ending battlefield. All of those soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ones who will continue to be recruited into the military will most likely find comfort and familiarity in the Police force at home. The rigid discipline, chain of command, authority over civilians, and the "calling" to serve in the name of "good" against "evil" are all appealing job descriptors for a person who may find it difficult to adjust to civilian life.

It's a grim prediction, but I think it is actually the case that a significant amount of new police officers have a military background, which goes hand in hand with the militarization of the police both in equipment and in personnel. Of course, I could be way off, but these are some of my thoughts on the subject. Still, we should push for the changes you suggested above. These are just some of the obstacles/realities that, in my opinion, will maintain and exacerbate the status quo.

Brian Howell said...

Thanks for responding Danny. I don't think you're way off, but why be grim? Lots of things will get worse before they get better, if they even will get better, but Christians aren't called to fix everything; they're called to be faithful and bless others. I think the militarization of the police is another good reason for liberal arts grads to think about how they can serve in areas crying out for the redemptive witness of Christ's followers.

The Illinois Model said...

Brian, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Can't some of the same "problem-solving" attributes also come from studying the maths and sciences? As a police officer and trainer (responsible for policy and procedure advancements), I have fallen back on some of those skills - to push "systems" and "process" thinking. Thoughts? Lou Hayes

Brian Howell said...

Whoops. Forgot to log in an approve these comments. It might be too late, but I wanted to honor the time you took to respond. For Illinois Model I would say that I include STEM as very much part of the liberal arts. I definitely do not mean to suggest that only the humanities or social sciences are part of a liberal arts curriculum. Nor do I want to be seen as arguing that ONLY a liberal arts education supports critical thinking and humane learning. My point is that those fields that seem "irrelevant" should be understood as deeply tied to the kinds of critically engaged thinking that is indispensable to good police work.