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.”
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.