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Encounters With the Police… How To Build Capacity in Young People
By Aliah K. MaJon, PhD., Educational Consultant, Founder of the Next 50 Years Project
There are things happening in the world today that are unacceptable, things that require our professional attention and expertise, and our ability to be compassionate and clear-headed. Many of our young people, typically our black and brown students, are seen in less than favorable eyes, and now the police are being stereotyped as wrong-doers as well. Negative images such as these are serving to bring harm, breed mistrust and keep us all on edge; therefore, it is time to be proactive. And, doing that should be easy for educators, because gathering information, empowering individuals and creating positive outcomes is what you are all about. So let’s support our youth and engage our police officers to learn about each other, and to join forces to discover what must be done differently.
Having police in our lives is meant to be a good thing, this important group of public servants have the special job of keeping order, maintaining peace and upholding our moral standards. The majority of police officers fulfill these responsibilities with integrity and care, including being heroes and friends to young people; however, there are some of them with different stripes. Unfortunately, this small numbers of law enforcement professionals who are behaving out of character and making serious mistakes in judgment are causing alarm and have us concerned for the safety of our youth. This article advocates for educators and police to teach students and police officers how they can improve daily situations by being in a beneficial and respectful relationship.
Since the Trayvon Martin case received extensive media coverage in 2012, the questions of racial profiling and the excessive use of force with youth and adults of color – leading to fatal results — has been on the minds and in the hearts of tens of thousands of Americans, if not more. Many of the citizens included in this count are teachers, principals and school administrators. Because they spend their careers caring about youth, guiding them to bright futures and preparing them to be leaders so they can better our world.
Actually, it could easily be said, that aside from a young person’s parents or guardians, that teachers and educational leaders are the next largest number of individuals who, without a doubt, are constantly concerned with the welfare of young people. So, the news reports that have been airing with far too much regularity these days about unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and uncalled for rough treatment are inspiring educational professionals. They not only take notice, but wish to do something to stop these unfortunate occurrences. They want most naturally to help their students and other young people to stay safe. Their intention is both admirable and practical.
The educational process in the United States is typically seen as a two-pronged system. One that delivers valuable knowledge and instituted academics – AND – one that plays a key role in “equipping” young people with skills to live a good life and to achieve success. This double responsibility has existed since public education started in the United States. And, it’s especially appropriate for a 21st century paradigm. The equipping side of this equation makes good sense due to the circumstances of students’ lives in today’s world, and it is a proactive and future-building thing to do. Research shows that providing life skills to our students is a part of a school’s regular operation because students need this support, period. A recent EdWeek article put it in these simple terms: A new report by the New America Foundation emphasizes the value of these “skills for success” and encourages K-12 educators to integrate activities to promote them into the classroom. The article, entitled “Schools Urged to Teach Life Skills for Success Alongside Academics” can be found at
And, the teaching of such life skills must be both general and targeted.
In California, teachers and school administrators recognize that equipping young people to live good lives allows schools to play a critical role in ensuring their futures and sustaining our communities. I would like to propose that teaching students how to thoughtfully “interact with the police” and build a relationship with police officers, will safeguard our students’ lives as well as promote a healthy society for all. The remainder of this article will lay out how educators can be natural partners to keep our young people safe in three areas:
Addressing the important issues of true justice,
Acknowledging legitimate policing and
Building of community trust.
Before I proceed, let me explain that the material that I will share in this article is meant to serve as inspiration only to assist teaching professionals to create “Learning Experiences.” The information may loosely reflect curriculum goals as well, but the primary focus is in the area of life skills training. Also, the activities and assignments I will share can be adapted to students that are from a range of grade levels and across a variety of ages and abilities. Since I am not a classroom teacher, I will not be outlining specific recommendations, only certain ideas and concepts. But, I want you to know that I do work in schools and in school districts, and that I often assist educational professionals to accomplish their goals in either directions — academic as well as life skills support.
My premise is a simple one; it is captured in these 3 powerful points:
1. Students, especially youth of color, need to learn how to be in relationship with the police in a conscious and safer manner, and to assist in the process of growing mutual respect.
2. The police, and all law enforcement professionals, need and want to recognize that they are being held accountable by students, but also that students need them to be good role models.
3. Harmful perceptions must be uncovered in both police and in our students. Perceptions particularly targeting explicit/implicit bias, fear, mistrust and other behaviors must be replaced.
Assignment Idea #1:
Ask your students to take five minutes to write a description of an encounter that they had with police or other law enforcement professionals in your community. (If a student has never interacted with police, suggest that he or she write about an experience of a friend or relative, or of one that they have watched or read about in the media.) Allow several volunteers to share what they’ve written and invite the class to react, make comments and/or ask questions.
Are the experiences they shared similar? Did others have encounters that were dramatically different? Based on the discussion, facilitate the development of a statement that students believe generally describes policing practices in your area.
Assignment Idea #2:
Have your class work in “groups” to develop a class report on your local police department. This activity is related to project-based learning. Divide the class into several groups of 3-6 students. The members of each group should have a partner to “buddy” with to complete the work, as well as participate in their 6-person group as a whole. So each group will have three sets of researchers.
Give each group a “research assignment” related to your local police, some ideas are as follows:
Hiring: What qualifications does the police department look for in potential officers? Is there a shortage of officers? Is there a high turn-over rate? Do they recruit specific types of people? Does the department consider it important for officers to live in the community in which he or she will serve? What is the average pay of a police officer in your area?
Training: How are recruits trained for their role as police officers? What percentage of their training focuses on crime fighting tactics? What percentage focuses on community service and/or people skills? Is there training regarding unconscious bias or race relations?
Operational Guidelines: What is the mission of the police department? What priorities are emphasized in the patrol guide or other printed guidelines? What are some examples of appropriate responses to situations of conflict, as outlined by the local police manual? Are their guidelines about the use of force and/or deadly force? What explanations are given about this critically important area of a police officer’s job?
Accountability: What statistics are kept by the police department related to officer activities? How will officers be held accountable for adhering to department standards of conduct? What is the department’s disciplinary record? What are the 3 most common complaints from the community regarding police practices? Have there been any highly publicized incidents related to police involved violence? What are the most recent ones that you found out about?
Community Relations: What does the police department see as its greatest contribution to the community? How does it measure its success? In what areas is the department trying to improve? What prompted these reforms? What progress has been made so far? What does your local police department know about “community policing”, and what have they implemented in your area?
Relationship with Your School: Ask your local police department what has been done, is currently underway, or is planning to be done for your school? Find out what you can participate in regarding your school? Ask who to submit student ideas to regarding the police and your school? Invite a police officer or key law enforcement professional to come and visit your class to speak and/or hear your report and respond to your class’ findings.
Exercise #1: Non-Inflammatory Interaction Role Play & Practice
Instructions: (Use entire Class Period… Also, this exercise can be repeated in future classes.)
Inform your students that they will be engaging in a “role play.”
Have the class suggest an “encounter with police” scenario they’d like to work with.
Vote to select 1 or 2 scenarios. (*NOTE: Each group will do their version of scenario.)
Allow the class to break up into small groups to practice the role play.
Some members of each group will “act out” the scene.
Other members in each group will provide feedback about “inflammatory” elements.
Review the “best examples” of not inciting violence or creating an inflammatory situation.
Students should be encouraged to act as leaders and serve as wise-mentors to each other as they engage in this very important exercise. Please tell your students that their ideas and efforts can greatly improve the sad outcomes they have heard about. Ask them to take what they are doing seriously, and share with them that they can help people, especially their peers, to not lose their lives.
I highly recommend that you keep the examples of HOW TO AVOID creating an inflammatory situation when interacting with the police displayed permanently in your classroom. And, if you do this exercise more than once, please keep adding to the list of things that students should avoid. You might also wish to review the list of things to avoid with your students from time to time to keep them fresh in their minds. *BONUS ACTIVITY: Let the students know that you support them to take ownership of this list, and that they will be allowed to work on the important tips that they are compiling in the future if they have new suggestions or wish to talk about anything related to the list.
Exercise #2: Interviewing Your Local Police Officers
INSTRUCTIONS: (Have a Special Guest in Class, a Panel Discussion or plan a Field Trip.)
Have your students interview a police officer(s) or law enforcement professional to obtain information about how they conduct themselves on the job and, in particular, how they react to things during encounters with a “suspect” in their line of work. This can be done by inviting a police officer to your classroom; or by organizing a panel discussion with several officers and law enforcement professionals; or by going on a field trip to your local police department to interview officers there. The goal is to get answers to useful questions and build relationships… Here are some sample questions:
*SAMPLE QUESTIONS TO ASK POLICE OFFICERS:
1. What are you trained to do when suspects run away and/or try to resist arrest?
2. Have you learned anything about what the subjects of racial profiling or unconscious bias?
3. What exactly have you learned, and how are you using what you’ve learned on your job?
4. What are some of the things a suspect might be doing to have you react with what is known as “force” in an encounter with them? Please be as specific so that we can learn important things.
5. What can you suggest to young people (and others) to help them to avoid inflammatory situations with the police? Please give us a list of at least three things to avoid doing.
6. What would you like youth to know about how to grow mutual respect and build shared trust?
7. Do you have children? If so, what do you teach your children about interacting with the police?
OR… If you were a mentor to a young person what things would you make sure that they know to avoid, or definitely not do, when they are engaged in an encounter with law enforcement?
The implications of the above activities and skills-building exercises are far-reaching regarding the reduction of violence and in helping to stop the heart-breaking and untimely deaths that are being reported in the news regarding our young people. I am providing them to you as teachers and educational leaders because I believe that you can make a difference. Additionally, I feel that students carrying out these tasks as teacher or school-sponsored assignments will be instrumental in an overall improvement in the communities in which we all live, because these actions will engage police departments and let them know that we are paying attention and are asking them to be accountable to us. Also, I believe that the police in our communities will welcome this… It is a way for them to reverse the suspicion and bad press they have been getting lately, and it will, of course, fit in perfectly with their initiatives to positively interact with youth and utilize community policing protocols.
Especially if students undertake these activities with an understanding of why they are important; what they learn has the potential to keep them out of trouble, to keep people of color safer, and to assist all citizens to stay out of harm’s way in encounters they have with the police. And, it is equally significant that the information that will be obtained about how policing is happening in your city, town or school district will enhance a young person’s education about municipal matters, as well as contribute to them having the life skills that are critical to their success in today’s world. Students from every race, culture and economic strata deserves our support in California, that’s why there is a concerted move towards educational equity. However, I say that equity in education is not only about academic considerations, it’s also about supporting youth in their life circumstances. Schools have a bigger job than ever before, and students are counting on us to help them to meet their needs in ways that we may have never done before, and I feel it is an imperative that we respond to this challenge.
To end this article I would like to share a vision, a vision of hope, possibility and promise… What if the work that young people will do in these activities in your school and communities really catches on, which means that it becomes a model that can be taken everywhere? What would be the result of these timely efforts to bring about the change that is desperately needed? I believe that the results would not only be to reduce the unfortunate occurrences of violence involving youth and people of color that has inspired us to take action, but also that we would see a new level of healing, which would help to groom our youth, and to have them start to expect, and live, real justice and equality. That is my vision, and my hope, and the promise that I invite you all to step up to help realize. As has been said, the future is in our hands. And, the very young people that you and I work with every day preparing them to be good citizens, productive adults and genuine leaders are the key to that future.
Let’s not forget how much power we all have to accomplish this — together!
Copyright © All Rights Reserved, Next 50 Years Project, Rev. Aliah K. MaJon, Ph.D.
Go to http://next50yearsproject.org/y-e-s-dialogues/ to read more about our partnership with the LAPD!