Summer Workshop: Building a Better Police Force
For Teachers

Summer Workshop Series: Build a Better Police Force

By Monica Fuglei and Micah Pilkington July 26, 2016
Summer Workshop: Building a Better Police Force

From the violent protests in Ferguson following Michael Brown’s death to the 2016 shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and targeted killing of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, students are attempting to understand the issues surrounding law enforcement’s use of lethal force and the frayed social contract between police and the communities they serve. Like their parents and teachers, students follow the news in cities across the United States and search for answers among feelings of grief, confusion and anger.

Classrooms can’t be silent on difficult issues

Teachers may avoid addressing difficult issues like policing and race in the classroom because they can be emotional and intensely personal for students. In her recent article “Race-based Silence is Violence,” educator Trakela Small challenges educators to step up on behalf of their students.

Noting the significant imbalance between minority students and educators of color, Small urges teachers to show they value the lives of students of color by facilitating classroom activities and discussions that honor students’ experiences of race and violence. Failing to address the topic only serves to erase the experiences and anxieties of students of color and inhibit other students’ understanding. Conversely, students who listen to, acknowledge and empathize with others’ perspectives build critical-thinking skills and social connections with their peers.

A workshop that challenges students to build a better police force

To explore the subject of policing in America, teachers can use a workshop format that allows students to examine their fears and perceptions while engaging in problem-solving and radical empathy.

In the workshop outlined below, students will:

  • Discuss their own experiences with the police
  • Investigate the origins and history of U.S. law enforcement
  • Examine the mission and goals of today’s police departments
  • Explore who police officers are and how they are trained
  • Identify where the systems and culture of policing are broken
  • Propose both big and small solutions

Workshop format and materials needed

This workshop is broken into six sessions that run between 50 and 90 minutes each. These cross-curricular discussions might benefit from teacher teams or even the introduction of school counselors as facilitators.

The activities and reference materials used are best suited for high school students, although the workshop format can be adapted to be age-appropriate for younger students.

These are the materials needed for each session:

  • Pens, paper and journals
  • Internet access from classroom PCs, tablets or personal devices
  • Listening stations or earphones for devices
  • Butcher paper, whiteboard or smartboard

Many workshop activities ask instructors to record key points and ideas so students can review them in future sessions. Teachers can do this on paper or digitally, hence the choice of butcher paper or a smartboard.

Read more about the Build a Better Police Force workshop:

Teacher prep: Leading a workshop on justice and law enforcement
Session one: Personal experiences with police and victims of police violence
Session two: An uncensored history of policing
Session three: What’s the point of having a police force?
Session four: Who are cops and and how are they trained? Police education and demographics
Session five: Identifying problems in police training, culture and use of force
Session six: Proposing solutions to build peace and justice

Teacher prep: Leading a workshop on justice and law enforcement

Although this series focuses on law enforcement practices and policies, it is clear that this issue is tied to discussions of race in many ways. To prepare to facilitate the workshop, it is essential that educators expand their own knowledge of race and policing and be prepared to practice empathy with students.

Resources for teaching tough topics

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has collected a series of resources to help educators teach this tough topic. Originally gathered in the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown and the Ferguson riots, the “Teaching about Race, Racism and Police Violence: Resources for Educators and Parents” collection provides a variety of essential information. Professional development on cultural awareness, anti-bias training and culturally-responsive teaching can also prepare educators to teach this workshop.

Setting group norms and expectations is crucial for sensitive subject matter

It’s imperative for workshop instructors to establish guidelines that ensure students can discuss sensitive topics like race, violence and injustice in a nonjudgmental, supportive environment. Teachers should review Strauss’s resources on establishing group norms with students before beginning the workshop.

Session one: Personal experiences with police and victims of police violence

As students enter this workshop, it is essential that they have an opportunity to articulate their personal experiences with police officers. In a five-minute free-write, have workshop participants place pen to paper and write about:

  • Their childhood vision of police officers
  • Personal and family experiences with the police
  • Discussions they’ve had with family about interacting with police officers

When students have finished their free-writing, form small groups and have them share their experiences with each other. Reading aloud, share more young people’s narratives from The New York Times’ Learning Network article  “Have You Ever Interacted With the Police?” and have groups discuss how or why these may be different or similar to their own.

Finally, have students watch the two-and-a-half minute film “23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America,” which catalogs the violent deaths of 23 African-Americans, many of whom were killed by police.

Journal exercise: Where did law enforcement originate?

Conclude the class by having students reflect on the film and the day’s discussions in a journal entry. To set up the second session of this workshop, pose this question: Where did police departments begin?

Session two: An uncensored history of policing

In this session, students explore the origin and history of police departments in the United States.

How long have we had police departments?

Ask workshop participants for guesses on how long the police have been around. They may be surprised to learn that organized municipal police forces are less than 200 years old.

Workshop audio: A history of policing from ‘BackStory With the American History Guys’

Students need historical context to understand why every city has a police department today. The episode “Serve & Protect? A History of the Police” of the podcast “BackStory With the American History Guys” divides the history of U.S. policing into short segments that are mostly in chronological order.

Split workshop participants into pairs or small groups. Each group will listen to a segment (or two, depending on length) draft an answer to the provided question(s), and generate comments and questions of their own.

Note: In a flipped classroom, students can listen to the podcast outside of class time, then use the workshop session for longer group times and discussions.

‘Anything But a Cop’ (5:10)

In 1970s North Carolina, Thabiti Anyabwile upset his mom by saying he might want to be a police officer when he grew up. What did his family history teach him about the generations of conflict and distrust between African-American communities and police?

‘Black, White and Blue’ (7:58)

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, police forces in American cities included a significant number of German, Irish and Italian immigrants. How did these populations benefit from serving as police officers? Were nonwhite groups also able to use policing as a cultural stepping stone?

‘Running the Riot’ (7:09)

Before the City of London created the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, there was no such thing as a police officer. How did communities protect their citizens and enforce the law before then? Why did cities begin to establish formal police departments?

‘Technology and the Law’ (8:05)

What tools did police officers use to maintain order before the invention of cars, telephones or even handcuffs? How did advances in technology change the way police related to their communities?

‘Above the Law’ (10:15)

Until the 1950s, the Los Angeles Police Department was notorious for its high levels of misconduct and corruption. Did an effort to “professionalize” police training and procedures create a force that was more accountable for its actions in the community?

‘The Reason in the Riot’ (9:52)

In 1967, President Johnson recruited Senator Fred R. Harris for a commission to investigate what caused riots in Detroit where 43 civilians died. How did Senator Harris answer the three questions he was given:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What can we do to keep it from happening again and again?

Give groups 20 minutes to listen to their assigned podcast segment, replay parts as necessary, discuss it within the group, and make notes. Reconvene the whole class and let groups take turns discussing their segment, including questions and answers. Record key points on butcher paper or the whiteboard, leave them where the class can see them, and save them for future sessions.

Journal exercise: Reflection on policing history

To end this session, have students use a journal entry to reflect on discussions, facts or stories that stood out for them. This is also a great opportunity to set up the next session of this workshop. As students prepare to journal, pose this question: If there are such significant issues in policing, what’s the point?

Session three: What’s the point of having a police force?

Now that students have a better understanding of policing’s origins, they can examine present-day police organizations. What are the main objectives of a police department?

Brainstorming on two crucial questions about the job of a police department

Kick off the session with a two-question brainstorming session. What is a police department’s job? Write down as many goals as possible; these might include “keep citizens safe,” “prevent crime” or “catch criminals.”

In a column next to the first list, record students’ answers to a second question: What standards of behavior or values are important for police officers to have? These might include “compassion,” “integrity” or “good judgment.”

Next, have students visit their local police department’s website. Give them five minutes to jot down answers to these questions:

What is the department’s stated mission?

Example: The NYPD’s stated mission is “to enhance the quality of life in New York City by working in partnership with the community to enforce the law, preserve peace, reduce fear, and maintain order.”

What are the department’s core values?

For instance, the NYPD’s values include “Value human life, respect the dignity of each individual and render our services with courtesy and civility.”

Share information in a class discussion, recording key points. How close were the brainstorming ideas to the real-life missions and values of a police department?

Journal exercise: How do police officers learn to enforce the law?

At the end of the session, pose a question for students to answer in a journal entry: How do you think police officers are trained to fulfill their department’s goals? What skills do they learn to enforce the law and meet the standards of behavior expected of them?

Session four: Who are cops and and how are they trained? Police education and demographics

This session has a significant focus on data analysis and interpretation that could be overwhelming for students, but should also make clear to them the difficulties facing both citizens and police officers in terms of law enforcement and community service. It’s important for students to examine the training that police officers receive and see and understand the radical demographic differences between police forces and the communities they serve.

Workshop reading: ‘Diversity on the Force: Where Police Don’t Mirror Communities’

To prepare for session four, assign the article from Governing Magazine’s “Diversity on the Force: Where Police Don’t Mirror Communities” or have the class review several of the charts and data sets from the piece.

Classroom exercise: Explore how police officers are trained

As the session begins, split students into small groups of about four. In these groups, give students a chart of types of police training as found on Discover Policing, but leave the percentage of academies providing training and the hours spent in training areas blank.

For ease of time and discussion, you may consider picking six to eight types of training rather than providing the entire chart, but ensure that conflict management, problem solving, and foreign language remain on the list.

Have groups discuss and come up with what they believe the percentage of academies providing these types of training and the hours spent in them. Choosing one representative, have groups write their guesses on the board when they are finished. After you provide the accurate information for each section, ask groups to choose one area they believe should be improved and, together, write a justification for investing more education and training hours in that area.

Citizens vs. police: Illustrating community demographics

In the second half of this session, give students a name tag or other visible marker that assigns a role: citizen for a majority of students and police officer for a select few, along with a race using demographics from the governing report.

Have students split into these groups. While this may create odd grouping in the classroom, it’s essential for the citizen group to be represented by at least two-thirds of the class. They can and should outnumber the police officer group.

Once groups are sorted, have them circle up and discuss the challenges they foresee from an imbalance of racial demographics and issues that might arise from the sheer numbers of police officers and the larger population.

Bring the class back together as a whole and, using Socratic questioning, encourage students to explore the challenges that officers and the general population face with such significant numbers and racial imbalances. Have students brainstorm potential citizen and police-based solutions for the discrepancy.

Journal exercise: Put yourself in a police officer’s shoes

End the session by asking students to answer this question in a journal entry: If you were a police officer, what would be your greatest concern when you went to work every day?

Session five: Identifying problems in police training, culture and use of force

The next-to-last session of this workshop allows students to explore problems in policing culture, training and methods of law enforcement, including the high number of civilians killed by police officers in the United States compared to other countries.

Research and analysis of breakdowns in U.S. policing

To prepare for session five, break students into four groups. Assign each group to read one of the following articles:

  • “Why do American Cops Kill So Many Compared to European Cops?” by Paul Hirschfield
  • “To Serve and Collect? Police Department Funding, Effectiveness, and Legitimacy” by Brian A. Jackson
  • “Evaluating Police Psychology: Who Passes the Test?” by By Candice Bernd
  • “The Myth of Police Reform” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

At the beginning of the session, have students complete a five-minute free-write using the article they read to discuss this question: If the goals and values of a police department are meant to serve and protect a community, where do things go wrong?

Exploring failures in policing policies, procedures and culture

After students are done writing, break them into the groups you assigned for each article. Have workshop participants discuss the article and share what they wrote about training, funding or police culture. Challenge each group to find a quote from their article that illustrates the author’s key points. For instance, “To Serve and Collect?” includes the following quote from Brian A. Jackson:

“As part of the report on the Ferguson Police Department, one problem flagged by the Department of Justice was behavior by the department and court system aimed at advancing revenue collection rather than public safety — and that those efforts were managed to ensure that the department was ‘bringing in revenue at the desired rate.’”

Bring the class back together and have groups take turns sharing their ideas and article quotes. Encourage students to share thoughts and feedback from previous session in addition to this one.

Pinpointing problems on police forces

Record students’ input on the major problems they see in policing. The list the class creates can vary greatly but might include the following:

  • Police department funding
  • Guidelines for using deadly force
  • Racial bias, either unconscious or institutional
  • Poor relationships between police and the communities they serve
  • Police officer training
  • Law enforcement procedures that treat citizens differently based on race or socioeconomic status
  • Processes for hiring and evaluating police officers
  • American gun culture

To prepare for the final workshop, instructors should have students reflect on their learning in a journal entry. If they could solve one problem in contemporary law enforcement, what would it be?

Session six: Proposing solutions to build peace and justice

In the final session of this workshop, participants use the work they’ve done in previous sessions to propose solutions to the problems they’ve identified, accomplishing the titular goal of building a better police force.

Workshop reading: ‘Build Trust and Justice Locally: Lessons from Ferguson on Communities and Police’

Prepare for the session by having students read the article “Build Trust and Justice Locally: Lessons from Ferguson on Communities and Police” by Patricia E. Campie.

Problem-solving for better law enforcement

Open the session by asking students to share feedback on the article as well as ideas from their last journal entry. Based on their feedback, create a list of four to five problems students are most passionate about solving.

  • Break the class into groups based on the list.
  • Give them ten minutes for a group discussion: What’s the most effective way to solve this particular problem?
  • Encourage students to review work, notes and thoughts from previous workshop sessions to connect to the problem.
  • After groups finish discussions and generating questions, reconvene the class and share students’ proposed solutions.

Close the final session by watching a 16-minute speech by Senator Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, the first African-American elected to the Senate in a Southern state, that reflects his experience with law enforcement and his call for “peace, love and understanding.”

Final workshop products

There are many ways to apply student learning from this workshop. Instead of an assigned final product, teachers should consider options for going forward that include:

  • A service learning project involving the local police force
  • Reflecting on workshop content with performance or visual art projects
  • A student-generated report on policing issues specific to their community
  • A column in the school paper where student journalists address topics in each session

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing. Micah Pilkington is a freelance editor and writer who has worked in online media since 2000. She specializes in culture, education and health.

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