Can Academia Play a Role in Police Reform?

Protesting for police reform and social justice

The past few weeks have been exceptionally intense for many of us in higher education. While working and taking care of families through the pandemic, many of us also tuned into the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin. His brazenly public murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020 (recorded by a 17-year-old bystander who posted the video on Facebook) is credited with transforming Black Lives Matter into an international movement. Almost a year later, Chauvin was convicted on second-and third-degree murder and manslaughter charges on April 20, 2021.

I was on the phone with a good friend when the MSNBC chyron indicated that the verdict was coming through soon. I held my breath while I waited. At age 50, I have experienced a fair share of heartache owing to the injustice Black people face in the US.

My home city of Philadelphia has more than 150 years of documented history of police brutality toward Black people. As a child growing up in the inner city during the era of former Mayor (and Police Commissioner) Frank Rizzo, my community was decimated by police brutality as much as it was by crime. From calling a student-led protest to require African American studies in public schools a “riot” and pushing for harsh suppression tactics, which resulted in the injury of 22 people, to forcing a public strip search of Black Panthers, Rizzo wielded his power with extreme cruelty. The Rizzo legacy of brute-force policing seemed to carry through to successive police commissioner administrations. The bombing of Osage Avenue during the first term of the city’s first Black mayor and the planting of drugs on innocent citizens in the 39th Police District (the precinct where I grew up) are only two of many examples.

When I began college in 1988, I had classmates who were determined to make a positive difference for the Black community and less financially privileged communities by working in law enforcement. Like me, my classmates experienced law enforcement at its worst, but they charted a path to advance change from the inside. My classmates majored in criminal justice or law and society, intending to become prosecutors, work for the FBI, or rise in the ranks of major cities’ police forces. They were largely successful in their professional pursuits.

Yet, despite these valiant efforts to reform law enforcement from the inside, data shows that modern-day policing remains problematic and deadly for people of color. Recent stories have also emerged of police officers taking part in the January 6, 2021 insurrection and expressing sympathy for, and even participating in, neo-Nazi and white nationalists groups.

These circumstances have led to a push for police reform (paywalled), but also defunding city police budgets. While these two topics have dominated current law enforcement reform and political narratives, another interesting element has recently entered the discourse.

Can academia play more of a role in police reform?

Some people believe yes.

Police commissioners in several cities have attempted to mandate college credits for all police officers for more than 30 years—a controversial move. The rationale comes from data going back to the 1970s that a better-educated police force engages more positively with BIPOC communities, tends to be less authoritarian, and uses force less when engaging with the public. Studies determining that a better-educated police force results in better community engagement outcomes are limited (paywalled), though the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA®) appears to assert a correlation between education and better community policing outcomes.

In this vein, California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation in 2020 requiring police officers in the state to have a college degree or be age 25 to enter the police academy. California State Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) introduced Senate Bill 387 earlier this year to require new officers to take college courses without the degree requirement.

Similar efforts have emerged from within academia as well. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice hosted a series of events in September and October 2020 in partnership with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to “break the binary mindset” of “‘us vs. them,’” according to college president Karol V. Mason. The Future of Public Safety report and event sessions are available online.

It is compelling to think of how higher education can assist in US police reform efforts in the problem-solving space. TIE looks forward to having scholars and administrators share their policing reform concepts and research through interviews and writings in the upcoming months. There is no better time than the present for academia writ large to rise to the challenge of creating a solutions-centered framework for police reform informed by DEIA theory and practice.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.