What Police Departments Can Learn From Schools

A novel coronavirus is decimating the United States, especially people of color. Yet there’s nothing novel about the systemic racism in police systems, an epidemic that Black and Brown people have been fighting for generations. Before anyone jumps to the “few bad apples” excuse, I agree the majority of police officers believe they are not racist. Data on arrest rates and police killings prove otherwise. Now imagine how many African-Americans were beaten or murdered by police before everyone carried video cameras in their pockets. Thanks to smartphones, officers’ poor judgment and occasional blatant disregard for protocol quickly become viral content on social media.

As a teacher, I’m trained to examine successes and struggles as a direct reflection of instruction. If everyone aces my quiz, I taught the content well and/or need to ask tougher questions. If a bunch of students get the same question wrong, I didn’t do a good job of teaching that material. The 21st Century has made it clear that America’s local law enforcement agencies have a lot to learn. Naturally, they should look to schools for some valuable lessons.

Det. John Kimble isn’t the only cop who can learn a lot from schools.

Face-to-face contact, not hand-to-hand combat

For many Americans, interactions with local police consist of watching a squad car speed down the street. Instead, cops need to get out of their cars and patrol by foot. Getting to know the neighborhood and its residents through regular interactions develops trust well before they may need each other’s help in a crisis. Investing in bikes is another way police departments can make their officers more approachable while simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint (and waistlines).

Teachers are outside to greet students each morning, and often escort them back to their caretakers in the afternoon. This allows them to share a success or challenge from each student’s day, maintaining an open dialogue while creating a team dynamic between parent and teacher. Additionally, establishing solid communication in August makes it easier to deliver negative feedback later in the year.

Asking families to complete a questionnaire within the first weeks of school informs teachers of parents’ hopes for their children, as well as what their kids’ strengths and growth areas are. Conducting parent conferences early in the academic year gives them a chance to interview teachers since they often don’t really know them yet. Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend 30 minutes talking to your community’s police officers, too?

Better training

The average police academy in America lasts about six months, and the frequent headlines of police violence are a stark reminder that cops need more instruction. If officers have the legal right to take a human life, their training should last longer than the time it took to create that life. Teachers, on the other hand, receive at least a full year of training before they’re entrusted with students, and the only weapon they bring to work is knowledge (except in the handful of states that authorize bringing guns to school).

Police academies are almost as flawed as the Police Academy movies.

Cadets also need to be taught about inherent bias, as well as the history of law enforcement in their communities and country as told through various lenses. Like teachers, police officers serve diverse populations, so understanding what factors have shaped community members’ opinions on authority can go a long way in establishing trust and empathy.

Different jobs for different cops

I’m perfectly comfortable teaching 4th-graders about government, history, social justice, puberty and pretty much anything else (except chemistry). I still feel pretty helpless, though, when a 5-year-old is crying because she misses her dad, which is why I seek out a kindergarten teacher in those situations. I leave fine arts to the music and art teachers, and rely on learning specialists and psychologists to assist with more serious challenges.

Many schools also hire support staff to oversee duties that don’t require teachers at all, such as supervising recess and running after-school programs. This allows teachers to focus their energy on instruction, and the 17 other tasks they’re constantly juggling. Police departments should adopt this approach, too.

Expecting cops to be jacks of all trades is unfair to them, and at times disastrous for the communities they serve. Some officers excel at breaking down doors when necessary, while others are better suited for forming relationships with area youth. Supervisors need to recognize those strengths and put them in positions to maximize those skills. Furthermore, deploying mental health experts for wellness checks and domestic disputes would reduce police officers’ responsibilities. This approach is already being considered across the country.

Most cities employ parking enforcement officers to issue tickets, and moving violations in Berkeley, Calif., will soon be handled by unarmed city workers instead of police officers. Implementing some of these changes would free up cops to better serve and protect their towns.

Parking enforcement officers allow cops to focus on more pressing matters, like implicit bias training.

Work smarter, not harder

Technology is a blessing and a curse. In schools, chalkboards and overhead projectors have been replaced with SMART Boards and screen-sharing iPads. Of course, the curse (and cursing) arrives when the internet is down and the day’s lessons are all on Google Drive. There are numerous examples of technology improving police departments, too, although officers on Segways is not one of them.

Very few traffic violations require police involvement. Red-light cameras have been catching dangerous drivers since the 1960s, and highways all over Europe feature electronic radar machines that photograph speeding drivers and mail them citations. I even have the email from a rental car company to prove it! Incorporating similar methods in the U.S. would ease officers’ workloads, and the machines could be portable to keep dangerous drivers in check. Once America’s federal government realizes it needs to mandate masks in public, the Department of Transportation and Safety should also adopt the European Union’s other plan of using technology to make roads safer. To be clear, I am not advocating for police to use facial recognition technology.

The good, the bad and the ugly unions

Unions are among the strongest advocates for workers’ rights, ensuring fair wages and safe environments for their members. Their hard work shaped the soul of our country with pushes for child labor laws and two-day weekends. Unfortunately, they can also protect underperformers and rule breakers from being fired. Cities like Chicago and Boston circumvent the power of teachers unions by simply closing low-performing institutions and reopening them as “turnaround” schools. Since the sites are technically new schools, all staff must re-apply, which is a great way to keep the effective teachers while shedding the ones who are just counting down the days until retirement (we’ve all endured them). Camden, N.J., took a similar approach by disbanding its police force in 2013 and only rehiring officers who met more rigorous standards. Although the end results have gotten mixed reviews from residents, finding a way around police unions to remove subpar officers is a huge step toward improvement.

Hire the right people

No one goes into teaching for the money. A small percentage of them simply want a job with summers off. Of course, they quickly burn out once they realize teaching is a 24/7 commitment for 10 months each year. Thankfully, the majority of people who pursue a career in education do so because they’re passionate about kids and/or the subject(s) they teach. The ones who have the greatest impact on their students are often creative, patient, tenacious and selfless.

Quick, what’s the first word you think of to describe a police officer? Disciplined? Brave? Aggressive? Chances are you didn’t say “open-minded,” which is the first skill listed for police officers on a United Kingdom job site. Atop New Zealand’s requirements are “outstanding communication skills” and “empathy for others.” In America, few would describe the officers they’ve interacted with as exuding any of these skills.

Much of the blame belongs to police departments for recruiting the wrong types of candidates. While some cadets are genuinely hoping to improve their communities, too many others are looking for a chance to live out their Dirty Harry dreams. Recruitment videos like this are bound to attract wannabe cops who think the job consists of kicking down doors and busting people’s faces. Whoops, wrong video. I meant to link this one, which plays like an ad for a local militia and makes a small Louisiana city out to be more dangerous than 1987 Detroit (before Robocop started working there).

Concerningly, Alexandria isn’t the only police department creating action-movie trailers to promote job openings, as a quick YouTube search will reveal. Watch your speed if you’re driving through Florida’s affluent Palm Beach Gardens, where cops draw their guns during residential traffic stops because they’re apparently training for war. The police department in Greenville, N.C., is hiring for what appears to be a career that involves boxing, stunt driving, drone operation, mixed martial arts and bomb detonating. It’s basically targeting immature teenagers who love video games.

Suddenly the spate of deaths at the hands of people entrusted to protect communities isn’t so surprising, and that’s before factoring in the number of white supremacists infiltrating America’s police squads. Laws require sex offenders to register whenever they move to a new address, and pedophiles aren’t even allowed to live near schools in this country. At the same time, local governments are hiring racist extremists and training them to be urban warriors. That’s a huge problem.

Police departments need to stop recruiting people who think Bad Boys 2 is a documentary.

Know thy neighbor as thyself

Some schools offer affordable apartments to entice teachers to live in the community where they teach. Certain private schools with large endowments offer zero-interest loans for down payments on homes to keep their faculty long-term. These administrations understand that minimizing employees’ commutes and immersing them in the world their students inhabit helps create bonds between teachers and families. Naturally, police officers who live in the community they serve also have a greater connection to the citizens and neighborhoods they’re sworn to protect.

Of course, becoming neighbors isn’t the only way to connect with others. Regardless of their address, the most popular teachers are often the ones who infuse themselves into their school’s culture until they are part of its fabric. They support their students by chaperoning dances and leading after-school clubs, and they get to know parents while attending kids’ sporting events and drama performances. If you have children, I’m willing to bet you can list at least a few personal facts about their teachers, but what do you know about your local police officers?

Show Them the Money

Boosting officer salaries is an easy way to improve police departments. Regardless of where you stand on police funding, no officer tasked with protecting communities should be making less money than a new Walmart employee, but that’s actually happening in some smaller municipalities. Limiting officers’ duties, as mentioned above, would require fewer cops on the force and thus free up funds to boost salaries.

Adding incentives to the job would also attract more recruits. In addition to comprehensive benefits plans, many school districts allocate money for their teachers’ continuing education, while others provide free lunch every day to support their faculty. Police departments adopting these approaches would convince more service-oriented citizens that law enforcement is a sustainable career path, and those are the types of people who should be serving and protecting America’s communities.

Trained writer who fell into teaching. Driven by music, sports, nature and social justice. Lover of old photos. Capturing life one parenthetical quip at a time.

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