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Higher Education, Critical Thinking and Police Service

image of two police officers walking down the street

Co-Authored by Dr. Jeff Czarnec

On Feb. 4, 1968, exactly two months before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, part of which would later be used as a eulogy at his funeral. In it he recounted conversations with white Birmingham, Alabama, police officers while he was sitting in jail. He realized that despite the color of their skin, they and their families were economically just as desperate as the blacks they had arrested for protesting.

That ability to re-view others, to see them through different lenses, to move from “them” to “us,” is the great opportunity we in higher education have. The imperative that we have as educators to enhance sensitivity, compassion and understanding of the communities that students serve or seek to serve has perhaps never been greater. Reversing the progress that has been made would indeed be a national tragedy.

Critical Education

Recent, highly publicized use-of-force events that have involved minority communities and the police that serve them have spawned everything from kitchen table debates and legislative activism to riots and murders.

As researchers David L. Carter, Allen D. Sapp and Herman Goldstein predicted in their studies of police officer behavior, a “college education makes officers more receptive to serving the community, more ethical and moral and more tolerant. College-educated officers would be expected to be less supportive of the abuse of police authority and more supportive of following proper rules and regulation.”

At its core the general purposes of a college education (hence the term “general education”) are particularly critical for members of law enforcement, as they exercise immense power over life and death with the blessing and support of the community. Every action or reaction of any individual law enforcement officer carries with it the full weight of all of society, so it is even more essential than for those in other professions that police officers master effective communication, critical thinking and complex problem solving, and awareness of and ability to negotiate diverse cultures.

A core outcome of SNHU’s law enforcement and criminal justice curriculum has been to ensure acquisition and assessment of these skill sets. This includes explicit training with our faculty on their role and the weight of that role, as the training and engagement we provide in these areas are certain to have societal impacts. Every traffic stop will be a demonstration of how well we have taught our students to communicate. Every house visit could be an exercise in navigating a culture different than that of the officer. The old adage is that seeing is believing. But for cops making split-second decisions, what they believe about the world around them will impact what they see, and a perceived threat, real or not, can have life-changing consequences for all those involved.

A Challenge for Faculty

The role of the faculty, then, includes teaching students to see various possibilities in a given situation and to quickly consider alternative solutions while processing additional information in real time to further refine situational resolutions. (Think of the familiar optical illusion picture in which both an old woman and a young woman can be perceived. Once you focus on one, it takes a moment or two to readjust your perception to perceive the other again.)

At the same time officers can’t get caught in a Hamlet-like contemplation of reality, as that also can end in disaster. Critical thinking skills must be paired with problem-solving abilities. Later these must also be combined with reflection, as the goal of an educated learner is to review what has happened and improve moving forward.

According to political science researcher and author Linda Elder, this is a formidable challenge for faculty who, like their students, must be prepared to find a wide variety of differences in preferred learning styles, race, gender, ethnicity, intellectual skill level, culture, family history, emotional development, physical or mental disability, personality, intellectual characteristics, self-esteem, knowledge, motivation, creativity, social adjustment, genetic intellectual inclinations and maturity. In an environment where lecture, rote memorization and short-term study habits have become the norm, it is absolutely critical that colleges explicitly train faculty to engage their students in ill-structured problems with no easy solutions.

Prepare for Possibilities

This is true for all students, not only those in the law enforcement and criminal justice fields; this is what all students should be comfortable with in general. The responsibility for the community and the society lies on those in all of the other fields of study as well. A college education is not simply beneficial to students because it increases their earning potential; indeed its greatest value may be in its potential to change one-on-one interactions. The citizen in the car also has a responsibility, and how he perceives the reality of his situation and reacts also has the power to change destiny’s trajectory.

Preparing as many citizens as possible to be aware of the different possibilities and equipping them with the skills to communicate effectively, think critically and solve problems is also part of the formula necessary to change the current climate. Whether it’s a black man reaching for a wallet in front of a cop who might perceive a gun threat or a white man stalking a black teenager in a gray hoodie walking through a neighborhood, the ability to consider other realities and resolve tense situations is a skill we must get better at teaching. However, it must be taken into account that faculty can’t do it all. In other words, tailoring content delivery across a broad spectrum while focusing specific attention on the schema and every dimension of diversity while seeking to imbue deep understanding is difficult at best.

This is not merely an opportunity but a mandate. We must honor our obligation as educators and respond to the needs of the American community and those entrusted with service and protection.

Academically Speaking

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