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Higher Education, Critical Thinking and Police Service

Two police officers in uniform walking on the street.

Co-authored by Dr. Jeff Czarnec, Associate Dean in Social Sciences.

In light of the current state of affairs in the U.S. following the murder of George Floyd, when the SNHU team met recently we all agreed that it was critically important to ensure that the ongoing work we have committed ourselves to in addressing issues of inequity, and the lack of diversity/inclusivity does not fade into yet another academic but irrelevant set of meetings where everyone simply admires the problem.

SNHU had long been a leader in the field of criminal justice and the education of law enforcement officers, but over the last decade events in Ferguson, Florida, and elsewhere compelled us to do more. Over the last three years in particular, we pulled together our adjuncts and subject matter experts in law enforcement/criminal justice to help us rethink our curriculum and our responsibilities as a university to impact the conversation about race, diversity, equity, and history. (The pictures below show some of the distinguished voices we convened to help with this discussion.) Now, law enforcement is once more in the spotlight under intense scrutiny. We must and will double down on our commitment to our important criminal justice work.

To that end, we at SNHU are continuing to re-envision the skills and experiences our learners in law enforcement and criminal justice need to demonstrate as they enter the workforce. We launched the highly successful, student-focused/cross-discipline Contemporary Justice Series, bringing in national voices to workshop and serve on panels that have engaged our learners in some frank, painful, necessary events, around the following themes:

  • What Happens After Ferguson?
  • Bail and Inequities in the Criminal Justice System
  • The Innocence Project Interview on False Incarceration
  • Mass Shooting-Responses from the Next Generation

We have also partnered with the Professional Development Office of the NYPD to provide more educational opportunities with those currently on the police force, and are in talks with a number of other major city police departments. We recently integrated new learning resources into our criminal justice experiences tied directly to cultural competency and policing. In light of recent events we have asked some of the nation’s leading law enforcement experts to join us in a new series of student interactions, the first of which will happen later this week.

William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead; it is not even past.” A little over a year ago, as part of our efforts at ensuring the Board of Trustees connected with SNHU’s challenging opportunities tied to race, inequity, and injustice President Leblanc and the leadership shared time with them in Birmingham and Montgomery, where we visited historic landmarks tied to these issues. We all were in awe of the tireless passionate work of Bryan Stevenson and so many others to bring together the uninterrupted narrative that traced black legal history (particularly black male history) from slavery through Jim Crow lynchings to mass incarceration. I stood among the iron plates listing the names of those lynched county by county in America and held my breath as I pictured my name being there.

I have experienced that same breathtaking horror this last month. In so many recent events it was terrifyingly easy to see myself in what was happening to other men who looked so much like me.  I have seen myself gunned down while jogging down a road in Brunswick, Georgia, or filming a woman with my phone in Central Park, who is calling 911 claiming I am assaulting her even as I ask her to just obey the law and put her dog on a leash. And I see myself calling out for my mama with my last breaths as I die on a street in Minneapolis.

It wasn’t me, but it was someone’s brother, son, friend. It always has been. And we owe it to all of those lives to stop being silent. As those who love me keep calling and ask what they can do, I respond “Find your voice. See that their story is your story.” Certainly do so on the streets and in the voting booths, but even more importantly find it in your homes around the thanksgiving dinner tables and in your circle of friends when the racist microaggressions are most pervasive. This work is not the work of a single piece of legislation, election, or a great speech. It is a thousand small victories in households across the country that will ultimately lead to lasting change.

Please join us in working towards those individual enduring victories. We share this post a second time in the hopes that there won’t be a need to do so a third. We must find a way to end this Groundhog cycle of violence and overcome this part of our past.

– Dr. Gregory Fowler


Shown in these pictures (left image, right to left) Chief of Miami, Florida Schools PD (Ret’d) Ian Moffett, Chief of Ferguson, Missouri (ret’d) Delrish Moss, Sgt. Adjunct Professor Rudy Brown, Plantation, Florida PD, Dr. Jeff Czarnec, Associate Dean, SNHU,
Dr. Gregory Fowler, former Global Campus President, SNHU, Asst. Chief/Dr. Sheryl Victorian, Houston PD, CJ Adjunct/ Dr. Mia Ortiz , Professor at Bridgewater State University. Also shown in the right picture, Dr. Paul LeBlanc, President, SNHU.

The post below was originally published on September 8, 2017

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.

As president of SNHU’s Global Campus, Dr. Fowler has oversight for academic functions in support of the university’s learning experiences and modalities – online, competency-based and hybrid – meeting the rapidly changing demands of the workforce and global communities. A two-time Fulbright Senior Scholar (Germany and Belgium) with 25 years of experience in higher education management, Dr. Fowler has published and presented at events throughout the world, including Germany, where he also taught at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Univeritat-Berlin. He has held senior-level academic and administrative positions at numerous institutions including Western Governors University, Penn State University and the national Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to a Ph.D (SUNY-Buffalo), an MBA (Western Governors University), Dr. Fowler has also completed an MA (George Mason University), a BA (Morehouse College) and was a Charles A. Dana Scholar (Duke University). He has also completed several higher education and executive leadership/negotiation programs at Harvard University.

You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Czarnec is an associate dean at Southern New Hampshire University overseeing criminal justice, political science, anthropology, sociology, human services and justice studies programs. He served as Manchester (New Hampshire) police officer from 1979 to 2002. He earned his doctorate in leadership studies from Franklin Pierce University and is a member of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the American Criminological Society.

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.