On Teaching Police Officers

John Jay Image Police OfficersDECEMBER 29 2015: Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Bratton and Homeland Security chief Johnson presided over the graduation of new NYPD officers at Madison Square Garden.

By Greg Donaldson

Recently, an adjunct professor in the Economics Department here at John Jay College remarked on Twitter that he enjoys teaching “future dead cops”. I’d like to respond to this inflammatory remark.

I have been a professor in the Communications Department at John Jay for the last fifteen years. During that time I have taught classes in Communications, Drama and Ethnic Studies to classes with just a few cops and others comprised only of NYPD officers. I enjoy teaching cops.

While researching my 1993 book, “The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America,”, I rode as an observer in the back seat of patrol cars in Brownsville, Brooklyn for the better part of a year, well beyond the period of time the officers I watched could successfully disguise either their methods or motives. What I learned was that there is nothing more valuable to a community than a good cop and nothing worse than a bad one. I watched an alarming “us and them” mentality develop in some officers toward the community of color they patrolled but I also saw a remarkable amount of real “community policing”, where an officer took the time to learn the rhythm and diversity of the neighborhood.

Once, I stood on the sidewalk and watched as a circle of young officers with their guns drawn surrounded a deranged man waving a machete on a Brownsville street. Sergeant Jim Priori arrived and stepped from his patrol car yelling instructions, ordering his officers to lower their guns and the onlookers to alert the man’s sister who he knew by name. As he spoke to the agitated man about missing his medication, his voice was somehow both authoritative and soothing. In a few moments, the machete was handed over.

If such coolheaded humanism could be taught, I wanted to be part of the process. So I transferred from another CUNY school to John Jay College. With other City University faculty, I wrote a curriculum called “Streetwise” to help officers emerging from the Police Academy better understand the communities they were assigned to patrol. And I committed myself to the mission of John Jay College, founded in 1965 to supply a liberal arts education to working and future police officers with the belief that education in not only the police sciences but in history, sociology, psychology, economics and literature, gives officers a deeper understanding of both their  job and the communities they serve.

I happen to be a committed progressive who was appalled at the election of Donald Trump and who continues to be repulsed by both his character and his policies. Almost all of the white officers I have taught over the years prefer tough-talking politicians like Ronald Reagan, Rudolph Giuliani and Trump over progressives. They even support anti-union, anti-gun control candidates even though their union has done great things for them and the proliferation of guns threatens their very lives. But we are not adversaries.

I look forward to teaching members of the service (MOS, as they are known). They are funny and smart and we often share the same appreciation for the street life of New York. They might appear jaded but often beneath the surface is a robust instinct to help people. I respect cops and more importantly, I am not engaged in trying to change their minds.

My mission is about process. In the Ethnic Studies course I taught, my classes emphasized historical, scientific and social research over anecdotal evidence.  My students were surprised to learn, for example, that Nassau County, where many NYPD officers reside is the most racially segregated county in the country. That Italians, Irish and Jews until just after World War II, were widely considered part of a criminogenic underclass. After each class, even following sessions of heated debate, I stand at the door and shake the hand of each officer/student as he or she leaves the room.

Even if the young Economics professor’s remark was made for shock value, it is still a grievous mistake. The working men and women of this country have developed a deep antipathy for not only the media but the academic class as well.  Convinced they have been overlooked and demeaned, they are vulnerable to specious arguments and emotional manipulation. The answer is education, respect for our common humanity on campus. Not more reckless bombast.

Gregory Donaldson is an Associate Professor at John Jay College for Criminal Justice.

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