Washington state has enacted a number of police reforms since George Floyd was murdered one year ago.
Among them is a mandatory 8-hour course, broken up into sessions, for police recruits on the history of racism and policing.
The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) tapped Daudi Abe — a professor, writer and historian at Seattle Central College — to help design the curriculum. Abe believes the course could contribute to better policing.
Abe teaches volunteer instructional officers who then implement the curriculum to new recruits. The first part of the course is an overview of race itself because “this issue, as deeply rooted as it is in this country, has been unexamined in a lot of facets,” he says.
For some people, race and racism either doesn’t come up as a topic in people’s daily lives, they lack the language to discuss it or they haven’t had a chance to wrestle with it, he explains.
In creating the course, Abe prioritized meeting students where they are.
The second session delves deeply into the intersection of race and policing, which can be a delicate topic when asking law enforcement to take a hard look at their profession.
So far, he says the trainers for the course have approached the issue with a “genuine kind of intellectual curiosity,” he says. These teachers are trained to approach the subject matter with empathy and compassion in order to create a space for officers to feel vulnerable in the class, he says.
That way, Abe says, recruits feel comfortable asking real questions — even if their questions may sound, or be, racist. They deserve a forum to ask and have questions answered, he says.
Another session in the course takes a look at what Abe thinks are undervalued aspects of policing — fines, fees, bail and mass incarceration.
The curriculum connects the dots between police actions — such as stopping someone for a traffic infraction — and the cascade of detrimental scenarios that can come after that single interaction with an officer.
For this portion of the course, he draws on a chapter from “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor” by professor Alexes Harris. In the text, Harris highlights what an audit of the Ferguson Police Department found in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
The examination revealed that a sizable part of the department’s multi-million dollar budget came from revenue from tickets and fines written specifically to the Black community there, he says.
Ferguson police officers from all ranks said that “revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from city leadership,” the report says.
“If you think about that, then you can think about how there is now financial incentive for the police to write these tickets. It also speaks to the bad will that this kind of helps engender within the community,” he says. “The financial burden that the police are trying to meet is only exceeded by the animosity that these kinds of encounters continually create.”
The statewide curriculum isn’t explicitly implicit bias training — a practice of unpacking attitudes or stereotypes that impact actions or behaviors in an unconscious way. Research has shown implicit bias training doesn’t actually change behaviors in ways previously thought.
So instead of focusing on implicit bias, Abe says this course requires rookie officers to tackle serious issues head on.
The CJTC course aims to encourage a police culture that is more reflective as opposed to reflexive, Abe says, and to create an atmosphere that is open to having conversations about race and racism.
As a “gatekeeper profession,” Abe believes police officers have “a professional obligation to do critical introspection on the ways in which they view race and how those ways in which they view race affect how they do their job when working with multiracial populations.”
He hopes recruits will continue to foster these conversations once they’re out in the field. Abe says it may be unlikely that an elder officer will be enthused to talk about critical race theory, so the next part of police reform needs to revolve around professional development with veteran leaders in the state since their work impacts the chain of command downward.
“I think that reflection on part of veteran officers on these issues would be invaluable to young recruits who are coming in and wanting to learn about how this theoretical stuff that they learned about might play into actual practice in the way that they do their jobs,” he says.
In many ways, the curriculum Abe spearheaded is an experiment — there is no proof of concept that came before. In the short term, he’d like to receive data from the recruits down the line that asks them whether they’ve come across a time in the field where they had to lean on their training. He says he’s open to their feedback and new ideas.
A successful training program, he says, will continue to evolve and lead to drastic reduction in police violence — something he admits will take time.
This segment aired on May 25, 2021.