This is the fourth Teaching Idea in a series designed to help students think critically about the long and troubling history between law enforcement and Black Americans. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with nuanced sources that reflect a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.
This series of Teaching Ideas explores the historic roots and ongoing impact of racial injustice in American policing. This final Teaching Idea invites students to synthesize their learning about the causes of racial injustice in policing and reflect on the implications these causes have on the individual and collective choices we make today. Students have the opportunity to explore a variety of policy proposals to reform or transform policing and to consider what it might take to create a society that ensures safety for all.
Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.
Note: This activity uses the Big Paper strategy, which requires students to work in groups on a shared document. If your students cannot sit together in groups due to social distancing requirements, you can ask them to collaborate on a virtual Big Paper instead, using our Big Paper (Remote Learning) strategy.
Ask your students to use the Big Paper strategy to silently “discuss” the following excerpt from an article written by Cedric Alexander, a retired police officer and former president of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives.
The police are the public and the public are the police . . . America’s current crisis, therefore, cannot be understood as a crisis of policing. It is a crisis of the American people, which, naturally, includes the police.
Good policing tactics, strategies, and policies are necessary to good policing. But they are not sufficient . . .
What we need to understand is that the acts of any individual officer come not alone from his or her head, heart, or instinct. Each act is also the sum of that officer’s training and the informed embrace of values received through the culture of the agency in which that officer serves.
We must, then, look beyond tactics, strategies, and policies to departmental values and culture. But precisely because the police are the public and the public are the police, we must also look to the context in which each law enforcement agency develops its values and culture. They are products of wider American society, laws, and history.
Good policing looks like the acts of each police officer. Each act is, in some essential way, the result of our society, laws, and history. Many politicians vehemently object to the notion of “systemic racism” in policing or American society.
Well, objection overruled. Racism is manifestly endemic [systemic] in the American system.
But systemic as well is our intense and enduring American aspiration toward what a slaveholding Thomas Jefferson described in the Declaration of Independence: a society in which all people are regarded as they were created— equal—all possessing the same unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The more that American policing succeeds in closing the gap between aspiration toward and realization of these systemic constituents of America, the more the nation’s policing will look like good policing.1
After students have completed the Big Paper discussion, ask them to share their thoughts or questions about the excerpt with the class. You can use the following questions to guide a class discussion:
Remote Learning Note: Our strategy Big Paper (Remote Learning) offers guidance for how to organize a Big Paper activity online.
Activists, policymakers, police officers, and scholars have proposed a wide range of reforms that they believe could improve public safety. These proposals range from individual interventions, such as changing police officers’ training, to a dramatic rethinking of the nature of policing and other public services.
Give your students time to explore one or more of the following resources:
In this piece, Phillip Atiba Goff—professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity—describes different reforms he has helped police departments across the country implement. Ask your students to listen from 8:02–16:05 (You may want to print the section of the transcript that corresponds to this excerpt for your students, so they can read and annotate as they listen. The section begins with the phrase: “You gave a TED talk in which you . . .” and ends with the phrase . . . and then hopefully those things start to scale.”)
This article describes three potential reforms to policing: transferring more responsibilities from police to social workers, curbing the militarization of the police, and increasing accountability.
This article describes the provisions of a police reform bill, which the US House of Representatives passed in March 2021. (Note: When this Teaching Idea was last updated on May 21, 2021, this bill had not yet been considered by the US Senate.)
Ask your students to read the section of this article titled “A proposal for reform through divestment in federal agencies—and reinvestment in communities,” which describes the main provisions of a proposed bill called the BREATHE Act. (Note: When this Teaching Idea was last updated on May 21, 2021, this bill had not been brought to a vote in the US Congress.)
Note: You can also ask students to research proposals to rethink public safety in your own community.
Then, ask students to consider the following questions:
Remote Learning Note: You can place your students in small groups in virtual breakout rooms during a synchronous session and ask them to read one or more of the resources with their group. Then, bring your students back as a full group to discuss what they learned. Alternatively, you can ask your students to explore one or more resources on their own asynchronously before discussing what they learned during a synchronous session.
Ask students to reflect on what they have learned throughout this series of Teaching Ideas and then respond to the following prompts in their journals:
Remote Learning Note: Students can write their final reflections in their journals or on an Exit Card, which they can share with you.