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, while not stereotyping or criminalizing all police officers. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.
Understanding the different ways in which bias appears in policing can help us find solutions and ensure that all people can feel safe in their communities. In his podcast episode Race, Policing, and the Universal Yearning for Safety, journalist Ezra Klein and professor Phillip Atiba Goff discuss the “levels” of bias in policing. They discuss how bias can occur at the individual level, the community level, the city level, and the societal level. This Teaching Idea asks students to use this framework to begin a discussion of how we can create solutions to the problem of bias in policing.
Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Get student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.
Place students into small groups and ask them to read the text explaining each “level” of bias in policing and then discuss the questions for each level. Create a section on the board or a wall in the classroom for each of these levels. Ask each group to write their ideas for solutions on sticky notes and place them in each section.
Bias can appear on the individual level if a police officer treats people differently as a result of their perceived race. One example of how this could occur is if a police officer stops a Black motorist for a minor infraction, like failing to signal a turn, but does not stop a white driver in the same circumstances. Research shows that bias does occur at this level, but it is only one way in which bias can appear in policing.1
Police leaders make decisions about how many police officers to assign to different neighborhoods or whether to approve the use of certain tactics (for example, no-knock warrants) in a certain area. If these decisions are made differently for predominantly Black or minority neighborhoods than they are for predominantly white neighborhoods—which they often are—then it means that people of different racial backgrounds are policed unequally. Bias can appear at the community level even if police officers do not act in biased ways during individual encounters. Professor Phillip Atiba Goff believes this is an important level of bias to understand because “policing is fundamentally a neighborhood issue even more than it’s an encounter issue.”2
Discuss with students:
Bias can also appear at the level of a city, if one city is policed differently than another one. For example, imagine if every police officer in Baltimore interacted the same way with everyone and every neighborhood were policed the same way, but the police used harsher tactics in Baltimore than in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Black people make up a greater proportion of the population of Baltimore than Bridgeport, which means that there would be racial disparities in policing.
Discuss with students:
Finally, it is also important to understand and address the factors that cause crime. Researchers know that people are less likely to commit crimes when they have access to services such as quality education, employment opportunities, health care, and safe public spaces. Predominantly Black communities and other historically marginalized communities are less likely to have access to these services as a result of racist policies in the United States, such as redlining. The impact of racist policies can partially explain why a greater number of crimes are reported in poor communities and communities of color. (Crime is also over-reported in many predominantly Black communities compared to predominantly white communities, since there is often a greater police presence in these communities.)
Discuss with students:
Once students have finished adding their potential solutions to the board, choose a few to read as a class and discuss.
Remote Learning Note: To teach this activity asynchronously, create a discussion thread for each level of bias in an online discussion forum for the class. Ask your students to read the description of each level individually, using the Slides for this activity. Then, students can post ideas for solutions in the thread for each level.
To teach this activity synchronously, read the description of each level of bias in policing as a full class during a synchronous session. After you read each level, assign students to virtual breakout rooms to discuss the questions with a small group. Then, bring students back to the full-group session to share ideas from their small-group discussions and to read the description of the next level as a class. Continue until students have discussed each level with their small groups.
Ask students to read the following excerpt from the New York Bar Association article 40-Year Law Enforcement Vet Explains What Good Policing Should Look Like, written by retired police officer Cedric Alexander:
What does good policing look like–literally, look like? Anything but an invasion.
The police are the public and the public are the police. This is a social equation, and like any other equation, it must balance. 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.
First, we must look beyond these necessities. The visible and vocal manifestations of the widespread public denial of police legitimacy were triggered by the actions of a few officers, by which I emphatically do not mean a few “bad apples.” 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 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.3
Remote Learning Note: Assign students to small groups and create a document with the passage from Cedric Alexander’s article for each group. Ask students to read the passage and then annotate it in their small groups by leaving comments or questions in their shared document.
Ask students to reflect on what they have learned throughout this series of Teaching Ideas and then to respond to the following prompts in their journals:
Remote Learning Note: Ask students to respond to the prompts on an Exit Card, which they can then share with you.