Policing, Public Safety, and Bias

Last updated October 2, 2020.

This is the third 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.


Police play a crucial role in maintaining public safety, and yet biased policing and the disproportionate use of excessive force against Black Americans and other people of color have caused many Americans to feel unsafe in the presence of law enforcement. This Teaching Idea asks students to wrestle with the complexity of this issue by exploring a variety of sources, including the perspectives of those impacted by bias in policing and the perspectives of police officers.

The sources in this Teaching Idea present students with the opportunity to listen to and learn from a range of voices, including those representing experiences with policing that students may have overlooked or dismissed in the past. At the end of this Teaching Idea, students share their responses to these questions through a Gallery Walk. The extension to this Teaching Idea offers students the opportunity to explore a personal narrative that demonstrates the impact police violence can have on a family.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. Begin with Journaling

    Ask your students to think about interactions with the police that they have experienced, seen, or heard about, and then to respond to the following prompts in their journals:

    1. What do you want policing to look like, sound like, and feel like?
    2. What does it look like, sound like, and feel like when police use biased tactics or excessive force?

    Tell students that they will have the opportunity to continue to add to their responses throughout the lesson. After students finish their initial journal reflections, ask them to share one word from their first response using the Wraparound strategy. Write the words that students share on the board. After recording students’ responses to the first prompt, complete a second Wraparound, this time asking students to share one word they wrote in response to the second prompt. Record students’ responses in a second list on the board. Discuss with students:

    • What are the common themes in each list?
    • What words stand out to you and why?

    Tell your students that throughout the rest of this lesson, they will see and view resources that will help them explore the two questions from the journal prompt more deeply. At the end of the lesson, they will create two documents that contain their responses to each question. They should feel free to use any combination of written reflection, illustration, or poetry to answer the questions. Once they are finished, they will share their reflections with the class.

    Remote Learning Note: Students can reflect in their journals individually and asynchronously. You can either omit the Wraparound activity or ask students to share their responses using the Wraparound (Remote Learning) version of the teaching strategy.

  2. Explore Contemporary Sources on Policing

    This activity contains a collection of sources both from the perspective of police officers and those negatively impacted by biased policing. Read or view each source with your students and ask them to write down any additional insights that the sources give them to their answers to the questions to which they responded in the journals:

    1. What do you want policing to look like, sound like, and feel like?
    2. What does it look like, sound like, and feel like when police use biased tactics or excessive force?

    Note: You may wish to edit the list of sources or add additional sources to better reflect discussions around policing in your own community.

    • Source 1: A Conversation With Police on Race, New York Times (video)
      Watch the first clip of the video, in which the police officers explain why they decided to join the force. Stop the video at 1:28.

      (Note: The New York Times is offering free digital subscriptions to high school students and teachers through September 2021. Without a subscription, you have access to a limited number of free articles per month.)

    • Source 2: Excerpt from the IACP Law Enforcement Code of Ethics (text)
      Read the following text:

      As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.

      . . . I will never act officiously [overly interfering] or permit personal feelings, prejudices, political beliefs, aspirations [goals], animosities [hatreds] or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities [tips].

    • Source 3: The Problem of Police Powers for People Living While Black, New York Review of Book, Annette Gordon-Reed (text)
      Read the first half of the article with your students, stopping at the end of the paragraph that begins: “The police wield enormous power under rules that give officers broad discretion . . .”

    • Source 4: Adrian Brandon’s Portrait Series Stolen (art collection)
      Read Adrian Brandon’s statement on his website explaining his Stolen series. Then, choose several portraits to look at more closely with your students.

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to use the Slides for this activity to access the sources. Students can read or view the sources individually and reflect either individually or synchronously in virtual breakout rooms.

  3. Present Student Reflections

    After students have had the chance to finish their two documents, post students’ work around the room and ask them to view it as a Gallery Walk. Students can leave comments or reactions next to their classmates’ documents using sticky notes.

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to post their final documents in a class discussion forum or using a platform such as VoiceThread, which allows students to record responses to each other’s work.

Extension: Explore a Personal Narrative

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the article The Life Breonna Taylor Lived, In the Words of Her Mother for Vanity Fair. Ask your students to read the article and reflect on the following questions:

  • What did you learn from reading the article?
  • What emotions did reading this article raise for you?
  • What ethical questions are you left with?

(Note: Vanity Fair offers a limited number of free articles per month, so it’s possible your students will be unable to access this article if they’ve reached the maximum views.)

View the next Teaching Idea in this series: Creating a Society That Ensures Safety for All

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