This is the first 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.
Students bring personal experiences with the police into discussions about policing and racial injustice. Some students may have family members or loved ones who are police officers. Other students may have had negative or even violent interactions with police, or know someone who has. It is important to acknowledge the prior experiences students bring into the conversation. This Teaching Idea gives students an opportunity to reflect on the emotions and experiences that they and their classmates bring into this conversation, asks students to revisit their class contract and co-create norms to guide the discussion, and introduces the issue of bias in policing and the disproportionate use of force against Black Americans. This Teaching Idea also helps students make room for complexity in their conversations about policing by avoiding reductive generalizations about the behavior or intentions of police officers.
Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Get student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.
Begin by providing students with an overview of what you will be discussing in this Teaching Idea, such as the following:
Today we are going to be opening a conversation on policing and racism in the United States. This topic has been in the news in recent months, with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Talking about policing can bring up strong emotions, and it’s important to keep in mind during our discussions that we don’t always know who in our class has been impacted by this issue or who has family or loved ones who are police officers. We will start today with a journaling prompt to allow you to reflect on the emotions that you bring into this conversation.
Note: Discussing sensitive issues, such as policing and racism, with your students can be challenging, and requires first building a foundation of trust and shared norms with your class. We recommend you use our guide Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues that Matter? to help you prepare your class to engage meaningfully in this topic.
Ask students to reflect on the following prompt in their journals:
I mostly feel ______________ when discussing policing and racism, because ______________.
Tell students that they will not be asked to share their journal entries with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection.
Once students have finished writing, tell them that you are going to do a group brainstorm. Ask students to volunteer to share examples of feelings people might have when discussing police violence. They can choose to share the feeling they wrote down or another feeling they imagine others might experience. Students should not be required to share and should only share the feeling, without an explanation, at this time. Create a list of the feelings that students have mentioned.
Then, ask students to read the list of words and discuss the following as a class:
Remote Learning Note: Students can reflect in their journals individually and asynchronously. You may want to ask them to also complete the Iceberg Diagram in the following activity at the same time as they reflect in their journals. Then, ask students to share their reflections in response to both activities, either during a synchronous session or asynchronously in an online discussion forum.
In this activity, students explore how their identities and experiences shape their responses to police violence using an Iceberg Diagram. If your students have not already had an opportunity to explore the components of their identity in your class, consider asking them to complete an Identity Chart before they complete the rest of this activity.
Ask students to draw an Iceberg Diagram in their journals. At the tip of the iceberg, ask them to write the emotions they listed in response to the journal prompt in the first activity (I mostly feel ______________ when discussing policing and racism, because ______________.).
Then, ask students to elaborate on what gave rise to the feelings that they expressed in response to the prompt from the first activity. Their answers will likely be wide ranging and might include personal experiences, racial or other aspects of identity, family history, or knowledge of current events. Students should write these causes beneath the surface of the water on the diagram.
Give students an opportunity to anonymously share aspects of their identity or experiences that they wrote on their iceberg diagrams by asking them to write their responses on a piece of paper, which you can collect and rewrite on the board. Some students may wish to keep their responses entirely confidential, and no one should be required to share.
Remote Learning Note: Ask students to complete their Iceberg Diagram at the same time as they respond to the journal prompts in the previous activity. Then, ask students to share their reflections in response to both activities, either during a synchronous session or asynchronously in an online discussion forum. You can give students the opportunity to share aspects of their Iceberg Diagram responses with you before your discussion through email or private message, which you can then share anonymously with the class.
Before discussing policing more deeply with your students, it is important to revisit your classroom contract, or create one if you have not done so already. You can use our Contracting teaching strategy to co-create class norms with your students.
Review the norms in your contract with your students. Then, ask them:
Remote Learning Note: If you are teaching remotely, use our strategy Contracting for Remote Learning to help you create two contracts with your classes, one for in-person learning and one for remote learning. In addition to the discussion questions above, ask your students:
You can ask students to complete this activity during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in an online discussion forum.
It is important for students to understand the current problems surrounding policing, while also avoiding blanket generalizations about the behavior or intentions of police officers or any other group of people.
In the New Yorker article The Invention of the Police, historian Jill Lepore writes:
The crisis in policing is the culmination of a thousand other failures—failures of education, social services, public health, gun regulation, criminal justice, and economic development. Police have a lot in common with firefighters, E.M.T.s, and paramedics: they’re there to help, often at great sacrifice, and by placing themselves in harm’s way. To say that this doesn’t always work out, however, does not begin to cover the size of the problem. The killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, cannot be wished away as an outlier. In each of the past five years, police in the United States have killed roughly a thousand people. (During each of those same years, about a hundred police officers were killed in the line of duty.) . . . To say that many good and admirable people are police officers, dedicated and brave public servants, which is, of course, true, is to fail to address both the nature and the scale of the crisis and the legacy of centuries of racial injustice.1
Share that passage with your students as well as the following information about racial bias in policing:
(Note: To learn more about data on policing, visit the Washington Post’s Police Shootings Database, Stanford’s Open Policing Database, or listen to Ezra Klein’s podcast, Race, Policing, and the Universal Yearning for Safety.)
Then, ask students:
Remote Learning Note: You can use the Slides for this activity to share the passage from Jill Lepore’s article and the information about racial bias in policing with your students. Students can read both pieces individually and asynchronously and then discuss the questions during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in an online discussion forum.
In discussions about race and policing, some people argue that higher crime rates in Black communities are the reason why Black communities are policed more heavily than white communities. Some people also argue that higher crime rates explain why police use excessive force against Black Americans more often. The evidence does not support these arguments. While reported crime rates are higher on average in some predominantly Black communities than in some predominantly white communities, crime statistics cannot fully explain racial disparities in policing. If your students have questions about crime rates and crime data, you can share the following information with them:
Research shows that Black people in the United States are more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police for minor reasons and to experience excessive force during an encounter with the police.7
Crime data tells us about crimes that are reported, not about all the crimes that are committed. This is an important distinction, because if a community is policed more heavily, more of the crimes committed in that neighborhood are likely to be reported. Thus, policing one community more heavily than another can create a feedback loop, where more police are deployed because more crimes are reported, and more crimes are reported, since there is a greater police presence.8
We can see an example of how crime statistics can contain bias by looking at data on drug use and comparing it to data on drug arrests. Drug use is similar across all racial groups in the United States, but Black people and other people of color are more likely to be arrested on drug charges. If you looked only at crime data, it would seem to show that Black people and other people of color use drugs at higher rates, but research on behavior shows that this is not true.9
Sometimes people use the misleading term “Black-on-Black crime” to refer to crimes committed in predominantly Black communities. This term is problematic because it implies that crimes involving Black people are a unique phenomenon. In truth, most people who commit crimes do so in their own communities, and since communities in the United States are often segregated by race, most crimes involve perpetrators and victims of the same race. This phrase also reinforces harmful stereotypes associating Black people with crime, which are explored more fully in the second Teaching Idea in this series, The History of Slave Patrols, Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws.10