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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Law enforcement officers are frequently faced with situations—most often with juveniles, individuals suffering from mental problems, and people who are homeless—in which arrest is not the most appropriate action. Sometimes, a more positive outcome can be gained from alternative responses. But relying on one’s own discretion is not an easy call, especially for a new officer. Nor is it the right one unless it is free of bias and based on good judgement.
To encourage the kind of thinking that leads to the most judicious, humane, and effective policing—and as a result, better community relations—Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., (MPD) and Georgetown University’s Law Center have collaborated on a unique new workshop program called Police for Tomorrow.
The brainchild of Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University who became a reserve officer in the MPD in 2016, Police for Tomorrow was developed in response to the need for improving relationships between law enforcement and their communities, especially those of color.
Ms. Brooks, who jokes that her lifelong love of detective novels inspired her to join the MPD, became increasingly aware of the need for change during her time at the police academy. “I trained around the time of the Ferguson shooting, the riots, and the Dallas ambush. The racial divide between police and their communities seemed so vast and detrimental to both groups. And I thought that there should be a program dedicated to serious discussion of how we could improve relations between police and all the people in their communities.”
Designed to inspire and challenge new officers to be creative in their approach to law enforcement solutions, Police for Tomorrow is a two-year fellowship program focused on topics such as use of force, interactions with homeless individuals, handling disruptive teenagers, and mending frayed relations with minority communities.
Open to both sworn and civilian personnel who have been on the job for one year or less, the program comprises monthly workshops and community activities organized by faculty from Georgetown Law’s program on Innovative Policing.
Among the topics covered are new approaches to policing, current issues in criminal justice, the role of police in a diverse and democratic society, race and criminal justice, and the future of policing. Some workshops are led by speakers from community organizations, universities, and government, and all the fellows are offered an opportunity for mentoring by senior MPD personnel.
Through lively debate, mentoring, and the educational component, the fellows are encouraged to look for the underlying causes of problems and consider the long-term as well as immediate effects of their response to an illegal activity. In a typical workshop, they learned to not overreact to teenage orneriness by receiving a lesson in adolescent brain development from a psychiatrist, followed by a meeting with high school kids to talk about how they view police.
According to Ms. Brooks, the most powerful workshop so far was on homelessness, led by a former federal law enforcement officer who became homeless himself. “It was a mind-blowing talk about how frightening his nights on the street were; there wasn’t a dry eye in the group. Afterward, we visited a local homeless shelter. One of the fellows said ‘I didn’t really understand the situation of the homeless until now. I have a deeper sense of empathy and understanding of how my behavior can make things better or worse for them.’”
However, the most challenging topic is race. “Implicit bias is hard to understand,” says Ms. Brooks. “There are officers who have been racially profiled themselves and believe the whole system is rife with bias. But White officers often don’t see it; they say the only color they see is blue. We’ve had probing discussions of how race affects policing in our workshops.”
At the end of the program, the fellows complete a capstone project in community service or research. One put together a workshop on diversity and cultural competence; another did research on best practices in police academy training; but most did more service-oriented projects. All who finish the program receive a certificate from the Georgetown University Law Center Program on Innovative Policing.
The fellows are a diverse group—men and women who were selected based on their resumes, essays about law enforcement and social issues, and prior experience in community service. When asked how other agencies could successfully replicate the program, Ms. Brooks said that participation should be completely voluntary, an extra duty aside from the officer’s regular job: “You want people who really want to be there and engage.”
She also stressed the importance of ensuring that the environment is one in which officers feel comfortable about expressing their views, which is something young officers aren’t used to doing. “In addition to giving them a way to express their concerns, it gives the executives a chance to learn what they are really thinking and seeing,” she said.
Ms. Brooks and her teaching colleagues want to use Police for Tomorrow as a lab to develop similar programs for other municipalities and departments to use. We want to build up a library of materials anybody can use, a list of speakers, and other resources,” she said, adding that New Orleans has reached out to them and is hoping to do their first workshop soon. “It’s a good program for recruitment and retention purposes too,” she added.
When asked how to determine the effectiveness of the program, Ms. Brooks noted that it couldn’t be done with hard data such as crime statistics but that some departmental leaders say they have seen a positive change in the officers on the street and that they have gotten positive feedback from the community members. “For some, simply knowing about this program has in itself bolstered community trust,” she says.
Feedback from the fellows has been overwhelmingly positive, eliciting comments such as “It opened my mind to thinking outside the box.” and “The fact that MPD gave us this opportunity has changed my view of the agency’s future goals and makes me prouder to work for MPD.”
Department leaders have been equally positive. Said MPD Commander Ralph Ennis, “I sat in on some of the speakers‘ [presentations]. The students engaged in dialogue with them, asking complicated, probing questions. The program gets young officers thinking about our policies, decisions that have historically been made by high-level management. This makes them not only better suited to making good decisions in the community but [also] better qualified to explain these policies to other, newer officers.”
According to Ms. Brooks, policing has traditionally focused on arrests and what people cannot do. This program gets officers thinking outside the box and encourages empathy, leading the officer to see the person as well as the crime.
Commander Ennis offered this example of how it might change an officer’s approach. “If a woman is caught shoplifting baby formula, for instance, arresting her won’t solve what may be the real problem, [which is] her lack of money or family support. And the collateral damage—no baby food and the mother in jail—has a negative impact that outweighs justification for the arrest. We want officers who can come up with good solutions to the underlying causes of problems and build strong relationships with their communities. Programs like this can make that happen.”
Senior Technical Writer
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