First-Person Singular: My Students, the Police

It’s the first day of the semester at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and everyone is tense and a little scared. The professor, in this case…

It’s the first day of the semester at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and everyone is tense and a little scared. The professor, in this case me, hands out a syllabus and then describes the course—a basic English comp class—pointing out deadlines before asking the students to introduce themselves.

It’s a familiar but nerve-wracking ritual.

I am both humbled and horrified. How, I wonder, can these seemingly mild-mannered people show such reverence for law enforcement?

Typically, my classes consist of twenty-eight students between the ages of eighteen and forty-something. As they take turns saying their names, majors, and countries of origin, other students nod their heads in recognition or approval. By the end of the go-around, I’m racing to pin names to faces and intended fields of study.

But here’s another truth: After sixteen years of teaching, I’m continually stunned by how many students cite criminal justice, and policing, as their career goal.    

When I ask them to explain, they invariably say they are driven by a desire to help people. This group of American dreamers—from countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, China, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Palestine, Russia, and Syria—and a smattering of the U.S.-born—say that wearing the badge of the New York Police Department and taking an oath to serve and protect would be an immeasurable honor.

I am both humbled and horrified. How, I wonder, can these seemingly mild-mannered people show such reverence for law enforcement?

Over the years, I’ve seen students weep over the fate of a character we’ve met in a novel, lament the unfair treatment of a fictional person, and share their joy when justice is served. They’ve written essays that describe hardships in their countries of origin, then language barriers, a lack of access to medical care, and immigration woes once they emigrate. Still, they usually see these obstacles as temporary and express faith that they will succeed. Attending an American college like Kingsborough, they tell me, is the fulfillment of a dream long nurtured.

This makes their desire to join the New York City Police Department or work for other law enforcement agencies, all the more baffling. I ask myself: Can they possibly be unaware of the never-ending cascade of unprovoked police shootings and incidents of brutality that have become heinously routine?

I know, of course, that careers in criminal justice, while not lucrative, are union jobs with health benefits, paid vacation, tuition reimbursements, and pensions. This has to appeal to many of Kingsborough’s 19,000 students, folks with a median household income of $47,996, a full 70 percent of them low income.

“Historically, government jobs are the route to the middle class, especially for African Americans,” Stuart Parker, assistant professor of sociology at Kingsborough, tells me. “A lot of our students are looking for a job that appears to be steady. They’re trying to figure out what to do in an environment that seems to offer a dearth of choices.”

Under the NYPD’s current contract, rookie officers earn a starting salary of $42,500. Five-and-a-half years down the road, they’ll make $85,292. This is a far cry from the minimum wage that most Kingsborough students—almost all of whom work full time while attending school—are currently paid.

Completing college does not guarantee that police will behave responsibly or without rancor. Derek Chauvin, after all, earned a degree in law enforcement in 2006 from Minnesota’s Metropolitan State University.

But the decision to become a police officer is not just about money, says my former student, NYPD officer Jonathan C., who asked that his full surname not be used. I’ve known Jonathan, now a married father of one, for more than a decade; we’ve stayed in touch through Facebook. He’s a good man: thoughtful, kind, smart, empathetic, and hard working.

An NYPD officer since 2016, he tells me that he loves the job because it is never routine. I then ask if he is bothered by the many cases of excessive force and other police misconduct that have repeatedly occurred, drawing protesters to the streets.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re an officer or not, the law should be upheld, and the violators should be brought to justice,” Jonathan tells me. “Most of my co-workers saw the video of George Floyd being killed and we felt disgusted because that situation makes all officers look bad, even the good ones.”

Jonathan further believes that Derek Chauvin and his Minneapolis police colleagues should be held accountable. Nonetheless, he draws the line between Floyd’s horrific death and the demands of Black Lives Matter and police abolitionists.

“Black Lives Matter groups fuel hate and disdain for police officers and authority,” he says. “I get their intentions, but defunding the police means that high-crime communities all over the country will suffer. Like many fields, policing includes good people and bad people, good cops and bad cops.”

For Jonathan, as for many police defenders, it’s a matter of weeding out a few “bad apples”—officers who are hot-headed, impulsive, or racist—while leaving the overall system intact. Hearing this, I bristle at the lack of recognition of the systemic problems that let racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia go unchecked, and allow brutality to flourish.

Still, I’d like to think that I can play a small role in turning out better officers, that helping people interested in law enforcement earn a college degree, with exposure to classes in the liberal arts, is worth the effort.  

Perhaps it’s naïveté, but I hold onto research that suggests that having a college diploma—regardless of major—can have a demonstrable impact on stemming police abuse and violence. One 2010 study, in fact, found that college-educated officers are 40 percent less likely to use force and 30 percent less likely to fire their guns than those with less education.

What’s more, the study affirmed that college-educated officers demonstrated better critical thinking, were more open to diversity, and exhibited better moral reasoning than those without a degree.

But completing college does not guarantee that police will behave responsibly or without rancor. Derek Chauvin, after all, earned a degree in law enforcement in 2006 from Minnesota’s Metropolitan State University.

It’s unsettling, all of it. But no matter my reservations, the so-called criminal justice system is a major employer, and students who want to work in this field deserve respect and need to be seen as the individuals they are. Whether I like it or not, millions of Americans will continue to be employed in criminal justice agencies for the foreseeable future; last year alone, 697,195 were police officers.

I believe they should be well trained. And well educated.

Unfortunately, the requirements for entering law enforcement do not reflect this—with most police departments requiring nothing more than a high school diploma or GED. According to the National Police Foundation, fewer than a third of sworn officers have a four-year degree, although slightly more than half have a two-year degree.

Chauvin notwithstanding, I steadfastly believe that attending college—which is about more than simply preparing someone for the job market—is a social good. As my Kingsborough colleague Jason Leggett, an assistant professor in the department of history, philosophy, and political science, points out, new ideas can sway students to consider previously unimagined fields of study. It can also help to demystify policing and criminal justice more broadly.

Along the way, racist ideas and white supremacy can be deconstructed, prodding those who listen well to consider the ways that prejudicial ideas about people of color and the poor have been undermined and intimidated by law enforcers.  

“Students who watch a lot of police shows on TV see situations and responses that don’t exist in real life,” Leggett explains. “After 9/11, a lot of people wanted to become firefighters and police officers to fight terrorists, and I continue to see the hangover from that. Plus, some students have family in the police department and may want to continue that legacy.”

“It’s worth mentioning,” he continues, “that as they study, many students change their minds about joining the police force and instead go on to become social workers, teachers, or health-care professionals.” Hearing classmates talk in personal terms, about what it was like to be stopped, frisked, or arbitrarily questioned by police, Leggett adds, can upend their plans, causing them to seek other ways to contribute to bettering their communities.   

We can hope. But I also have to believe that even for those students who are not dissuaded, the experience of attending college, including taking literature classes like mine, will make them better cops, prison guards, or probation officers. Experience tells me that when students immerse themselves in a text, they begin to understand other worlds and other realities. Imagined borders disappear.

In addition, college-educated students see the ways psychology, ethics, history, politics, and language intersect. I’ve seen this rattle many a worldview, including my own, and tear previously held biases asunder. Indeed, books can nudge us toward greater compassion, empathy, honesty, and integrity. They can also encourage us to use our emotional intelligence to benefit others.   

As another semester draws to a close, I hope my students will remember the novels and essays we’ve read and incorporate the values we’ve discussed into their personal and professional lives. My hope is that even if they opt to join the NYPD, their education will have given them a better-developed ethical foundation on which to hook their badges. It’s the only optimism I’ve been able to conjure. I hold it dear.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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