A Plea for Police-Academic Relationships

Practitioner, teacher, researcher?

Early in my career, I envisioned a police department in which the officers would become experts in human behavior, relational experts. This is what I experienced in my years in Minneapolis. At night I was a tactical officer and during the day a university student. I quickly understand that much of what goes wrong in policing happens when police are unable to effectively understand what is really going on and how to effectively respond to the various behaviors they encountered on the job.

To me, it became vital that police have access to and understand current research regarding the field of human behavior and proper methods to handle people who are disturbed, angry, grief-stricken, or intoxicated without having to resort to physical force.

Or, if physical force is necessary, to use it judiciously and humanely. Sir Robert Peel knew this over 150 years ago when the field of psychology was in its infancy. As an educated man, he knew that the proper handling of people by police led to public approval of police actions and public cooperation.

For police to become experts in human behavior, however, they need to cultivate an ongoing training and research relationship with academics in this area and should be eager and willing partners with them. In the past, this has not been the case—new information and research seldom trickled down to police, and police tended not to seek it out.

It is precisely the lack of these kinds of connections with academia that has severely limited the growth and ability of police in this crucial area of their work life. In fact, it has arrested their development.

“The negative spirit of anti-intellectualism presents itself in a number of ways in American policing. It begins with low educational standards for police applicants. Then in police training as the classroom curricula are more oriented towards high school than college. Within police operations, new ideas and creative approaches are neither sought nor encouraged. When it comes to police operations, traditionally-based past-experience is valued more highly than research or experience gained by others outside the field—even if it works.

“The only way this obstacle is going to be overcome is requiring our nation’s police to have an academically rigorous four-year college education before they are sent into the field. In addition, police departments must have an on-going academic relationship with a college or university in order to bring together academics and practitioners. The two can then work together to develop, test, and share the most effective methods of policing. This would eventually result in police officers spending time in classrooms and doing research and academics teaching in the training academy and walking a beat.” [From “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off…”]

The point I was trying to make in my book was this: police need to have a clinical/academic relationship with a university so that those who teach policing can understand the nature of the task and those who practice policing will understand the academic underpinnings of the police role and come to appreciate the relationships between research and practice.

What I visualize is eventually an on-going relationship (and interchange) between practitioners and academics in the fields of teaching and research; that is, teachers and researchers would spend some time in the field doing various police tasks and police officers would spend time teaching and doing research. Both would benefit.

While these may be heady thoughts, it is precisely how many of our nation’s professions emerged. As long as police do not understand the important relationships between practice, technique, teaching and research, they will always be in the backwater of American life and their development arrested.

For over 50 years, the University of Wisconsin presented a police course to its law students. For most of those years, it was taught by Prof. Herman Goldstein and more recently by Prof. Michael Scott (who was once a Madison police officer and also served as a chief of police in Florida). Now Prof. Scott is moving on and it appears the university law school has abandoned the course.

For many years, law students rode with police and served as interns. Faculty from the law and sociology taught in the police academy, went on ride-alongs, and consulted with police leaders. The “Wisconsin Idea” is that the border of the university is the border of the state. It means that the university contributes to the well-being of the state.

“The Wisconsin tradition meant more than a simple belief in the people. It also meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society. It meant a deep conviction that the role of government was not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge and understanding it could find.” — Adlai Stevenson

In response to this situation, a number of us in the area representing academics, police, alumni and community members have come together to convince university officials that this a police course not only needs to be available to law students, but also that there be a greater relationship developed between police practitioners and academics in law, sociology, political science, and psychology.

What I hope for is the kind of program I outline above.

It will be a giant step forward for police in our state and in America.



  1. If cops were really human experts, they would not be sending innocent people to prison even though their intuition informs them that they got the wrong man. If cops were experts, they would not having problems with people of different social, political, economic, racial, ethnic, religious, etc., backgrounds.

    The problem with the cops is that they have no sense of American political, social, and economic history of this country nor do they care to know about the history of those areas I have mention. They don’t read books by Howard Zinn, Norm Chomsky, Thom Hartmann and other progressive writers. about the dark side of American history. Many of these cops came from poor economic backgrounds and they still can’t connect the dots regarding injustice in this country by committed by corporations and wealthy people.


  2. (Gunther) Your declaration, “The problem with the cops is that they have no sense of American political, social, and economic history of this country nor do they care to know about the history of those areas I have mention.”, if true, would require you to prove how you know what all cops think or care about. The next sentence indicates that you have knowledge of what all “cops” read or have read, do you have any evidence that establishes how you know what all cops have read?

    No man is perfect or above criticism. To suggest that reading Zinn, Chomsky and Hartmann, who each write from a distinct point of view, would somehow lead ignorant “cops” to be enlightened is simplistic because it indicates that these men are the last word without examining the validity of any of their assertions. The history of the United States certainly has a dark side however, so does the history of the entire world. I doubt that any group of humans can claim they have never transgressed against their neighbors. In your last sentence, are you implying that poor people are stupid because they haven’t connected the “dots” in exactly the same way as you?

    The intellectual method is certainly an important tool for establishing what is true and what works. However, there are many instances where people, who are experts in their fields, like linguistics or history, feel themselves qualified to claim expert credentials in all fields of human endeavor. There is also evidence that some “intellectuals” become enamored with their intellect and reach a point where they no longer feel the need to support their assertions with evidence—- I think it, everyone I hang with thinks it– therefore it is true.

    Reason is preferred. However, there are instances where reason is a player benched by one side or the other in an interaction. Once reason is benched give up any notion of changing the other person’s position. Depending on the nature of the interaction you must prepare to run or defend yourself. If you are a police officer, you have to consider if that person broke some law or is perhaps a danger to themselves or others. If you are a police officer, there are times when you can’t walk away, you must take action. If you are a police officer, you have learned that is impossible to wrestle a mad man (mad woman) and look perfectly reasonable.

    “Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.”

    Sergeant Kilrain
    (Fictional Character in the film “Gettysburg”)

    At the center of pretty much every major tragedy is a Harvard man- (Dr. T. Sowell, Paraphrased)


    1. “Sgt Kilrain,” thanks for expanding the discussion. This is the kind of dialogue that is often needed in our communities and between folks. For me, Voltaire, speaking during the “Age of Reason,” has been on my mind for many, many years. And that is the ability to dialogue with one another and be able to say that we disagree, but that we would defend to the death your right to say it.


  3. Reblogged this on Improving Police and commented:

    A number of us in Madison attempted to get this idea into a reality at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It seems that after a couple of meeting with interested police, citizens and faculty members the idea has died.

    This is a sad situation and I simply have too many other pressing interests to carry this touch. Perhaps someone will. Maybe not in Madison, but, perhaps some other progressive area.

    It is an idea whose time has come. It is the future of policing.


  4. I agree that we need more research in policing. Based on my personal experience I recommend we take the long view. We need more officers to pursue graduate and terminal degrees. Much of the criticism of academia for being detached from reality is well deserved. I had a career in policing and earned my Ph.D. I retired and now teach, research, and supervise graduate research in policing. Academia will not change for us, we must change academia.

    We need to be prepared for the consequences. For example, PERF’s recommendation for use of the Critical Decision-Making Model is not supported by cognitive research. We know that under stress humans do not engage in rational problem solving. Recognition Primed Decision-Making is a much better supported model. Humans sitting at desks and in meetings write down rational problem solving models that have face validity, but not much more.

    Much of PERF’s recent recommendations is not supported by research. I don’t propose the paralysis of analysis, but there are bodies of research that should inform our actions while we pursue an aggressive agenda of researching policing.


  5. Here are a couple of links that provide an overview of RPD:


    Click to access Klein_1989_AMMSR_RPDM.pdf

    For more in depth reading on RPD I recommend Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

    Here is a link for an interview with Klein, it’s a little more focused on economic decision-making but, the only people who think outside the box are people outside the box.

    I also recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

    Here is a link to a quick video:

    The literature on cognitive science is quite well developed and the literature on neuroscience is developing. There is much in each domain that should inform us on how to better prepare officers for the challenges they will face in the field.


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