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.