Violent police officers aren’t born that way. They come to learn violent behavior through experience, culture and education.
And as the university that trains more police officers than any other in the state, Minnesota State University must shoulder some responsibility for a police-state culture that threatens civil society.
We believe law enforcement training, like law enforcement itself, must undergo significant structural and cultural change. MSU has an opportunity to lead the way.
The recent willingness of MSU to subject its law enforcement program to public scrutiny via town hall forums represents a good first step to examine not only its curriculum but its educational culture.
On the surface, the curriculum looks comprehensive; yet the results of police training or lack thereof raise its ugly head with every incident of police brutality against people of color. So there’s a disconnect between training and outcomes.
While MSU cannot reasonably control how an officer performs their job after leaving MSU, an obvious lack of training or poor performance on the part of one of its graduates will inevitably reflect on the program.
That was the case with the 2016 killing of Philando Castile by officer Jeronimo Yanez, a 2010 MSU graduate. Yanez and his partner on the St. Anthony police department, Joseph Kauser, were both MSU students who were recognized with the school’s top award, the Baton of Honor.
So a review of the program is not only necessary for accountability but critical for credibility.
The recent town hall meeting produced a number of salient questions. The public wondered what kind of training officers receive on the history of racism and its relation to law enforcement. They wondered if there was a test to see if students were physically and psychologically fit to enter the stressed-filled profession. They asked if officers are schooled on mental health and dealing with those in crisis.
The answer seemed to be a qualified yes from panelists including professor Pat Nelson, who teaches law enforcement classes and is chair of the MSU Department of Government. A substantial amount of time is spent on training for diversity, mental health issues and suicide prevention, she said.
And a look at the course requirements for an MSU law enforcement degree bear that out to some extent.
But curriculum, no matter how well-meaning, is not a prescription for training officers for the real-world, volatile situations they can face on a daily basis.
Beyond curriculum, other panelists, including MSU Vice President of Diversity Henry Morris, and corrections professor Sherrise Truesdale-Moore, emphasized a need for real-world experiences in diversity for students and recruiting more students and faculty of color.
We agree with Truesdale-Moore that students must get some experience with communities of color, whether volunteering with some community organization or attending neighborhood meetings. They must get a comfort level with a variety of people, including those of color, before they graduate.
While the program has a Policing in a Diverse Society class, we believe it should devote a class to the history of police brutality and racism with a sharper focus on real-life scenarios and current case histories.
MSU brands itself as a university with “Big Ideas. Real World Thinking.” Now it must deliver on those principles by reshaping its law enforcement program to respond not to the smaller idea of “policing” but the new realities of “public safety.”