By: Dr. Deborah Louis, EKU College of Justice and Safety
An article on NPR’s website last fall entitled “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester” (Errin Whack, Nov 9, 2015) caught my attention. Several years ago, Dr. Victor Kappeler, former Criminal Justice Department Chair and current Dean of CJS, asked me to design a new course offering on police-community relations, recognizing the increasing level of public and institutional concern regarding policing practices in the U.S. and anticipating the intensification of these concerns. The result was the addition of Policing and Civil Society as a regularly scheduled “Special Topic in Policing,” which has been offered yearly since.
While the course content addressed by the article specifically focused on the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the Policing and Civil Society course utilized at EKU encompasses a broader range of race- and class-related issues in law enforcement today. These include contrasting definitions, philosophies, and expectations of policing as they are experienced and applied in different jurisdictions; alternative modes of policing and their differential impact on and outcomes in the communities they serve; and the ethical dilemma faced by many law enforcement personnel in respect to just whom they are directed to “protect and serve.”
In many ways this topic reminds me of the old academic debate in Political Science as to whether community power structures in the U.S. reflect the “elite” or “pluralist” model of power relations, prompted by the contrasting conclusions of very similar studies conducted in New Haven and Atlanta. Those of us “newbies” in graduate school during this period were able to see the fallacy of the warring viewpoints’ passionate opposition. The fact is, both of these models are reflected in communities across the country.
The fact is that law enforcement structures, policies, and behaviors differ in the same way from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and to apply a blanket characterization to all of them clouds both the genuine issues of concern in a diverse, democratic society and our ability to address them effectively.
EKU’s College of Justice and Safety, however, has been preparing both active and future practitioners in all three components of the justice system—police, courts, and corrections—to understand and meet the complex policy choices and challenges with which they will be confronted, many of which have race and class at the center. Its core course Diversity and Criminal Justice, and a newer offering Diversity In Corrections, both address directly the overrepresentation of nonwhites, particularly African Americans, in the justice system, and their causes and consequences. I found it especially interesting to note, both of these courses require (among others) Angela Davis ‘s Are Prisons Obsolete? as a basic text and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as supplementary reading, which are the two texts used in the “Ferguson” course.