How Do We Get Our Students to Become Cops?

August 21, 2014

Last week I sat riveted and horrified by the live feed coming out of Ferguson, Mo. Police advanced like shock troops against both protesting citizens and journalists doing their jobs. For days, no one in the police department of St. Louis County seemed to have any idea what to do, except bring out heavier and more intimidating equipment.

Facts have emerged about the Ferguson police that make some of this conflict more understandable—for example, only three of the 53 officers serving the mostly black suburb are black. But I also wondered how these officers view the situation. How did their leadership (mis)understand what was going on?

I spoke about it with a colleague in the sociology and anthropology department here at Wheaton College who has studied crime and race for many years. He noted reports following the riots of 1968 (nearly 50 years ago!) that explained the relationship between political disenfranchisement and violence. He talked about the insufficient training police officers receive in community relations and social dynamics. He noted the lack of nuance law-enforcement leaders regularly exhibit when they seek to explain complex social contexts.

History, social science, empathy. Complex problem solving, critical thinking, curiosity. These were patently missing from the police response in Ferguson. And these are exactly what we in liberal-arts colleges teach our students.

So how do we get our students to become cops?

I had a recent student, a bright and engaged young mind, who chose a few years ago to do a short ethnographic study of policing. He d rode along with a cop in a nearby suburb, interviewed the officer and several others, and observed the dynamics of police culture and those they served. He found the whole thing fascinating. But when I suggested that perhaps he’d found a career path, he brushed it off. "It was fun for a project," he said, "but I could never become a cop."

Why not?

My students want to serve. They want to make a difference in people’s lives. They often point to the social problems and underserved communities suffering from inept and unjust policing.

At the same time, police work has a reputation as blue-collar, almost grunt work. It’s masculine in traditional ways that can intimidate the bookish sort and offend the feminist. It has a kind of class context that my soon-to-be college graduates are seeking to avoid (or escape) rather than enter.

There needs to be a shift in who is recruited into law enforcement, and in how we in higher education talk about police work as a career.

The police should be actively recruiting my students because they have the skills and dispositions to become the kinds of leaders who will understand Ferguson and the thousands of communities like it. They should be seeking out majors in anthropology and sociology, students of literature, and physicists who graduate with liberal-arts backgrounds. These students know how to study new situations and understand them, read human behavior, and think critically about problems.

And we in the liberal arts should demonstrate the relevance and importance of law enforcement as a multifaceted career. We should be encouraging our graduates to consider as valid career fields jobs like prosecuting attorneys and public defenders, as well as officers on the beat with the potential to rise in rank and responsibility.

Our nation is becoming more complex and diverse. We need policemen and -women prepared to handle that. Training in tactical procedures and weapons use, without a comparable ability to think differently, learn quickly, and engage complexity, is an invitation for more chaos.

Brian Howell is an associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College in Illinois. A version of this essay originally appeared on Mr. Howell’s blog.