Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Art Knight still talks about the time he and his grandfather got a tongue-lashing from a white cop for the “crime” of being black and walking into a general store in 1960s Mississippi.
“Boy, what’s your ass doing here?” the officer snarled at his grandfather, before booting them out.
Years later, after he became a police officer himself, Knight was driving to the funeral of a relative when he was pulled over by a state trooper. As the white trooper walked up to his window, Knight braced for a confrontation.
“I just assumed that he was going to be like that cop that talked to my grandfather that way,” he said. The officer instead sent him on his way with no ticket. “I think about that — I’m a cop and I feel that way.”
His audience on a recent morning was 22 cadets in a classroom filled with motivational posters at Minneapolis’ police training facility.
Knight said his point was this: In dealing with police or the courts, people tend to remember the little things. Was the officer polite to them? Were they treated fairly? Did they feel like they were heard?
Knight said he thinks training officers to be more compassionate is a great idea, but argued that police could benefit from a better understanding of past injustices and violence against certain groups, namely African-Americans.
“If you guys think the Jamar Clark incident is why all those people are upset, you have another thing coming — that’s the tipping point, there’s been so much injustice,” Knight said, referring to the protests that arose after the police shooting two years ago of Clark, an unarmed black man.
At the training facility, instructors talked to cadets about being sensitive to people they encounter. Officer Alice White, one of five instructors in the department’s procedural justice unit, advised cadets they can act in a “procedural just way” in dealing with someone accused of a serious crime, like a shooting or a rape.
“So, I am going to respect someone who I just arrested for raping someone or for shooting someone?” White asked, anticipating a question that came up at past training sessions. No, she said, but they can still remain courteous — even when using force to subdue an unruly suspect.
“Taking the time to listen to someone doesn’t have to affect your discretion,” said White, adding that officers who did so reported feeling less job stress and benefited from better cooperation from citizens in solving crimes. They also were the target of fewer complaints, she said.
“This wasn’t ‘community policing,’ ” White told the class. Nor, for that matter, was it “verbal judo,” “hug a thug” or some other “soft-on-crime” strategy, which any hardened street cop will tell you amounts to giving lawbreakers a pass, she said.
For the trainers, the session was also an opportunity to learn what the rookies had been told about the training. “That we are going to be called racists for eight hours,” responded one cadet — Knight’s son.
The cadet class, set to graduate next month, was the latest group to go through the training, divided into eight-hour sessions over three days. The second day of training is scenario-based, while on the last day, officers are taught to recognize and work around hidden biases.
In 2014, Minneapolis was among the first cities in the country to offer procedural justice training, recommended by former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as one way police departments can reform, joining the likes of Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and Stockton, Calif.
Others followed suit.
A Los Angeles civilian oversight body called on the LAPD to roll out the training departmentwide, including teaching officers to render aid to someone they used force against, when it’s safe to do so. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently credited the training program with both reductions in crime and in complaints of police abuse.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said that procedural justice, introduced by his predecessor, Janeé Harteau, has become part of the department’s DNA.
“We found that we had some cancerous cells within our organization that had caused harm to our communities,” Arradondo said, while speaking at a national policing conference last summer. As an example, he pointed to another policy enacted by Harteau last year that required officers to address transgender and gender-nonconforming people with their preferred pronouns.
“If my driver’s license says ‘Rondo,’ but I’m telling you as an officer, please refer to me as ‘Sheila,’ have that respect and dignity,” Arradondo says in a video of the conference posted online.
Lessons from history
During the training, cadets watched videos from law enforcement’s Hall of Shame.
They watched as police officers stood idly by as blacks were abducted from prisons and lynched in the Jim Crow era, or attacked demonstrators with cattle prods during “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
They learned about how federal marshals had to be called in to escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges past screaming crowds after local police defied a court’s order to integrate the all-white New Orleans public school in 1960.
“We wear the same badge and take the same oath that those officers did,” said Knight, who before being promoted to deputy chief earlier this year ran the procedural justice unit. “Can you imagine if you had a family member that was beaten by the police or lynched by the police? How would you feel?”
The idea of procedural justice is not new, based in part on the writings of Yale University law Prof. Tom R. Tyler, who argued in his seminal 1990 book “Why People Obey the Law” that people follow the law only because they see it as fair, not out of fear of punishment. This, Tyler concluded, was based in large part on how they felt they were treated.
Dignity and respect
But not everyone is sold on the idea just yet.
Restoring community trust is more complicated than simply asking officers to take a kinder, gentler approach, said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
“If you’re still using excessive force, for example, [merely] explaining why you’re using that force isn’t necessarily going to help people feel like they’re experiencing procedural justice,” said Nelson. “There’s so many different factors to the distrust that people have of police, it’s just one of many things that needs to happen.”
Studies have credited the approach with improving relations with the public, but its impact in lowering crime rates remains less clear. Some critics also cast doubt on whether the training has any effect on the split-second decisions officers often have to make on the job.
Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that studies police issues, said he thinks law enforcement could benefit from more interpersonal training.
“There’s just so many uncertainties in human behavior … but how police officers deal with those situations and the outcome will speak volumes about dignity, respect, trust and confidence with the police,” he said.
Departments across the country are rethinking decades of tough-on-crime policies and embracing “fair and impartial” policing philosophies, he said, even as Trump is pressing for more aggressive policing.
Minneapolis officials cautioned that it was still too early to see a shift in the department, but they remain hopeful there will be positive results down the road.
Glenn Burt, the only civilian in the five-person procedural justice unit, said that while the training may be slower to catch on with more seasoned officers, it is stressed from day one for the department’s newest hires.
“So for them, this is mother’s milk,” Burt said at a recent community meeting in northeast Minneapolis. “From day one, they’re going to be taught procedural justice. They’re going to be expected to practice procedural justice.”