U.S. police shootings echo through criminology classrooms

November 28, 2016 6:03 AM EST

A protester yells at a police line shortly before shots were fired in a police-officer involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri August 9, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo


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By David Ingram

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A new crop of ads on New York City subway cars reads "Justice now, but justice how?" The words evoke the tone of street protests over police killings of black men across the United States during the past three years.

But the ads are not a plea from civil rights activists. They are a recruiting pitch from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. One of them reads, "If the system is ever going to change, this is the place where change will begin."

John Jay is one of a number of schools that are making academic changes in the wake of the high-profile killings of black men and boys by police in recent years in places like Cleveland, Chicago, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Ferguson, Missouri, that have fueled a debate about racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.

At the same time, police have been targeted by gunmen in places like Dallas, Baton Rouge, New York, Philadelphia and Des Moines, Iowa.

Scores of U.S. colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate course work in criminology. Graduates end up in a variety of jobs, from police detectives to social workers to corporate investigators.

Some schools, like the State University of New York at Albany, are trying to help more black, Hispanic and other minority researchers advance in their careers by creating jobs for those just out of graduate school.

One school, the University of California, Irvine, said it was considering a new course that would teach future police officers to empathize with people who have been arrested. Professors at other schools said they were changing how they address race in existing courses by adding material related to bias.

Some criminal justice professors may reorient their research to focus more on police-related deaths, said James Lynch, a University of Maryland professor and president of the American Society of Criminology. That is especially likely as the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department undertake a new effort to collect data on police use of force, he said.

"There's some change coming, and that's positive," Lynch said.

Not all schools offering criminology course work are making changes in light of recent events. But some, like John Jay, are making a direct appeal to a generation that has watched or even joined protests by groups like Black Lives Matter that criticize police use of force against minorities.

"We wanted to go out there with an ad campaign that's fierce, that's bold, that conveys the passions of our students and supports them," said Rama Sudhakar, a spokeswoman for John Jay, a college named after America's first chief justice.

'DRAGGED AWAY BY POLICE'

With police shootings in the news, some criminology students appear more willing to share personal experiences.

"Students are saying, 'I was racially profiled,' or, 'I saw my father dragged away by the police,'" said Teresa Dalton, who teaches criminology at the University of California, Irvine.

The criminal justice school at the State University of New York at Albany is adding six post-doctoral fellowships, temporary jobs for people who recently received doctoral degrees, for scholars who are minorities. William Pridemore, the school's dean, said the recent shootings motivated the push.

"In general in criminology we don't have a lot of minority scholars, and I think it's important that we change that," Pridemore said.

The University of California, Irvine is considering a course centered around the perspective of people who are arrested, rather than from the perspective of law enforcement, Dalton said. It would cover subjects such as obtaining bail and what it is like to be in jail.

"The purpose is to give cops perhaps a little more empathy in their discretionary decisions: You could arrest this person, or you could not arrest this person, but what will it mean?" she said.

Many police-related encounters involve officers and civilians of different races and backgrounds, so officers may benefit from learning about implicit bias, said Cory Haberman, a University of Cincinnati professor.

Implicit bias is a term used by social scientists to describe subtle associations or stereotypes that people make about groups, such as the idea that members of one race are more likely to be violent than those of another.

"These issues are definitely in the forefront of all the students' minds," said Haberman, who said he has added materials on implicit bias to a policing course he teaches.

Only about 15 percent of the 12,000 local U.S. police departments require officers to have attended college, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But many officers go. About 45 percent have at least a bachelor's degree and another 43 percent have taken some college courses, according to a 2015 research paper in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, citing survey data from 2007-2008.

Officers who went to college are significantly less likely to use force than officers who did not, according to a 2010 study published in the academic journal Police Quarterly.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)



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