Column: It's time for action on police education and training

(Courtesy photo) The graduating class of the Police Academy at Northern Essex Community College in April 2019 comprised 72 student police officers representing 26 departments.

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, handcuffed, on the ground, and in custody, at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, was reprehensible and senselessly tragic.

It was also, as declared in an open letter from the U.S. Major Cities Chiefs Association, signed by dozens of police chiefs from America’s largest cities, “by any measure of professional policing unnecessary, avoidable and criminal.”

The Massachusetts Police Chiefs have also made a similar declaration “strongly denouncing the egregious behavior exhibited by the Minneapolis police officers leading to the tragic death of George Floyd.”

As the nation, already struggling with one of the greatest health care and economic crises we have ever faced, has spent the days since Floyd’s death grappling with our collective history of racism and injustice, otherwise peaceful protests in major cities across the country, including Boston, have turned into scenes of angry riots, violence and destruction.

Nearly all of the protesters in those cities have been rightfully expressing their outrage and demanding change in non-violent ways, while an isolated group of destructive agitators have infiltrated the peaceful demonstrations to take advantage of their pain to burn, to steal and to inflict harm.

The vast majority of police officers respect their careers. They take their oaths as a higher calling to uphold the law and to protect those they serve, even as some violate those oaths, disregard the law and cause harm themselves — to the dismay and disappointment of those who are committed to their profession.

Police and protesters across the country are finding common ground. They all want to stop these senseless, avoidable, criminal acts from happening again.

There is more that we can not only say, but do, to get there; and for us, it begins with reforms in education, training and public policy.

Education is the key to overcoming generational cycles of racism and poverty that still push African-American, Latinx and other communities of color to the margins of American society; and it is the key to improving the knowledge, behavior and responses of police officers at critical moments.

Several national studies have demonstrated the value of postsecondary education for policing by showing that college educated police officers have better communication skills and a better comprehension of civil rights issues from multiple perspectives; receive fewer complaints and disciplinary actions; and are less likely to use deadly force, among other benefits.

While many departments, municipalities or entire states have implemented increased educational requirements, or at least enhanced options for educational requirements, there is currently no statutory or regulatory minimum educational requirement for police officers in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, with the exception of communities whose officers are covered by Civil Service requirements of a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.

Higher education and law enforcement leaders have been working closely together to improve police education and training and move us in the right direction.

The Police Academy at Northern Essex Community College — launched in 2015 as a partnership with the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee and the police departments of Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, North Andover and Amesbury — has become one of the largest municipal academies in the state, with a current class of nearly 90 cadets and over 400 graduates working in dozens of departments across the commonwealth.

In addition to receiving their necessary academy training, recruits can earn up to nine credits toward an associate’s degree in criminal justice at Northern Essex.

The police certification concentration at Fitchburg State University is a five-year program, also partnering with the Municipal Police Training Committee, that allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in criminal justice, as well as certification to serve as a police officer in Massachusetts.

And in 2017, a group of police chiefs, educators, state and municipal leaders served on a special Massachusetts Department of Higher Education task force on police education and training that developed a number of important recommendations — some of which have been implemented, while others still await action.

Here are some specific steps that elected officials and leaders in higher education and law enforcement can take, separately and together, to keep this momentum moving, to fight the scourges of racism and economic inequality, and to ensure the most professional and capable police education and training possible:

-> Colleges should examine every institutional policy and practice, especially recruitment, admissions, and financial aid, to ensure they are providing the widest possible access to higher education, especially for low income and minority applicants.

—> Colleges should also rigorously examine data on outcomes like retention and graduation rates. They should close the gaps in student success, particularly between low income and minority students, and more affluent white students.

—> Colleges, police departments and agencies like the Municipal Police Training Committee should work collaboratively to offer more training academies that are integrated with higher education opportunities, with a particular emphasis on recruiting people of color into careers in law enforcement.

—> The Legislature should pass, and Gov. Charlie Baker should approve, House Bill 2146: “A Bill Forming a Special Commission to Create a Statewide Peace Officer Standards and Training System.” Massachusetts is one of only six states that doesn’t license police officers under a common system, which can make it difficult to regulate training requirements as well as hiring standards.

—> The Legislature should pass, and Gov. Baker should approve, House Bill 3810: “An Act Relative to Police Education and Training,” which would require a minimum of an associate’s degree in criminal justice or a related field for all police officers in the commonwealth.

Now is a time for caring and compassion, for peaceful demonstrating and for protesting against criminal behavior that we cannot tolerate for another day.

Most importantly, it is a time to take action so we never find ourselves in this place again.

Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College. Brian Kyes is the police chief of the city of Chelsea and president of the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police. Paul Tucker represents the 7th Essex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and is former police chief in Salem, Mass.

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