Law enforcement’s big picture

After George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer, Pat Nelson was worried about her students. 

The Floyd incident happened on May 25, and within weeks Nelson, chair of Minnesota State University, Mankato’s law enforcement program, reached out to her students. 

“She said, ‘I understand this is a really hard time and many of you might be questioning if this is something you want to continue with,’” says Emma Wax, a senior in law enforcement. “She reassured us, made us feel confident that we are good people, and that the people who graduate from this program are going to be out there making a change.” 

Nelson’s email to law enforcement students was sent at a pivotal time. Not only did faculty wish to reassure students that the program cared about them, but the program itself was about to undergo the kind of self-assessment few programs ever attempt.  

Pat Nelson is the Law Enforcement program chair at Minnesota State University. She has taught at the university since 2012 and served as the department chair since 2017.

President Richard Davenport, Interim Provost Matt Cecil and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Henry Morris formed a work group to conduct a review of the law enforcement, corrections and criminal justice programs “in response to the police violence and community reactions that occurred in Minneapolis and across the nation,” their report read. The unique part: The review was to include public input and feedback. The overall understanding:And Rising to the moment here will require more than mere window dressing. 

The results 

The final document contained a wide range of changes coming to the program. Morris says two of the most important recommendations are: 1) exposing students to diverse communities, and 2) teaching them that the history of policing varies widely depending on who you are. 

“Many of the students who go into our program come from homogeneous communities,” Morris says. “And then we ask them to police in multicultural communities. Sometimes that’s a stretch. A lot of times the first interaction they may have with somebody different may be in a policing situation. So how do we give them that opportunity to interact with communities and hopefully see the people there as real people, not somebody to be afraid of.” 

A key component of holistic education for future law enforcement officers, Morris says, is understanding that everyone’s story—especially as it pertains to law enforcement—is different. People from predominantly white communities have no concept of what it feels like for people of color during dealings with law enforcement. The program’s goal will be to help everyone understand there are multiple perspectives. 

“White supremacy means your story is the only story,” Morris says. “We want students in the program to know there are other stories out there. Your story is true for you. But it may not be true for everybody.” 

Law enforcement professor Carl Lafata agrees, and says he’s seen glimpses of this phenomenon in his classes. Lafata, a military veteran, served as a police officer for more than 15 years with the Michigan State Police and the Pacific Grove, Calif. police department. 

“When everyone in your little sphere has the exact same background, it’s very easy for us to coalesce into ‘us,’” he says. “The purpose of a program like ours should be to broaden those horizons, get them out of their comfort zones and hear voices that are different than their own.” 

Morris says the goal is to give students additional history education on policing in diverse communities. The program will be amended to include internships that include interactions with communities of color.  

“So it isn’t just interning with a police department, it is interning with some group that predominantly deals with multicultural communities,” Morris says. 

Critical thinking 

A key distinction must be made in law enforcement between education and training. Training is what happens after a student graduates with a degree. Before they can go to work for a law enforcement agency they must complete an 8-week “skills” program, where they’re taught things like shooting firearms, tactical driving, how to arrest people, etc. 

“There’s a huge difference between training and education. Huge difference. And the problem we run into in law enforcement is we equate the two, we conflate the two,” Lafata says. “Law enforcement tends to like easy answers, but much of what law enforcement deals with on a daily basis defies easy answers.” 

During their time at the University, by contrast, students learn on a macro scale. And during the last few years faculty have modified the program to make it more cerebral. 

“So even before the George Floyd incident, we’ve been making some smaller changes,” Nelson says. “We really wanted to make sure they were getting more critical thinking instead of just teaching them how to be a cop. We’ve expanded to give them more theory courses, more courses that involved in-depth thinking.” 

During the public listening sessions from the post-George Floyd review, they got a lot of good questions from the public—and some vented about police brutality. But the sessions also gave faculty a chance to educate the public about how progressive the program already is. 

“We got a lot of ‘You should teach people how to communicate with people with mental illness,’ ‘You should teach people the history of policing in the United States,’ ‘You should be teaching people how to interact with people who have experienced trauma.’ And many times when that started coming up, we’d say, ‘We do that in this course and this course,’” Nelson says. “It showed us we need to do different descriptions on some of the courses.” 

Lafata has recently authored a textbook for use in his Law Enforcement and Human Behavior course that addresses topics such as de-escalation, stress, and serving those living with mental illness and suffering from trauma. 

Some things are beyond a university law enforcement program’s control, such as the varying degrees of training required to work as a licensed peace officer. Minnesota requires a 2- or 4-year degree plus the 8-week skills training. (Minnesota State contracts with Hibbing Community College to offer the state-mandated skills training course to its law enforcement program students.) Some states, such as California and Michigan, have similar education requirements but more stringent training standards. Others, such as Arkansas, require very little education and training. 

Bad apples … 

Law enforcement occasionally attracts people who shouldn’t be there. And it’s nearly impossible to weed out all of the people with temperaments ill-suited to enforcing laws and carrying guns. 

Both Lafata and Nelson said the vast majority of students in the law enforcement program have bright futures. But law enforcement in general still has a problem in that it attracts a certain element that enjoys the “warrior” aspects of the job. There is, in fact, a popular training model called “Warrior Training,” which emphasizes personal safety over community safety and trains officers to treat every call as a potentially deadly encounter. 

Modern policing, Lafata says, requires a much more nuanced and highly trained individual. 

“The challenge becomes: How do we get officers to see the job as the profession they want it to be, and a job that requires a true Renaissance person that has the emotional maturity to flip on the switch and be a warrior one minute, a counselor the next, turn the dial and be a caretaker, turn the dial and take care of the little old lady who might have been financially abused by her family. If the job is just about using force, then you’re not going to take those other types of calls seriously.” 

While not a cure-all, the new changes should help. And the quick action to respond to the George Floyd killing has students glad they chose Minnesota State Mankato. 

“It definitely made me proud of my decision,” says Wax. “For our program to realize there’s an issue and publicly come out and say they’re willing to change and wanting to change, it made me really happy with my decision.” 

Student Jack Breitbach agreed. 

“It’s reassuring that I chose a school that takes pride in its students and cares about what they’re learning on campus, but also about leading them into a great career,” Breitbach said. “It’s reassuring that my professors are looking out for us.”