Should Philly Police Recruits Learn African-American History at the Academy?

Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney thinks so.

There’s been plenty of evidence recently that the relationships between police officers and citizens throughout the nation are, to put it mildly, strained. (If you’ve been living under a rock, see: the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island, and Brandon Tate-Brown in Philadelphia, as well as a spike in police-involved shootings across the city in 2012. To name a few.)

There have also been some major efforts in the past few years to rebuild community trust in police, from President Barack Obama’s creation of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to the federal government’s review of the use of deadly force in Philadelphia.

Now, former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Jim Kenney has a plan to improve the relationships between cops and residents in Philadelphia: require police recruits to learn about African-American and civil rights history.

Kenney proposed the idea at a live Q&A held by Philadelphia magazine, as part of our Candidate Conversations series.

“A police officer in our city in the academy should be taught African-American history and civil rights history so they understand the people they encounter on the street — what perception and what experience and what history they’ve had in dealing with police and policing,” said Kenney. “I think if you understand the other person’s side and the other person’s history, you’ll have a better relationship.”

Kenney did not mention that racial makeup of the city’s police department, but it’s worth noting: The force is 52 percent white, while the city’s residents are only 37 percent white, according to an analysis by the Washington Post of 2010 Census Bureau data.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed Kenney for mayor, said it is completely open to the proposal. Union president John McNesby explained, “We welcome any training for the officers that helps to get them prepared for the street. … Years ago, the FOP was opposed to everything. Today, we’re open and we listen to everything.”

The Kenney campaign said the plan will be detailed in a public safety policy paper that it will release in the next few weeks.

Currently, recruits in the police training academy learn about the U.S. Constitution as well as strategies to interact with different communities, said department spokeswoman Officer Tanya Little, but they are not taught about African-American and civil rights history specifically. Since 2008, recruits have taken a course titled “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust” at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

It’s unclear whether other cities have required officers to take courses on African-American history. Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, was not aware of any programs elsewhere. A few police leaders and criminal justice experts who Citified surveyed also could not identify police departments that have tried the idea.

The Kenney campaign said, ideally, the proposal would not cost the city government any money because local universities would provide the training as part of a “services in lieu of taxes” agreement.

“It would be a relatively small ask of the universities,” said Hitt. “And given all the attention they’ve received recently … about the need to contribute more to the city as a whole, that would be a very viable way to do that.”