Every time there is an incident involving excessive use of force by the police against a black person, there’s a public outcry for change and reform. We want heads to roll. We want officers held accountable and punished. We take to the streets. We protest. We write editorials and articles and commentary on the current state of things. We wonder what could be done differently to make change stick.
You know what we don’t do? Suggest they take a field trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Yet, the Philadelphia Police Department has started a new program in which it requires all new recruits to visit NMAAHC. So far, five classes of recruits have made the trip, and as Philly.com’s Jenice Armstrong writes, “The hope is that by helping recruits understand the black experience, they can do a better job of policing.”
Well, OK then. “I’ve always said we don’t always get it right. What we strive to do is to get it better,” Police Commissioner Richard Ross told Armstrong when she asked him about last week’s trip. “I believe this trip can help some folks understand that.”
But is this really an effective way of initiating change?
Armstrong accompanied a group of recruits on a recent trip, and from her description, it is unlikely any of them were changed or moved by the experience.
The group she went with consisted of 121 recruits, the majority of whom were white. There were 28 black recruits and “a sprinkling of Hispanics and Asians.”
Armstrong wrote that the recruits were silent as they viewed the casket of Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman (said white woman later recanted her story), but appeared more alert as they as they stood in front of an actual guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola Prison.
Armstrong reports that some of the recruits looked bored and several seemed defensive. She ended her report by saying she hopes “they recognized that overpolicing is real, as is racial profiling, and are sensitive to that when dealing with people of color.”
I doubt very seriously any of them came away thinking that.
I’m sure for the most part it was just another requirement in a long list of requirements that they have to get through in order to get the badge and the gun. They could sleepwalk through this if it means they get to join a legal gang with little to no federal oversight and permission to legally reign terror on the heads of the citizens they have been empowered to “protect.”
A one-day trip to NMAAHC—much like the Starbucks day of sensitivity training—is not enough to dismantle an entire system that has been put in place since the days of slavery. A system, mind you, that gave birth to police forces in the first place.
No, it’s going to take more than that. Hopes, thoughts and prayers are not going to change the system. Museum exhibits won’t do it either.
We need real systemic and systematic change from the top to the bottom.
And until that happens, we will continue to take to the streets, protest, write editorials and articles and commentary—then rinse and repeat when it happens all over again.