On the first day of class for fall semester, Bryana Martin says she remembers watching video of Terrance Crutcher being killed by a white police officer.
“I felt a wave of emotions, just sadness; I would just ask a lot of questions,” Martin told theGrio.com in an interview. “Why is this happening, why are we continuously being treated like animals?”
This was no regular college course. Some of Martin’s classmates happened to be Baltimore police officers. The class, entitled, “Policing Inside Out: Building Trust and Transformative Education,” made Martin feel uncomfortable in the classroom for the first time as a Howard University student.
“White officers with guns on their waist come in and sit next to me, and clearly there’s obviously a lot of tension,” Martin said. “Just being an African American […] seeing these things on TV everyday, just knowing what goes on in our country at the hands of officers, I felt some tension towards them because of what I see going on with my brothers and sisters everyday.”
Howard University professor Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad came up with the course because so many of her students needed someone to talk to about African-Americans being killed by police officers. Why do so many officers rarely face consequences for their actions? her students would ask.
“A lot of the students were standing outside of my office in line, a lot of them crying angry and frustrated and really confused about what they could do and what they should do, ” Muhammad said. “How [can they] engage the conversation, how could they get involved?”
The course offered an opportunity for students to get involved and have a candid conversation with law enforcement officials about race and policing. It included five community members, 10 students and 10 Baltimore police officers.
“I really tried to find a way to really throw individuals into scenarios that allowed them to learn a few things, to engage in the reality in what these situations are like and then kind of come back to the classroom and sit down and have conversations,” Muhammad said.
Sitting in on the conversation was Lieutenant Tarrick McGuire, an African-American who helped coordinate the course.
“As a law enforcement officer, it was an opportunity to hear a voice in an environment that was a safe place,” McGuire said. “To understand not just their anger but their fear.”
McGuire is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; the association is working to find innovative ways to incorporate community policing strategies at the request of President Obama, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“It was very enlightening to hear them talk about how fearful they were, fearful of the uniform and many of them hadn’t had negative experiences with police officers,” McGuire said of the course. “But it was more so of what the perception that was driven by the media and what they had learned growing up which we do in the black community.”
The course was not all talk. It definitely got intense.
In addition to reading material like the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report by the Department of Justice, the course involved going on “excursions” such as ride-alongs with officers and a trip to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. For part of the course, students had class outside at the corner of Penn-North in Baltimore — where 25 year-old Freddie Gray was arrested and later died of spinal cord injury while in police custody.
Martin was moved, but not by the officers.
“When we went to the Freddie Gray memorial, [the police] had a lot to say about what went on during that time … a lot of it seemed fake to me,” Martin said.
That day, McGuire and his colleagues were out of uniform.
“This was an opportunity for us, black, white, hispanic, just to all listen to the frustration of what they were feeling.” McGuire said. “We started to see some mind sets shift. I understand the overwhelming complexity, policing is not only about crime reduction, it’s also about how the public perceives the police.”
According to recent Gallup data, 29 percent of African-Americans have a ‘great deal of confidence’ in police, compared to nearly 60 percent of whites.
It’s part of the reason social work Ph.D candidate Chantel Smith is focusing her education on community policing. She comes from a law enforcement background and grew up in a law enforcement family.
“I didn’t see all police officers as bad; I never made that generalization like other students in the class who kind of came in like they don’t trust police,” Smith said.
This course helped her gain some perspective.
“Regardless of my law enforcement experience my son could be out on the street and be detained just because of what they are wearing or the color of their skin,” Smith said. “Or [he could] reach in to [his] pocket wanting to call me because he was stopped by police and then police [are] thinking, ‘Oh he’s pulling a gun out because he’s African-American.”
Perhaps the most impactful “excursion” in the class involved a simulation called, “Shoot…Don’t Shoot.”
It’s when students went to a police training center in Maryland and had the opportunity to take part in a simulation, acting as police officers in a deadly force scenario.
“At the end of that simulation the students hands were sweaty their backs were sweaty, their under arms were sweaty,” Muhammad said. “They were breathing hard, they were nervous, it put them in to the situation, it launched into a discussion, a real candid and vivid discussion, emotional discussion on the use of force.”
For some students who thought the scenarios didn’t play out the way they thought it would, they shot the victim in question. Other students ‘waited’ in some scenarios and were shot at.
“Having your adrenaline rushing, having your heart pumping and just being in their shoes and all not knowing just what to do, shoot or don’t shoot … and get a glimpse of what they have to do everyday,” Martin said.
At the end of the day, the model for the course was about building trust. Both sides agreed it was a start.
“What I learned is that the fear is real,” McGuire said. “For those that are educated, those that are uneducated, the fear of the police is real.”
“[They say] I go into each day with the mindset that I want to go home to my children, and I respect that, but I don’t feel that a lot of them put themselves in our shoes, as an African-American, we want to go home as much as you do…. You go home to the suburbs to your child, I’m still sitting here in this mess,” Martin said.
Ashantai Hathaway is a reporter at theGrio. Keep up with her on Twitter @ashantaih83.