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Campus & Community

Can Conversations Improve Police-Community Relations?

A New Course From Sociology, UMPD Investigates

By Sala Levin ’10

police officer rides bike past two students on campus

A new UMD course, "Bridging Perspectives: Critical Conversations Between Students and Police," offers Terps the chance to discuss difficult questions around policing with law enforcement officers, community activists, academics and more.

Photo by John T. Consoli (File photo)

Not everyone can—or wants to—slide into a police cruiser for a ride-along and a literal front-row seat to law enforcement.

But what about sharing a classroom instead of a car, or stepping into virtual reality scenarios, as openings to talk about policing—including tough topics like racial discrimination, protesting and strained community relations?

A University of Maryland course that debuted this semester, “Bridging Perspectives: Critical Conversations Between Students and Police,” brings together a noted expert on racial inequities in policing, a University of Maryland Police Department official and 20 undergraduates to dig into the factors underlying our nation’s troubled past and present in police-community relationships.

Students and police officers “ultimately want the same goal: peace and harmony, and positive community relations,” said sociology Professor Rashawn Ray. “But often they’re coming from different sides of that equation, and the way to move forward often is through academic discourse and dialogue.”

The class, which is open to all majors, is co-taught by UMPD Capt. August Kenner, the department’s community engagement commander, and is based on a curriculum developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Ray adapted the course material to be more tailored to his work on racial bias, community policing and how law enforcement is organized.

The course aims to be one method of getting at the heart of a national dilemma: Overwhelmingly, according to Ray, Americans believe that someone who commits a crime should be charged accordingly. But at the same time, in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd and a host of historical wrongdoings by police officers and departments across the country, Americans—especially ones from marginalized communities—are wary of overpolicing.

On campus, a task force convened by President Darryll J. Pines released a report in 2022 of recommendations aimed at improving trust between public safety officials and the campus community. Many of these, including hiring mental health clinicians for emergency calls and launching a citizens’ police academy, have been or are being put into effect.

Each week in the new class, students hear from guests who offer different perspectives on law enforcement, ranging from professors to federal agents to community organizers.

On a Tuesday afternoon in the recesses of the Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building, a group of students donned a virtual reality headset in the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR). The first participant, playing the role of a police officer, knocked on the door of a home where they’ve received reports of a domestic disturbance. An older white woman answered the door and snippily told the officer everything is fine—leave her alone.

When the next student was thrown into a refreshed version of the scenario, the person who answered the door is a middle-aged Black man. He seems weary, and tells the police officer he simply had an argument with his wife.

This technology is actually used by police officers across the country to uncover unconscious bias: How do cops’ reactions change or stay the same based on who they’re talking to? For students, the exercise put them in the mindset of a police officer—complete with the distraction of bulletins coming through on their radio and interruptions from onlookers.

Elijah Adams ’24, who’s studying criminology and criminal justice, was drawn to the course for the opportunity to discuss “the questions that can be very polarizing today,” he said, including the role that race can play in policing. “I’m really impressed with how unapologetically the course is going after some of these issues,” Adams said.

One class, featuring Tony Cheng, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, gave Adams new perspective on how police departments can make opportunities for community feedback more accessible—or less. Are meetings that are open to the public held in easy-to-find locations, or more obscure ones? Are they in the evenings, when people might have free time after work, or are they happening at 10 a.m.?

To Kenner, the course represents a chance for UMPD to deepen our continued relationships with the people they serve. “We have to try to foster trust within our university community,” she said. “We’re all human. Everybody has to sit down, come together, and have these critical conversations.”

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