University citizens police academy becomes national model
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men prompted protests around the country, the Rev. Frank Stevenson was bothered by what he saw to be a growing divide.
It was 2015, and the outrage over the killings of men like Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo., and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., had spread to Nashville in the form of protests organized by anti-police brutality activist movement Black Lives Matter.
“There were two competing schools of thought,” said Stevenson, dean of students at Tennessee State University and pastor at City of Grace Church. “One is either you are supporting police officers, or you were kind of with the Black Lives Matter movement, and you had to pick which side you wanted.”
He and the Rev. Enoch Fuzz thought it would be helpful for students and police in Nashville to learn from each other’s perspectives, and after a meeting with and buy-in from Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson, Stevenson and TSU were on their way to creating a program that was the first of its kind.
Three years later, TSU’s Collegiate Citizens Police Academy has become a national model for other universities, being named “best student organization” at the Historically Black College and Universities Digest Awards on June 22.
Even before the award was given in Washington, D.C., at the annual HBCU event, Stevenson said TSU had heard from other universities — both HBCUs and those that aren’t — asking for guidance on starting a similar program of their own to bridge a gap between students of color and police in their cities.
Stevenson has created a package to send to other university officials curious about the curriculum and how TSU, a university whose student population is 70 percent black, operates its program.
Nashville police Sgt. Raymond Jones, who has helped coordinate the program, said the officers who have taken part in the collegiate academy over the last three years have learned that many of the students’ concerns with police aren’t simply due to highly-publicized shootings in recent years.
“We are dealing with some stereotypes going back 10, 15, 20 years,” Jones said, ideas stretching back to what many students experienced and were taught growing up in their families and communities.
Jones said he can understand where they’re coming from.
He said that as an African-American man and TSU graduate himself, he is in a unique position to help facilitate frank conversations between students and the police.
“It helps the officers see things in a different light, so they can understand where students are coming from,” Jones said. “It gives them a varied perspective on policing.”
Stevenson said one of the most eye-opening experiences for the students has been the traffic stop simulation, in which an officer plays the role of a civilian driver and a student approaches the vehicle unaware of what will happen next.
They have to make split-second decisions about whether to use deadly force, Stevenson said, a task that many of the students — in their brief experience through the simulation — admitted was difficult.
The program is also proving to be a potential source of recruitment.
Sgt. Clifton Knight, who oversees recruiting for Nashville police, said eight students from the academies have applied to the department.
Janita Vanzant, 23, will graduate in December from TSU in through its partnership with Motlow State Community College.
A criminal justice student who also works at the Coffee County jail, she drove the two hours each week this spring from Franklin County, where she lives, to make the three-hour class on Thursday nights in Nashville.
Vanzant is determined to get on with Metro Nashville Police Department as a result of the collegiate academy, she said, though she was previously unfamiliar with the department that’s much larger than the local agencies in her area.
“We’ve definitely gotten a closer relationship with TSU, and that’s very important, it being a historically black university,” Jones said. “It has widened the pipeline for recruitment. We’re always trying to increase the diversity of the police department.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com