Tackling history of race and policing starts with well-informed officers

Getty Images

In order for police to build trust with marginalized communities, we must first understand the origins of distrust.

When our veteran police officers first learn that they’re going to get a lecture on the history of race and policing, we tend to get responses along these lines: “I’ve been a good cop for 20 years, what does this have to do with me?”

{mosads}By this point, we’re used to the skepticism — and, on one level, it makes sense. The average American cop is 39 years old, which means that the vast majority of officers serving today weren’t alive during Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement. Plus, because policing is a complex and challenging profession that requires quick actions and reactions — it’s our job to respond to emergencies — it can be hard to leave the present moment to pause and really reflect about our place in history.


So, when Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) officers first attend our department’s new procedural justice training, we have to convince them that policing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We have to demonstrate that there is a historical context in which our present actions are situated.

The National Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture demonstrate that if we don’t understand the evolution of American policing — history could become the present.

Through our participation in the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice — a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice and several academic partners — Pittsburgh and five other American pilot cities are implementing police-community trust-building interventions based on the principles of procedural justice, implicit bias and racial reconciliation. The initiative works toward policy changes and practices, data collection within the department, and much more — including many hours of training for all 850 of our sworn officers.

The history of policing in America is one key component of procedural justice training, which introduces the idea that community perception of the local police rests on perceived fairness of the entire justice process. 

Accordingly, procedural justice training urges law enforcement to treat all community members with respect and dignity (regardless of the type of encounter); remain neutral and unbiased; convey trustworthy motives; and give community members a chance to explain their side of the story.

Without a solid grasp of the history that influences community perceptions of police, however, we would lack a complete understanding of why building trust with marginalized communities through applied procedural justice is so important. For that reason, our new training addresses painful moments in American history — and, in particular, law enforcement’s role in enforcing laws that perpetuated racial inequity. Police in all six National Initiative cities are now learning about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, convict leasing and Jim Crow laws in their procedural justice training.

This national history is important, but it’s even more critical to tailor national history to Pittsburgh-specific events. For instance, Commander Holmes can personally remember a police department just outside of Pittsburgh that used different 10 codes for traffic stops depending on whether the vehicle’s occupants were white or black. Policies like these are one of many reasons why he decided to become a police officer in the first place — to make positive changes from within the institution.

By addressing concrete aspects of local and national history, procedural justice training places each officer’s identity and perceptions into the context of a broader historical perspective. Dave Mather, Ph. D., a police training consultant who has been working with PBP, recalls that “as a line cop, I didn’t know any of the history and I didn’t care to know any of it. I was naive enough to believe that how I treated people on an individual basis was more important than what had happened in the past.”

For those of us behind the shield, our uniform is a point of pride and a badge of honor; but because many community members have felt the burden of over-policing, our uniform carries a very different meaning. 

As a result, communities may be particularly sensitive to certain police behaviors that seem to reinforce negative stereotypes about law enforcement. “As police officers, we perceive our own actions through the lens of our best intentions in the current moment,” Mather explains. “But communities may be interpreting our behavior through a historical lens — horrible experiences with law enforcement can be passed down from generation to generation.”

In that context, a single interaction may be interpreted very differently by police and community members and both parties can leave with disparate impressions of the same event. Even during a routine traffic stop, we have to remember that the driver’s perception of police is informed by every traffic stop they’ve ever experienced (and every officer they’ve ever met). “Procedural justice training plants the seeds of understanding with young officers so that it doesn’t take them 25 years to comprehend these concepts like it did for me,” Mather adds.

Perhaps most importantly, this training will make our officers more effective in the field because all of our officers have a greater appreciation and understanding of how we got here and what need to do to begin building trust. Procedural justice is closely linked to the establishment of police legitimacy — and, according to recent research, when communities view police authority as legitimate, they are more likely to trust and cooperate with us.

Ultimately, procedural justice training tries to identify ways in which legitimacy can be impacted by police-community interactions, and how various factors — the history of racist laws, specific instances of abuse, over-policing and even ordinary rudeness — can combine to create today’s racial confidence gap in perception of police performance. Police who have been trained in procedural justice understand how establishing police legitimacy makes their job easier.

Our officers understand why the history of policing is so important: without that crucial context, police cannot truly protect and serve.

Commander Eric Holmes is the Pittsburgh site liaison for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Officer Jeff Upson is a full-time instructor in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s police academy.

Tags community policing Eric Holmes Jeff Upson

More Criminal Justice News

See All

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video