Berea professor conducts diversity training to build relationships between police and campus community
In the summer and fall of 2012, two unarmed African American teenage boys were shot and killed, sparking protests and launching what would become the Black Lives Matter movement. The fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Fla., were followed by incidents of white police officers being charged and then acquitted in the deaths of African Americans Eric Garner (New York), John Crawford (Ohio) and Michael Brown (Missouri). Racial tension across America was on the rise. And protests and riots in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., had the country on edge.
In Berea, Ky., then–Police Chief David Gregory saw the tide changing and wanted to get out in front of it in both community and college relations.
“These incidents involved community and police, and with Berea College here, we have students from all across the country, and especially from areas where relationships with police are not the best,” Gregory said. “I wanted to have meetings with students to let them know the police they were used to dealing with were not what Berea was. We were human and good people.”
Gregory pursued two avenues to build positive relationships between law enforcement and Berea College’s diverse student population. He went to forums and listened as students said they wanted more dialog with the police and a space to talk about ideas like implicit bias. In addition, Gregory sought out diversity training for his officers. He turned to Berea City Council member Virgil Burnside ’74, who also served as Berea’s vice president for Student Life, who suggested he work with Dr. Kennaria Brown. A communication professor, Brown was teaching a class on interracial communication and had provided corporate-level diversity training.
Over the course of more than six months, Brown created a diversity training curriculum for the Berea Police Department (BPD) based on components from her interracial communication course, research in law enforcement and input from Gregory on his training goals.
“I wanted officers to have cultural awareness,” Gregory said about the training development process.
“There are a lot of international students on campus and many other dynamics and cultures they could be facing. I wanted to build relationships, be transparent and humanize ourselves with the public.”
In 2013, Brown kicked off the mandatory training with BPD officers.
“I want to be empathetic and recognize the challenges of the work they do,” Brown said, “But I challenge them. It is not an easy or comfortable training, but they rise to the occasion.”
“When we first did it, I didn’t really believe the officers were receptive to it,” Gregory said. “But once Dr. Brown finished, she received feedback thanking her for the training, saying it was eye-opening and helped them see into themselves and the ways they were raised. Many said it was the best training they had had and thanked me for making it mandatory.”
This positive response prompted Brown and Gregory to revisit the idea of more collaboration and additional training. In 2016, Brown requested funding from the Undergraduate Research and Creative Projects Program (URCPP), a College-funded program to enhance student learning by providing opportunities for the engagement of challenging, collaborative and directed projects in an apprentice-mentor relationship with faculty.
“In 2013 [the police] came to my world and in 2016, I went to their world,” Brown explained about the drastic difference in this summer-long program and training.
The two students participating in the program spent the summer riding along with police officers and conducting community surveys. One of the students was from a community in Alabama where there was intense animosity between the African American community and the police department—and the police department there is primarily African American, as well, Brown explained.
“Racial disparity is not just about the race of officers; it’s not that simple,” Brown said. “If a section of the community is criminalized, the race of the officers doesn’t matter; and this young man saw that first-hand. He came in willing to work with me, but it was more about our relationship than any commitment to the police. But doing the ride-alongs, doing the policing research, getting to know officers and developing relationships—that was really powerful for him and something he carries with him to this day.”
The two students spent significant time with Berea’s officers, eating with them, seeing them deal with tragic accidents and personally experiencing what officers see and experience each day in their jobs.
Berea city administrator David Gregory and Berea College professor Dr. Kennaria Brown were recently honored by the Berea Human Rights Commission (BHRC) with the John G. Fee Award for 2019. The Fee award is bestowed every year on a resident or group that has made a significant contribution to maintaining, improving or expanding human rights in Berea. BHRC chairwoman and Berea College trustee Mim Pride said the award is important because it recognizes those who are striving to make positive change in the community and sees the partnership as a national model.
“They saw the human side and how it affects us,” Gregory said. “From what the students told me in our debriefings, one thing that really touched me was they discovered these weren’t just police officers. They knew this is Officer Smith, and he has two kids and something going on in his life besides just policing.”
These students and Brown then took their experiences back to campus and helped open lines of communication and connection between the police and students.
“When we have conversations or have an issue with a crime, [students] are not afraid to work with us or talk with us,” Gregory said. “Just by word of mouth, we got into the community. The ride-alongs made the students stand up for us and say, ‘This is a good community.’”
Just as Brown’s classroom instruction influenced her police training, over time her police training has impacted her teaching. She brings law enforcement material into her classes and uses stories of interaction in the classroom, as well.
“We talk about the police, and we don’t gloss over the problem,” Brown said. “But we talk about the problems, what’s being done to combat them, and those who are doing it right and being proactive in their communities, like our agency that is interested in building constructive relationships.”
This past summer, Brown conducted her third round of training with BPD officers focused on recognizing, understanding and mitigating implicit bias. She said she truly gravitated from her world to theirs. She used few resources from her interracial communication class this time, but instead used new research and her experience with officers to craft implicit-bias training specific to policing.
“I’ve grown over the years in knowing what to bring, what’s effective and what they can use,” she said.
Conducted in groups of about five officers, the training allowed for deep dialog, the ability to ask and answer uncomfortable questions and the capacity for officers to reflect on attitudes and behaviors in ways they might not have been able to do before. Brown also participated in officer ride-alongs prior to these trainings, which allowed her to immerse herself in their world and built trust and understanding among her and the officers.
“So I stay a work-in-progress as I learn and grow,” Brown said, “and I pass that along to my students.”