Do “Sensitivity Trainings” For Cops Even Stand A Chance At Fighting Racism? [VIDEO]

By Julianne Hing Aug 20, 2009

Liliana Segura, writing over at AlterNet, argues against the efficacy of diversity and sensitivity trainings for police in light of a rash of racist police brutality and embarrassing race foibles, namely Boston police officer Justin Barrett’s email comparing Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to a "jungle monkey." Ha! Ha! So funny! Barrett was swiftly terminated from his job, though more typical sanctions include dreaded sensitivity trainings classes. Segura writes:

Weinblatt points out another problem with sensitivity training, which is that while most police academy training involves some sensitivity coursework for new recruits, there are very few courses that are tailored for active-duty police officers. "You’ll have them every once in a while, but they are not offered on a regular basis," he says. This can mean that police officers who are prescribed racial sensitivity training after an act of brutality or verbal abuse act are likely to find themselves auditing a class alongside new recruits — an infantilizing experience, to be sure. But even those courses offered to in-service cops can have limited value. One major problem comes down, in Weinblatt’s view, to how sensitivity training is defined, which is as a form of punishment for bad behavior.

Point taken. But who really gives a crap about protecting a police officer’s ego? And maybe the problem isn’t with the diversity trainings themselves, but that these workshops are trying to address individual manifestations of deeply entrenched and institutionalized racism. You can teach a cop to be polite, but can you teach a cop to unlearn his cultural reflexes AND department policy AND racist history and attitudes? (And plenty of police forces are filled with men and women of color. What do we say to them?) That’s asking a lot of one workshop. That’s asking a lot of cops. I agree with Segura, but wish she’d point out that diversity trainings fail because they are intended for individuals when the problem is so massively structural. Black and brown communities are policed more, and more aggressively, than other neighborhoods. Men of color are disproportionately represented at every step in the criminal justice game, from who gets pulled over to who gets the death penalty. Diversity trainings have their place in this world. You might not think so, but some people actually DO need to be taught that it is not a very nice thing to compare America’s pre-eminent race scholar, a Black man, to a primate. But sensitivity trainings won’t do the hard work for us of dismantling the prison industrial complex, addressing drug sentencing policies and fighting policies that all but mandate racial profiling. I’m also thinking about Omar Edwards and Oscar Grant, who are only our most recent examples of innocent Black men killed by white cops. Would diversity trainings, or even big picture policy overhauls, have saved these men’s lives? In the heat of the moment, with a million midnight eyes staring at you on a BART platform, or giving chase down a crowded New York city street, there is no sense or reason. Who has time for rational thinking? I suspect that by then, it’s all gut. And when our psychological cores, collective and individual, have been poisoned by centuries of racist attitudes and social mores, how DO we teach police what they need to know so they stop killing innocent people?