Illustration of law enforcement officers sitting uncomfortably at school desks with their uniforms and holding batons. The front desk has a single red apple sitting on it.

Washington Law Enforcement Will Soon Be Required to Learn the History of Race and Policing, Will It Be Enough to Spark Change?

by Ashley Archibald

Professor Daudi Abe has written books. He defended his dissertation to get his Ph.D. in education from the University of Washington. He’s taught college classes at Seattle Central College since 2003 and given talks to crowds on the complicated intersections of race and culture.

But this time, he was nervous.

For nearly five hours on a cloudy Wednesday in April, Abe stood in a conference room in front of law enforcement officers and leaders of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) and walked them through the course he had helped to write on the history of race and policing. Soon, it will be their job to lead recruits through the same information.

Abe’s course is one of several new classes for law enforcement recruits throughout the state of Washington mandated by the Law Enforcement Training and Community Safety Act. The law was created out of an initiative passed in 2018 that created new training requirements and investigation standards after a deadly police shooting.

Those new requirements also include training on patrol tactics, implicit and explicit bias, and de-escalation for people in a mental health crisis, among others. I-940 requires 200 hours of training for new recruits, six of which are in the History of Race and Policing course. Incumbent officers who are already out on the road will also be required to take a four-hour version of the history course.

The unit Abe taught that day explores the intersection of race and policing from the institution of slavery through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the role of police in schools, and mass incarceration, among other topics.

In that conference room, not only were the stakes high for Abe and, in his mind, for everyone else.

And they were personal.

“This right here might be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my work life, just in terms of what it means. I’m writing this for my children, I’m writing this for my friends’ children,” Abe said. “I’m trying to put this in place for, you know, I just found out that I was going to be a grandpa a few months ago. I’m trying to do this for my as-of-yet unborn grandchild.”

Now that Abe has taught the teachers, law enforcement recruits will soon begin a whole new curriculum. Recruits during the course will be tasked with responding to questions about their familiarity — or lack thereof — with the formulation of race as a social construct in America. One assignment is a “race autobiography” describing their experiences with race, racial differences, and how those issues have presented themselves in their own lives. They will grapple with texts such as Alexes Harris’ A Pound of Flesh, which discusses the impact of fines on poor people, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race, and the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project helmed by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The process of implementing police training that focuses on the history of race and policing, a complex and controversial topic, will be challenging to pull off but critical to training a new kind of law enforcement, said Sean Hendrickson, the applied skills division manager at the CJTC.

“This is one of those things that — handled incorrectly — could really just kind of be a dud,” Hendrickson said. “And I just don’t want it to be that. I’m really passionate about this training and I think that we’re rolling it out right.”

Hendrickson and other members of the team like Jerrell Wills, the CJTC deputy director, have been working on building and implementing the curriculum for the past three years since the initiative passed. They’ve brought in experts like Abe and Harris to help mold the history course, which they all hope will help policing change to better serve the BIPOC community in Washington.

But lessons like the ones in the new course haven’t been easy for everyone to digest in the past. In August 2020, professors from Georgetown University were brought in to talk about the foundation of the U.S. government and the racism of the founding fathers, for example.

That didn’t go over so well with some students, Hendrickson said.

“The surveys and some of the post-class information … it was really hard for some people to hear that information,” Hendrickson said.

But that doesn’t mean the CJTC is pulling back. In addition to the mandated courses, the CJTC is working to create more models to help officers better serve more marginalized communities. Courses to help improve understanding of Indigenous peoples, people of the Jewish faith, and the LGBTQ community, are all being planned.

“This is just the very beginning,” Wills said. The goal is to create a library of materials for new and existing law enforcement officers. I-940 creates requirements for “incumbent” officers to take 16 hours of online courses every three years, and this wider set of modules will allow them to pick various topics.

It’s one of many ways that training has changed since he first came to law enforcement, Wills said.

“I went through the academy in 1988,” Wills said. “I was trained to ‘ask tell make’ ­— close the distance, overwhelm someone with force. I’m embarrassed but that’s how I was trained.”

There is still a lot of work to be done, Wills said.

Whether or not it will be enough to reform policing is up for debate, but Annalesa Thomas, 64, whose son was killed by police in Lakewood in 2013, is hopeful.

Thomas and her husband spent months working to pass I-940, the 2018 initiative mandating the new law enforcement training and policies, after her son, Leonard Thomas, was shot and killed by police while his 4-year-old child was in his arms. She was new to politics but wanted to make sure that what happened to her son didn’t happen again. After the initiative passed, Thomas got involved with the development of the legislation specifying the new trainings and even acted as the interview subject in one training for officers learning about trauma-informed interviewing. 

“I think the [history] training is a move in the right direction and actually a very good move in the right direction,” Thomas said. “They did see some need for addressing a social issue.”

She feels that had officers had this type of education before, the situation with her son might have turned out differently.

“I do feel like they’re training to be more aware of the social implications and the racial implications,” Thomas said.

Others are more cautious.

Chris Burbank is the vice president of strategic partnerships with the Center for Policing Equity, an organization that works to reduce racial disparities in policing violence through data and has contracted with the Seattle Police Department (SPD). A lot of law enforcement training is focused on responding to situations met in the field, he said.

“How often do [they] set up scenarios where you don’t engage in any force?” Burbank asked.

He believes that more attention should be given in training to these types of no-force situations and that racial justice and education needs to be baked into every lesson for law enforcement officers. 

Others worry that taking a class may not change the hearts and minds of people who want to go into law enforcement. If you take an officer who is generally conservative, they may perceive the new training as social justice oriented and some of that information may not get through, said Justin Ward, who works with Divest SPD. The project is part of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and seeks to cut support for the Seattle Police Foundation and build other systems of support and accountability for law enforcement.

“How many officers are really going to take that lesson seriously, is the question,” Ward said.

Putting these trainings in place just reinforces the idea that trainings work, said Ward, who disagrees with this idea. 

“You can teach them about the history of policing and its racist roots, you can have Robin DiAngelo come and give them a seminar or whatever, it doesn’t change the fact that they are trained to kill in [certain] circumstances,” Ward said.

But many remain optimistic that this new training will spark some change. Abe, who helped create the history course, hopes that the training will make sure that law enforcement culture becomes more open to conversations about race. 

“The change I hope to affect is to allow police culture to be a little bit more reflective and not reflexive when it comes to issues like this,” Abe said. 

With calls for change to policing around the nation, many eyes will be watching to see if that culture change Abe hopes for is possible through a course like the one he helped create.

Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News and a freelance journalist with previous work in the Santa Monica Daily Press and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development, and you can find it in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX, and the Urbanist.

📸 Featured Image: Original illustration by Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠.

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