To protect and serve? Debating police misconduct and reform
A lesson plan to go with: “A violation of trust: L.A.’s worst police scandal has undermined the justice system for all of us,” by Jennifer Clark, May-June 2000
Subjects: Language Arts, Social Studies
Suggested Time Allowance: 45 minutes-1 hour
In this lesson, students will discuss the purpose of law enforcement, its relationship to the community it serves, and ways to combat police misconduct.
• Discuss the purpose of law enforcement.
• Discuss ways in which law enforcement has not lived up to that purpose in their communities and in general.
• Brainstorm various ways to reform law enforcement, combat misconduct, and improve community-police relations.
• copies of “A violation of trust” (one per student)
• newsprint (including outlines of a life-size human form, one per small group)
• classroom chalkboard
1. Warm-up: In journals or on separate pieces of paper, students respond to the following prompt on the board: What do you think of when you hear the phrase “police officer”? Where did you get these images or ideas? Then, take volunteers to read their responses. Did anyone come up with something substantially different? Why do students hold these different ideas or images of police officers?
2. As a class, read “A violation of trust.” Then discuss the article, addressing these questions:
a. What is “the Rampart scandal”? Have you heard about it in the news? If so, what else have you heard?
b. How does this scandal, and other instances of police brutality in the news recently, make you feel about the police and the justice system? Do these instances and patterns of misconduct surprise you? Why or why not?
c. What are your experiences with the police and the justice system? How did you view law enforcement before these experiences? How, if at all, have these experiences influenced your views on law enforcement?
d. What is the purpose of law enforcement in a society and in a community?
e. What is the role of the police officer in the community in which he serves?
f. Jennifer asks this question near the end of the article: “Have the police failed, or have we as citizens failed by not believing youth when they said they were getting assaulted by cops?” What do you think, and why?
3. Divide the class into small groups of around 4 or 5 students. Each group has markers, newsprint, and a human-form outline (these can be prepared ahead of time, or, if necessary, they can be prepared by each group at this time). Each group is to design the ideal police officer. Brainstorm the characteristics and qualities necessary to be the perfect police officer, then write and symbolically represent them, through drawing, on the human outline. On a separate piece of newsprint, brainstorm ways to achieve or reinforce those ideals in your community’s police force.
4. Returning to the large group, each small group presents its ideal police officer to the class, taping it to the board. After all the groups have gone, have an open discussion of the presentations. Why did groups include or exclude certain attributes? How did they decide what was important and what wasn’t? Now, tape each reform brainstorm to the board. Why did students choose these methods for reform, and how do we now go from here to there?
5. Wrap-up/homework: Reflecting on the class discussions and group exercise, write an essay in which you discuss specific types of police misconduct and/or problems in police-community relations and suggest possible reforms. Be specific in your recommendations: what needs to be changed, and how can that be achieved?
Further Questions for Discussion:
• This story was written in May, 2000. What has happened since then in the Rampart scandal case?
• What reforms were tried after the 1992 riots/uprising? Did they work? Why or why not?
• What reforms are now being proposed? What will it take to make these reforms work? Do you think it will happen? Why or why not?
• Talk about other cases of police abuse and brutality that have garnered national attention. Previously, instances and patterns of misconduct were kept silent and out of the public eye. Why do you think that these things are coming to light more and more now?
Students will be evaluated on their participation in discussion and their individual written work.
• Invite officers from the school’s local precinct or division to class for a question-and-answer session. Students will develop detailed sets of questions they want answered beforehand.
• Write a research paper detailing the recent history of police misconduct in Los Angeles and previous and current reform movements that have attempted to effect change.
• Research and document police misconduct and/or miscommunication in your communities. Get first-person accounts from community members, and analyze their experiences in the context of the larger picture of police-community relations in your city, in the state, or in the nation.
• Research what it takes to become a police officer in your city. Interview recruitment officers, visit the local police academy, and try to talk to new officers and those in training. Why does someone become a police officer in your community? What is the process one must go through?