The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

Can knowledge of historical and cultural context have an impact on policing?

Can knowledge of historical and cultural context have an impact on policing?

Project Summary
Police officers and residents often have different beliefs and expectations about policing that influence how they interact with one another. Together with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), we are testing whether equipping officers with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the historical and cultural context of the city in which they work empowers them to engage more effectively with residents. Our findings will inform decisions on how to improve training and help strengthen police-community relations in the District.
Mayor Bowser, left, and Police Chief Newsham announcing the training at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Credit: Elliot Williams)

Mayor Bowser, left, and Police Chief Newsham announcing the training at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Credit: Elliot Williams)

Why is this issue important in DC?
A positive, trusting relationship between police officers and the residents they serve is both vital to the health of a community and to preventing crime. How residents and police officers interpret one another’s actions can differ, often due to the unique background, training, culture, and overall set of experiences that each party possesses. Further, research in other cities has shown that situations involving the police are often high stress, and both parties may react to that by being suspicious of and distancing themselves from one another.1

What are we doing?
In 2018, MPD launched a novel training program to help overcome barriers to improved police-citizen relations. The goal of the training is to equip officers with detailed knowledge of the history and context in which they police in DC. The training was designed and is delivered by history professors from the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC) and MPD Academy instructors. It includes a lecture on critical race theory and the history of the African American experience in DC, as well as a guided tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

All sworn and civilian personnel at MPD were randomly assigned to attend the training at monthly intervals, starting in February 2018. We are administering brief survey questionnaires to MPD officers before and after participating in the program to measure changes in their attitudes. We are also using administrative data to compare outcomes, such as documented police use of force and citizen complaints, between officers who have completed the training and those who have not yet done so.

What have we learned?
We expect preliminary results by the end of 2019.

To know our past history allows us to create a better future for everyone.
— An MPD officer, after completing the training

What comes next?
The findings will inform MPD’s professional development training curriculum, including any changes to improve this particular training, as well as the development and implementation of other programs.

What happened behind the scenes?
This project followed on the heels of our randomized evaluation of MPD’s body-worn camera program. MPD developed this training program as an innovative tool to improve policing and strengthen police-community relations and wanted to apply the same rigorous evaluation techniques.

For more, listen to our Podcast @ DC on this project:

 

1 Ghandnoosh, Nazgol. Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies. Sentencing Project (2014).