Last week, after several months discussing policing issues in the classroom, students and officers in our youth-police engagement program visited the Camden County Police Academy so students could get a taste of life on patrol. (For a full report on the day’s activities, check out Melanie Burney’s piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer.) This exciting opportunity was made possible because of the generous support of the Campbell Soup Foundation, the Harris Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.
The Academy training team, including Deputy Director Lt. Kevin Lutz and Chief Instructor Sgt. Raphael Thornton, guided students through various exercises adapted from police recruits’ actual training program. In one room, students assumed the roles of officers encountering various scenarios, from dealing with an emotionally disturbed woman who threatens to jump off a bridge to a man wielding a knife in a public park. Down the hall, students used a simulator machine, called the MILO range, to practice responding to different situations, such as an active shooter at a school and a domestic disturbance call. Officers from the program acted as coaches, giving the students tips for approaching the situations and feedback on their performance.
The trip was fun for all, and provided an opportunity for the students and officers in our program to bond outside the classroom. But the purpose of the trip ran deeper as well. By exposing students to the use of force training that Camden officers receive, they gained some context for our classroom discussions around when and why officers use force. Students will return to the classroom better prepared to think critically about the root causes of the problems they experience with policing in Camden. Through role playing common situations officers face, students were able to gain some perspective into what it’s like to actually be a cop. This type of empathy-building is a recurring goal of our classroom sessions. Typically, we seek to achieve this goal through meaningful dialogue in the classroom. But sometimes, an experience teaches more than discussion ever can.