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Police brutality in America: Teach-Out encourages learners to get informed, involved

Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

As Black Lives Matter protests continue throughout the nation and deadly run-ins with police repeatedly make headlines, the University of Michigan explores the topic with a “Police Brutality in America Teach-Out.”

Online now, the self-guided learning event on Coursera explores the history of policing in the United States and the legacy of mistrust between police and minority communities. For the rest of the month, numerous experts will engage learners in conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and what is meant by the calls to #DefundThePolice.


“Our format is really a call-to-action,” said Ryan Henyard, faculty experience designer at the Center for Academic Innovation, explaining that participants will be encouraged to engage with the content, submit questions to the experts, and join in conversations on social media and in their own communities.

More information: Police Brutality in America Teach-Out | Michigan Online

In mid-July, a group of experts will return to address learner questions within the teach-out and expand the conversation beyond the initial content.

“How can we take action? How can we heal from this? It’s too important,” Henyard said. “My wish is to envision a world where police don’t kill anybody.”

The Center for Academic Innovation created the teach-out series as a means to immerse learners in emerging topics online over a short period, using subject-matter experts from the university and beyond, much in the same way the teach-ins of the 1970s exposed students on campus to relevant topics of the day.

Experts for the teach-out are U-M faculty, alumni at other universities, public health organizations, area law enforcement and community organizations, and public advocacy groups.

The experts will reach back into history to help put context to today’s struggle and systems, which will define the current calls for change, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, organizers say.

U-M alumnus R. L’Heureux Lewis-Mccoy, associate professor of the sociology of education at New York University, explains the differences between reforming a system and abolishing it.

“Abolitionists historically and contemporarily are those who engage in everyday struggle in practice and envision a world that almost seems impossible,” he said. “Sometimes reforming prison and reforming police just make them bigger and still more harmful.

“Abolition goes to the root of the thing. … Abolitionists build new communities that are radically redefined.”

Derrick Jackson, U-M alumnus and director of community engagement at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, addresses how the county has worked to shift its policing philosophy with the help from voters who approved funding for social work and mental health services. It has resulted in a system that is not either/or but is one that considers each situation.

“In our community, defunding police is not a new thing, not a scary thing,” said Jackson, explaining that calls to the department now automatically involve an assessment of whether the need is for law enforcement or a social or mental health response.

Barbara McQuade, professor from practice at the U-M Law School, explains how “qualified immunity,” legal doctrine created by judges to protect police officers from personal loss as a result of civil lawsuits, has become what some say is a way for officers to walk away scot-free from violent encounters with alleged offenders.

“The officer has to show that his conduct did not violate a clearly established right,” she said. “Some people suggest that is an obstacle to holding officers accountable for their wrongdoing.”

She also will talk about “pattern or practice investigations” of entire departments, allowed by statute passed in 1994, following the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles.

Lisa Jackson, chair of the Ann Arbor Independent Community Police Oversight Commission, explains how unions that defend police, like the four involved with the George Floyd death in Minneapolis, wield such power.

She says unlike most other unions, the police is the most subscribed, and therefore, better funded, of the unions, and has a very strong lobby with lawmakers. She calls police unions a “significant impediment to police reform in the United States of America in 2020.”

“Police unions aggressively protect the rights of police officers—and that’s appropriate—however, they do so when it is clear that those police officers have posed a threat to the citizens they are sworn to protect,” Jackson said.

She says police oversight groups like the one she represents should be more involved in collective bargaining agreements and police oversight, and one good time for communities to assert this influence is at each new collective bargaining negotiation.

Other participants and their topics:

  • Angela Dillard, the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies: Law & Order in America
  • Abdul El-Sayed, principal, AME Higher, LLC; former candidate for governor and former executive director and health officer of the Detroit Health Department: Systemic Racism as a Public Health Issue
  • Eugene Rogers, U-M director of choral activities and conductor of Chamber Choir: “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” and Arts and Activism
  • Elizabeth James, U-M program associate of Afroamerican and African Studies: The Impact of Systemic Racism and Survival Techniques for Movement Building
  • Lauren Velez, director of services, Avalon Housing, Detroit: Introduction to Avalon Housing and a Resident’s Feedback to Police
  • LaBresha Scott: Avalon Housing Client Story
  • Charles Buchanan, founder of Flower Boi STL: All Black Lives Matter
  • Stephanie Chang, Michigan state senator: Social Work and Policing Partnerships, The Limits of Legislative Police Reform and How to Get Involved With Your Elected Officials
  • Aaron Foley, director, Black Media Initiative CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism: The Journalism Industry, The Role of Black Media Outlets and The Complex Relationship Between Police and the Media
  • Kathleen Meadows, family services support coordinator at Avalon Housing: Avalon Housing Alternative Response to Policing
  • Ketra Armstrong, director of the Center for Race & Ethnicity in Sports and professor of sports management, U-M School of Kinesiology: The Role of Sports in Social Justice Movements