When Native American carver John Williams was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer last week, some advocates claimed that his death was caused by "cultural ignorance." An American Indian with a knife and a piece of wood, they said, wasn't a threat, he was a man practicing his trade. Now comes a study that would seem to reinforce that claim, showing that better-educated cops use less force.
The study found no difference with respect to officer education when it came to arrests or searches of suspects. But it found that in encounters with crime suspects, officers with some college education or a four-year degree resorted to using force 56 percent of the time, while officers with no college education used force 68 percent of the time."The difference is real," says one study author. "It truly is because the officer was more educated, not because the suspect was more resistant."
To become a cop in Seattle you need, at minimum, a high school diploma or G.E.D -- a requirement that's not likely to move in one direction or another, and for good reasons.
To raise the minimum standards would risk excluding candidates who would otherwise be good cops but lack funds for a college education. It also might minimize the importance of on-the-job training, which, as many police will tell you, is even more important in their profession.
But even though there most likely won't come a day when some sort of college is a requirement for every police officer, it's still nice to think about what that world might look like. It's an argument that, ironically, was best made in this article, written by an anonymous community college English teacher, about how not everyone needs a degree.
We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don't think that's such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed?