BALTIMORE—Sitting in a classroom one day in September, a police officer studied a passage from James Baldwin’s 1966 essay on policing in Harlem, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” and read a few lines out loud: “Some school children overturned a fruit stand in Harlem. This would have been a mere childish prank if the children had been white … but these children were black, and the police chased them and beat them.”
An instructor, standing in the back of the room, pressed the cop for his reaction: “Tell me, does that give you any basis for our understanding of any modern circumstance?”
It was humanities hour at the city police department’s in-service training facility, and Detective Ed Gillespie was presiding, a gun on his hip and literature on his lips. Officer training is front and center in the national conversation about police reform, with advocates and progressive police departments alike promoting lessons on de-escalation, implicit bias, and the like. Gillespie thinks cops need something else, too: the humanities. In his classes, he teaches them Plato, Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, and Baldwin.
About 10 minutes after their initial exchange, the same officer spoke up. “It’s 1966, so policing a white neighborhood [versus] a black neighborhood was completely different. Black neighborhood was looked down upon, and [to] this day and age, some people are still carrying that fear,” said the officer, a white man who’s a veteran of the force. “They’ve heard stories from their grandparents and stuff like that. And look, it hasn’t been that long ago …”