The Thin Blue Lines of Communication

By Cory Dugan

This article originally appeared in the 2016 edition of Bell Tower Magazine

Mike Freeman is a detective with the Memphis Police Department, who’s worked his way through the ranks during his 12-year career, starting as a PST (Police Service Technician) at the age of 18. He also graduated from Christian Brothers University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Professional Psychology and a concentration in criminal justice from the College of Adult Professional Studies (CAPS).

“Dr. Rodney Vogl [chairman of the Behavioral Science department] and Dr. Teri Mason [curriculum coordinator for CAPS] contacted me and said that Mike had reached out to them and was interested in possibly pursuing graduate studies,” recalls Dr. Kelly James, assistant professor of Behavioral Science. “But he had also proposed a possible class that dealt with the issues that police officers face.

Dr. James leading a class focused on community policing

The idea piqued her interest: “I’ve taught your generic policing course many, many times, and you kind of graze over community policing,” she says. “But we’re living in interesting times, and Mike had the idea of an educational experience that could go a little further in exploring our relationship with police.”

Freeman, as a police officer, feels pretty strongly that many in the public are not really “media literate.

“We’ve seen a lot of killings by police of unarmed black men, and it’s been on every newscast with the media dictating the story,” he says. “I felt like it was time to introduce the police side of the story and explain policing. I’m hoping we can open some eyes and learn that we all have to work together, police and community.”                 

James and Freeman started working together on developing the course on Police and the Community as an elective for the CAPS criminal justice concentration. At the outset, James assigned Freeman lots of reading material and had him do an annotated bibliography and some lecture preparation.

“But the media literacy piece is critical to this class,” she says. “So we’re talking about the police personality and police culture. There’s a hypothesis in criminal justice that maybe this job appeals to a more aggressive personality, or that the job itself creates a more cynical outlook.”               

She explains that for many years, the idea of community policing has been the main paradigm, where officers get to know the people in the community and work together with them as partners. It helps to clean up neighborhoods, and if the police need information the citizens are more willing to help them. Recent issues such as police shootings have made this paradigm somewhat more difficult.

“I believe one way to bridge the gap between police and law-abiding citizens is through clarification of laws, policies, and attitudes,” Freeman says. “This would help foster a better understanding of both sides. I want citizens to critically analyze media reports, and to identify and understand techniques used by media outlets to influence the thoughts and emotions of its consumers.”                 

James points out that the public often doesn’t understand the split-second decisions that officers sometimes have to make. “They also don’t understand how officers are trained. One of the biggest myths that people believe from what they see in the movies is that police shoot to wound, not to kill. But they’re not trained that way.”                 

The course covers historical events such as the Watts Riots of the 1960s, and deals with issues such as “over-policing” and “under-policing.” It provides information on what goes on in the police academy, how departmental duties are organized, and what going on a patrol is really like—with the idea that Freeman can provide firsthand knowledge and context.                

“Mike brings a lot to the table and will be instrumental in explaining those elements,” James says. “One of the things that concerns Mike is that citizens don’t really understand what policing involves—domestic calls and traffic stops, for example, are very common but often put officers in unexpectedly dangerous positions.”         

Officer Mike Freeman leading a class

The criminal justice system has three components, James tells her students: the police, courts, and the corrections system. “The police are the front lines, they’re the ones that deal directly with us. And they too often see us at our worst.”                 

James also points out that the key word in the term “criminal justice” is the latter. “Justice is a tricky word to define,” she says. “We have our students take philosophy classes so they will discuss ethics and morality. Ethics and morality and justice are all linked, and there are really complex situations involved in the criminal justice system.

During the first class meeting of the course, Freeman played a video from the old Dragnet television series that stares Jack Webb, creator of the series (which was perhaps the original TV police procedural) who also stares as main character Sgt. Joe Friday, delivers a monologue to a younger officer that closes with this summation: “You’ll learn to live with doubt, anxiety, frustration. Court decisions that tend to hinder rather than help you… You’ll learn to live with the District Attorney, testifying in court, defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, judges, juries, witnesses. And sometimes you’re not going to be happy with the outcome. But there’s also this: There are over 5,000 men in this city who know that being a policeman is an endless, glamorless, thankless job that’s gotta be done. I know it, too, and I’m damn glad to be one of them.

Freeman explained that policing is a family business and that he heard some of the same things in real life that are recounted in the vintage TV soliloquy. “My father is a police officer, I have an uncle who’s a police officer, another uncle who’s a police officer, a cousin who’s a police officer, and a little brother who just came on.” He and James plan to discuss how police officers develop a “working personality” in order to manage the challenges of the job.

Scheduled guest speakers for the class included Memphis Division ATF agent Marcos Bess and retired Miami-Dade homicide detective Sarah Times, whose topic was “Minorities in Law Enforcement.” Other topics of discussion included “Investigations into Case Studies in the News” and “The Importance of Media Literacy in News Coverage of Social Issues.”

Cory Dugan is Director of Communication Strategies at Christian Brothers University and a managing editor of the Galleon.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 10:07 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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