WASHINGTON — It’s an intense course on policing and Black history that often begins before sunrise, winds through the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and ends in a civic communion within the booths of Ben’s Chili Bowl.
One of the esteemed professors, after all, doubles as Ben’s historian.
But it’s a course where the instructors have seen their students weep, moved to tears in Smithsonian exhibits, as they confront past and present racial reckonings.
“It was a white officer, a 29-year veteran of the force, who turned his back to his buddies and came over to me,” Dr. Bernard Demczuk said. “There were tears running down his face, and he said to me, 'I never knew this history.’”
Demczuk teamed with fellow historian Dr. Sharita Jacobs-Thompson and the Metropolitan Police Department in January 2018, creating the class known as, “History of Policing in African-American Communities.”
The course is for MPD veterans and cadets alike, its curriculum developed with input from the police academy and the University of the District of Columbia.
“We delve into the African-American history of Washington, D.C., and also, the laws that came about which unequally criminalized particular segments of our society,” Jacobs-Thompson said. “We also discuss the role that police played in enforcing those laws.”
Jacobs-Thompson’s uncle retired as an MPD detective. Her father served as a dignitary protection special agent with the U.S. Capitol Police Department.
But the two professors said they keep their family stories out of the instruction, leaving the District’s history to speak for itself.
Veterans of the department are trained in a one-day, 10-hour course, while cadets take the class over two days, totaling 16 hours.
So far, 3,800 officers and 600 cadets have graduated from the instruction.
“We’re now doing an empirical survey to see what the officers have learned and whether it improves their behavior,” Demczuk said. “Overwhelmingly, the response has been positive.”
The results can be seen at Ben’s on U Street.
“Every Friday and Saturday morning, police officers come in, full uniform, and they sit with me at my little table at Ben’s and we talk,” Demczuk said. “It’s heartening to know that they’re using history as a guide to avoid what we’re seeing now across the nation.”
The course is now expanding – with its work far from complete.
“We actually are in the process of doing Part 2 of the course, where we dig even deeper into some of these issues,” Jacobs-Thompson said. “Because we need to delve into what has happened around the country that has shed a negative light on policing.”