HARTFORD TAKES ANOTHER CRACK AT CULTURAL-SENSITIVITY TRAINING

from Law Enforcement News, December 2004

Cultural-sensitivity training was ordered for all Hartford, Conn., police supervisors in August following a complaint from an officer who claimed his lieutenant had issued him racially-charged instructions during a roll-call. The two-hour training block put together by the department and one of Hartford’s community organizations had already been given to community-service officers, their supervisors and the incoming recruit class when Chief Patrick J. Harnett received a written complaint from Officer John Szewczyk Jr. stating that his supervisor, Lt. Stephen Miele, had told him to go after “people who don’t belong downtown.”

Officers had been told to be more aggressive in an attempt to staunch an increase in downtown burglaries. When Szewczyk asked Miele exactly what he meant, the officer said he was told: “If they aren’t white and they aren’t wearing a suit, I better have them in the back of my car, and find something to arrest them for.”

An internal investigation that was completed in September found insufficient evidence to sustain the allegation of biased policing. However, Miele was demoted to sergeant for having retaliated against Szewczyk and another officer who sought an explanation of his orders.

In addition to the diversity training, Harnett promised a revision of the agency’s General Orders clarifying language on racial profiling and officers’ encounters with residents. It was necessary, he said, because biased policing was “an extremely important concern of the Hartford community.”

Prejudice, Racism, Discrimination

Harnett is the fourth Hartford chief in five years, however, who has sought to address allegations of racially tinged policing. In 2002, five white officers walked out of a training session, claiming that the instructor was anti-police, anti-white and anti-American. [See LEN, Oct. 15, 2002.] “I don’t see anyone walking out,” Harnett told The Hartford Courant. The training is intended for supervisors “to understand perceptions of the community,” he said.

But for instruction of this type to be effective, it must not be viewed as a punishment, and it must include three elements: information about different cultures, self-awareness on the part of officers, and skills development, according to Joyce St. George, the co-founder and co-director of PACT Training, a firm that provides diversity training using an interactive, drama-based approach.

In an interview with Law Enforcement News, St. George said she prefers the term “cultural competency” to “sensitivity training,” which she feels often describes a type of instruction more akin to zoology. “What cultural sensitivity means to me is, ‘Okay, let’s sit everybody down and tell them what not to say to a Middle Easterner, or these are some of the Middle Eastern traits that you should know about,'” she said. “I consider that like a zoological study.” By contrast, cultural competency is as much about exploring officers’ own belief systems and biases, their perspectives and perceptions, as it is about giving them useful information on other cultures.

“We do something called the belief systems exercise, where we ask people how they come to believe what they do, what the messages were,” St. George told LEN. “We go all the way back to childhood and start looking at very different ways in which we grew up looking at each other. We get into things like gender differences — it’s okay for girls to cry, but not boys — and the messages we got from families, from church, from school, from friends that we don’t even know until you stop and start evaluating some of this.”

Whether officers realize it or not, she said, information is received through the filter of one’s own belief system. “You need to understand the filters so that you can make better sense of what’s going on and make wiser decisions, take better actions,” said St. George.

One mistake made by police departments is that they often neglect to add a skills-building component to their programs, she said. Part of that would include an upgrading of communications skills to help an officer read non-verbal cues that might differ from those he or she is used to seeing and using.

“Gestures could get you in a lot of trouble,” said St. George, “and officers may not know about that. They may not know how to slow someone down if they’re talking rapidly, when talking rapidly is indicative of their culture. They’ll tell them to shut up when there is a way of slowing them down so that you’re still maintaining a level of respect, as well as safety.”

Departments do not need to have knowledge of every culture, she said, but it “behooves you as a cop” to learn about the cultures of those who live within the precinct. For example:

  • In Minneapolis, which has one of the largest concentrations of Somali refugees in the nation, many officers have taken it upon themselves to learn simple phrases in that language. They have also learned that using a forefinger to beckon to someone is interpreted by Somalis as an obscene gesture.
  • With Hispanics making up roughly 35 percent of the 220,000 residents of Yakima, Wash., the police department now offers classes in conversational Spanish for officers and employees who want to take their knowledge of the language beyond the rudimentary stage.
  • The Houston Police Department launched a program to better familiarize officers with the city’s Asian-Pacific-American community. It includes a bus ride through streets that house its residents and businesses and a panel discussion led by community leaders.

Handshake

Without a combination of all three elements — self-awareness, skills building and cultural knowledge — a training program will not be effective, St. George asserted.
Agencies can undermine a program’s goal by launching the effort hurriedly in the aftermath of a high-profile event, St. George said, citing the example of the New Jersey State Police, which only began training on racial profiling after it was slapped with a lawsuit. She also pointed to the Abner Louima case, in which a Haitian immigrant was sodomized by a broomstick-wielding officer in the bathroom of a New York City stationhouse.

St. George was among the first trainers called in by the police department to conduct sensitivity training. It was a bad mistake, she said. “Cops take it as punishment. They consider it the flavor of the month because this is what we got jammed up for this time. It’s not integrated into the system. It’s not something you just give to cops because you’ve gotten into trouble. It’s got to be woven into the organization.”

In Hartford, the incident involving Szewczyk and Miele put diversity training once again on the front burner, said Lt. Brian Heavren, commander of the department’s training academy.

The program involves a facilitated discussion between members of the community and the department, led by its POST-certified instructor in conflict management. Presented with a question, participants break up into smaller groups for discussion, and then return with their thoughts to the larger group.

“We want them to see each other through each other’s eyes,” Heavren told LEN. “We were looking to have personal experiences related, and kind of expose both sides to each other’s culture. Obviously, there are misconceptions and perceptions involved and we need to know their experiences so we can understand how they react with the police.”
Conversely, community members need to know officers’ experiences and understand how they look at situations and investigate cases, said Heavren.

The session was a “natural fit” with a management training program the department had planned for its supervisors about managing in a community-oriented environment, said Heavren. “What happened was the incident came up, and that’s when we fast-tracked it to the supervisors,” he noted.

The next step for the agency is to take the training department-wide. “We’ll hit the remaining members of the department who haven’t caught it either in the first session or as supervisors,” said Heavren.