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Beyond the Academy

Public History Shapes Police Preparation in Philadelphia

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When ACLS Public Fellow Jen Moses started her placement with the National Constitution Center as a program developer, she didn’t expect her portfolio to include training police officer recruits. Moses tells ACLS about the center’s innovative partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department to promote greater understanding of citizen rights.

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Philadelphia Police Officer recruits at the first meeting of the “Policing in a More Perfect Union” program at the National Constitution Center in March 2015. (Photo by Jeff Fusco. Courtesy of the National Constitution Center.)

I started my term as an ACLS Public Fellow at the National Constitution Center in September 2014, as a program developer in the Visitor Experience and Education Department. Equipped with a PhD in American history and a background in theater performance, I began my fellowship with the goal of finding new ways to help audiences make meaningful, enlightening and fun connections to the people and events of the past. I also wanted to expand and refine my own understanding of how public history and public learning environments can provide avenues of healthy discourse about complex and contentious current issues.

Early on in my fellowship, my supervisor invited me to join the development team for a collaboration between the center and the Philadelphia Police Department and Commissioner Charles Ramsey to create a new training program, designed to give police officer recruits a historical understanding of the constitutional rights and restrictions that are defined in the Bill of Rights. “Policing in a More Perfect Union” examines the history of policing in a democratic society, provides a forum for new officers to discuss the importance of their role in protecting the rights of all citizens, and fosters dialogue between the police and young people in the community. As program developer, I have played a key role at every phase in the project, providing in-depth research on historical and current debates on police strategies and legitimacy, writing and conducting portions of the training that examine key Supreme Court rulings on the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments, and handling key logistical support during training sessions. As the program continues, I will lead the effort to find and prepare new high schools students to participate in the community engagement segment of the training, in which the students lead recruits in sharing their perspectives on the relationship between the police and the citizens they serve. The student conversation portion of the training has been a key element from the outset, with 12 students participating so far. We plan to create a peer-to-peer training workshop to find and prepare new student participants, and hope to integrate at least ten more students into the program by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

The emergence of controversial discussions about incidents of police shootings, as well as the recent Department of Justice report on the need for a focus on de-escalation in training strategies, imbued this project with a rare urgency and raised the stakes for its success or failure. I feel extremely fortunate that my fellowship enabled me to be a part of this important program, and I have learned an enormous amount about the challenges and rewards of using public history institutions and programs to cultivate dialogue and promote positive change. 

 

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Beyond the Academy

This series highlights the diverse work of Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows in building new pathways for humanities scholarship. See the series.