Students in NYU Law’s Democratic Policing seminar recently had the opportunity to do something rare: try out their ideas for policing policies before panels of law-enforcement officials who bear the day-to-day responsibility of putting such ideas into action.
The policing seminar is devoted to examining the ways that policing is governed in the United States, and to exploring possible approaches to promoting greater community engagement around police policies and practices. (The seminar also is designed to teach students about starting a social change organization.) Seminar sessions have explored the various obstacles to writing rules for policing and involving the public in that process. The seminar has welcomed a number of guests, including Vanita Gupta, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, and Sheldon Krantz, who worked with the Boston Police Department in the 1970s to develop policies to guide officers’ performance of their duties.
Throughout the semester, students worked in groups to formulate draft policies regarding various aspects of policing. Teams focused on policies regarding the use of SWAT; consent searches; facial recognition technologies; the role of Student Resource Officers in schools; policing data collection and retention; and the issuance of summonses in lieu of arrest for certain offenses.
In mid-November, the students had an opportunity to get feedback on their ideas from some of the police officials who attended the Policing Project’s conference on Democratic Policing.
The sessions were lively and kept the students on their toes. Law-enforcement officials in attendance peppered the students with questions, asking them to justify their choices, and sometimes suggesting the students flat-out had it wrong. Still, the chiefs and lawyers were very complimentary of the job the students had done, finding them well prepared and impressive. Scott Thomson, the police chief of Camden, New Jersey, said the students were “beyond impressive,” calling them “smart, articulate, and thoughtful.”
The students, for their part, had a remarkable experience. Several deemed the presentations both “exciting” but also “intimidating.” Nonny Onyekweli, a third-year student whose team worked on a policy regarding consent searches, remarked on how delighted she was to see the “policing officials so engaged in our presentation.” She found their hypotheticals, in particular, “extremely thought-provoking because they pushed the bounds of the rules,” forcing her team to think about how their model policy would apply in a “real life ‘tough call.’”