Engaging Community Through Police Training

Posted on 6/12/2020 3:58:18 PM

Abigail Adams Two years before the death of George Floyd, Abbie Adams, a faculty member in the IUP Department of Anthropology and director of the IUP Global Health Program, was aligning her research to train police departments about concerns over racism and social injustice. Through a partnership with Indiana Borough Police Chief Justin Schawl, Adams, a native of Indiana, has given multiple trainings and engaged with officers on topics ranging from implicit bias to equality and race to local police forces. She answered questions about how her research interests are relevant to the current state of race relations in America.

In more detail, can you explain how you are training police departments?

What I talk to departments about is seeing the whole person. Using terminology in their interactions with a community member that respect and validate the person they’re engaged with. I also talk to them about the racism that is embedded in Appalachia. Indiana is in northern Appalachia, and there’s tension in this town, the same kind of tension that exists in many university towns. I teach ways to look at the cultural differences and explain how to use them in a positive way. Through my interactions with the police force over the last 24 months, I have grown in my understanding of police and what they face when they approach a scene. Working with men and women in the police departments has helped me to understand their challenges. I have a better understanding of a complex system, which, in turn, allows me to better develop instruction and training that I know will lead to substantive change. 

The success of this collaboration is founded on the department’s openness and willingness to have a social scientist come in and “tag along.” I would get nowhere without the help of the force, and it is Chief Schawl who has made this all possible. He is invested in the development of the department on key issues which align with being a welcoming community. This long-standing collaboration isn’t ending soon. In addition to larger half-day trainings, I also organize short discussions and presentations in their roll call meetings on topics that are relevant to situations as they arise.

How does a medical anthropologist get involved with police training?

I study stress and what it does to the body. And, in turn, how stress impacts health and community. If you live in a community that is welcoming and looks out for you, research shows there are better health outcomes. The Indiana Borough council voted a few years ago to be a “welcoming community.” Inside that designation were recommendations about how to do just that. One of those suggestions was broader training for police forces in the areas of social justice and equity.

I develop my instruction utilizing a holistic approach with a goal of bringing better health to the community through positive police work. Research reveals if stress is reduced in the community and the social environment is better, then health outcomes are better. If people have access to good education, food, safe housing, and clean environments, then populations experience less poverty, obtain more steady employment, and there are fewer incidents of abuse and assault. In return, less people are sick and going to doctors or admitted to hospitals, which decreases the cost of health care in the country. This is about building healthful communities, and the police force wants to be a part of a community where people can thrive.

What about your research will specifically help police?

My research supports the training instruction I feel will speak to the issues; inequality, racism, police brutality, etc. The phase of research I’m in right now is a larger ethnographic project with the Indiana Borough Police Department. I’ve been doing three- to four-hour ride alongs in their patrol cars, while they’re on duty, so I can witness the culture, interactions, and challenges they face. Immersing myself in the department in that way allows me to view the profession in a more intimate way to truly see where strengths and weaknesses are.

I’ll be able to review what I found and start to develop more authentic material to present to the department that is grounded in research and speaks to the mentality officers have when they do their job and the organizational culture in which they operate. Our goal is to publish our findings in academic journals and police periodicals and then, ultimately, be able to share training materials with police departments interested in content that speak to their rank and culture at all levels of the organization.

More about Abigail Adams

  • PhD, Anthropology, University of New Mexico
  • MA, Anthropology, University of New Mexico
  • BA, Sociology and Anthropology, College of Wooster, Ohio

Courses She Teaches

  • ANTH 110 Contemporary Anthropology
  • ANTH 211 Cultural Anthropology
  • ANTH 240 Introduction to Global Health
  • ANTH 314 Contemporary Native American Cultures
  • ANTH 350 Anthropology of Gender
  • ANTH 352 Anthropology of Human Rights
  • ANTH 430 Anthropology of Food
  • ANTH 444 Medical Anthropology
  • ANTH 493 Internship in Anthropology
  • ANTH 581 Anthropology of Human Rights

What is your feeling about race relations and police departments?

I have had to challenge my own perceptions and stereotypes of police when I started this work. I now know and believe that change can happen within police forces. But it won’t happen without a national dialogue on systemic racism. I feel that change happens at the local level; community people engaged with their police forces daily is where and how this change can happen. It’s not going to happen only with laws and directives from Washington or state houses where legislators dictate the rules of interaction. It happens with real people in these roles who are invested in the betterment of their community and the health of each other.  

It’s important to remember that humans have lived for thousands of years in a world where the color of your skin didn’t determine your worth within society. It’s not in our DNA to think this way about race. Our understanding of race in the United States is only about 300–400 years old. In America, we can’t even imagine a world without race because we’re conditioned to think this way, but we can live in a world again where racial division does not exist. This isn’t the way the world is ordered; this is the way we’ve ordered it.