Behind the Badge: UT Police officers take part in cultural competency class

Behind the Badge

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — With more than 30,000 students calling the University of Tennessee home, the campus can be described as a melting pot of ideas, beliefs and cultures.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, a new initiative was established under the guidance of University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd. The program aims to increase the cultural competency of the members of the university’s police force.

The University’s Law Enforcement Innovation Center has been tasked with the job of developing the program.

(Photo: WATE)

Their work, along with input from the Museum of Tolerance in California, devised a three-day workshop for officers to partake in.

“These officers are going to learn how to engage and be open-minded in their engagement,” LEIC Executive Director Rick Scarbrough said. ” It’s not about a PowerPoint presentation. This is about delivering training, getting everybody involved, and keeping them engaged.”

The idea, is not new. How the ideas are presented, is.

“I believe and hope that a lot of our officers, because of the background that we have, had a lot of this information already,” UT Chief of Police Troy Lane said. “This was just adding more tools to the toolbox, and really having us pause and think more deeply about how we interact with people.” 

It’s the dialogue that is the centerpiece of the three-day program. Allowing officers to share their perspectives on various topics.

“It’s about being in a classroom. It’s about being open and having discussions with other officers. Many of which represent other cultures and then understanding where they are coming from,” Scarbrough said.

It’s a technique applauded by Lane.

“There were a lot of scenarios,” he said. “Role-playing and really, just a lot of discussion about feelings and experiences and stepping outside of your own perspective and looking at things from somebody else’s perspective.”

As far as the topics discussed, they are in-depth, they are intense and at times can be revealing.

“One class that is really eye-opening is about them (officers) admitting and understanding bias,” Scarbrough said.

Chief Lane agrees.

“Having the humility to know that our bias is based on our own personal history, and taking the time to cognitively think about the impact we’re having on others with the bias we bring to any situation,” Lane said. “Also, having the humility to understand that, and to listen to people rather than to come into a situation with our own biases and base our decisions on that.”

Currently, the certification program is being taught to officers throughout the University of Tennessee System.

Eventually, it will be made available to every law enforcement agency in Tennessee.

“Public outreach is one of our missions. So, this is a service the University of Tennessee is providing,” Scarbrough said. “We have the expertise and the knowledge and that opportunity plus the know-how to research these topics and push this information out.”

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