Before the 139th class of Austin Police Department cadets graduate in August, they’re getting some hands-on training, not just in the law or how to enforce it, but in the cultures of the people who call Austin home.
The training this year takes APD cadets to the Asian American Resource Center, a mosque, the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center and a presentation at the Mexican Consulate in Austin.
“They get to go out into the community and learn about different cultures or religions and get to get over maybe some biases they had coming into the tour,” said Jennifer Durham, a Senior Police Officer with APD who also works as a cadet instructor.
This year the cadets are also visiting the new Psychiatric Emergency Services clinic run by Integral Care.
Durham says the cadets are sent to the largest groups in Austin with people they’ll most likely encounter once they graduate.
“I could go and research all these groups and I could give a presentation to all the cadets, but I don’t think it really means anything unless they’re able to come out and actually encounter the religion or the culture or ask their own questions,” Durham said.
APD’s community Immersion program began in 2003, but Durham said in the last two years they’ve changed the format so that all the cadets are bused around to community locations. Previously, each group of cadets would visit with one community group, then present their findings to the entire class.
“[The current format] opens up that dialogue here when they are in the academy, so that maybe when they graduate or they are involved in, say a more predominantly African-American neighborhood, they have spoken to someone who has given them—not necessarily hints or tips—but has maybe opened their eyes to why someone may act a certain way when a certain situation happens,” she said.
She explained that this cultural visit around Austin is both the wave of the future in police training and a response to comments and critiques made to the department in the past. Durham says this is a continuation of APD’s goal to increase their focus on community policing.
It will create trust…
“Hopefully it’s gonna better ourselves as future police officers,” said APD cadet Vincent Heil. “The opportunity to better someone’s entire life is why I want to do this.”
Heil said he learned a great deal about different cultures on Monday, for example, he learned about cultural norms and traditions he might encounter if he responded to a call at an Islamic home. He added that the training helped him understand the ways, from eye contact to physical touch, people from different cultures might show respect or respond to police officers.
At the George Washington Carver Museum, Para Agboga spoke with the cadets about the history of how black Austinites have been treated and where they have moved, explaining what perceptions people may have about race in east Austin where the black community was segregated under Jim Crow laws. “There is a wound there, that is an every day, all the time thing. It’s real, it’s not imagined, it is palpable,” she said.
Agboga explained the anxieties she has a black mother about how her son will be treated under the law. She also talked with them about how race impacts the way people respond to police.
“You’re dealing with people who feel like, ‘I am a target,'” Agboga said to the cadets. “How often do you see a story and a mother says, ‘I am afraid for my son because my son happened to be born black?'”
“That is your reality. That is what you’re walking into. That is a heavy thing,” she said, leaving the cadets with many questions to think on.
Mohamed Umer Esmail, Imam of the Nueces Mosque, told KXAN he’s very happy to see APD’s cultural immersion program continuing. “I think it’s a very very important thing to do,” Esmail said.
Some members of Esmail’s congregation have been Austin police officers, while others are wary of police officers. He added that some in his congregation who are recent immigrants from other countries with lots of corruption may be hesitant to call police even in emergencies.
“So I think having programs like these will sort of alleviate that fear, and those concerns they have, it will create trust,” Esmail said.
Esmail hopes to see the APD cultural immersion program expanded to include even more cultures and religions in the future.
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