Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Reimagining History at the Austin Police Academy

For the past year, Austin has deployed a group of community folks and city staff to analyze the curriculum at the police academy and suggest reforms: It's not going well.

The community reviews material, makes recommendations, but little gets implemented. It seems at this point like the goal is to stall until interest dies down and no one notices that nothing ever got changed.

A case in point is a section on constitutional history that Grits wrote about last year. It turned out, the instructor largely based the curriculum on a book by a John Birch Society propagandist who authored a nutball history called "The 5,000 Year Leap" which was popularized after his death by right-wing broadcaster Glen Beck.

This text makes a variety of unusual claims, pretending the Founding Fathers intended to create a Bible-based government (no "separation of church and state" here) and that the Jamestown settlement represented the birth of free markets and private enterprise. Jamestown, of course, was a company town, the company was owned by a king, and the economy was built on slavery and indentured servitude. But the author, Cleon Skousen, was never one to let facts get in the way of a good, neo-fascist narrative.

My wife is on the review committee and she asked your correspondent to assess this section when it first came up in 2021. Grits quickly discovered that some of the weird, faux history came from the Skousen book, including various jingoistic graphics that I located via a Google Image search.

Grits purchased a copy of  "The 5,000 Year Leap" and it's a piece of work. Much of it was just strange, fundamentalist rambling and little of it is relevant to policing. Skousen concocted 28 "principles" he claimed the Founding Fathers adhered to, but they're his creation, and more a reflection of the views of the hard-right edge of modern religious conservatives than any consensus held by the founders.

The latest version of the Austin police academy training eliminated much of the most explicit, ideological aspects from the book but kept the focus on pre-Constitutional history Skousen promoted, leaving the new version an odd and decontextualized shell of its former self.

The city staffer assigned to lead the review, Anne Kringen, pulled this course from the committee's review list last year, saying they wanted to make changes and come back with a better version. But before the review could occur, the same instructor taught this similar but stripped down version to cadets. 

Cadets were once again taught obscure details about colonial history, starting with the birth of free markets in Jamestown and emphasizing selected aspects of the Articles of Confederation and the Connecticut Compromise, but not the aspects you might expect. The lesson plan and power point contained no mention of slavery, the 3/5ths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, gender-and-property-requirements for voting, or any discussion of the interests of southern slave owners which dominated that document's formulation. 

Just before the curriculum was taught this summer, they asked a UT law prof, Andrea Marsh, to assist. She was called in at the last minute and not in any way involved in developing the history section taught to cadets. Andrea taught the final part of the constitution section, which is quite straightforward, accurate, and easily the only useful or valid part of any training cadets received on this topic. 

Kringen did not inform Andrea why she was brought in, did not tell her about concerns with the John-Birch-Society-themed historiography, and never mentioned Cleon Skousen or "The 5,000 Year Leap." Andrea told my wife she found the history "weird" and didn't understand why it was being taught to cadets.

When Kringen was asked why this was still going on, her response bordered on gaslighting. She claimed Andrea had performed an "evaluation" of the APD instructor's teaching, which was patently false. Andrea sat in on the class the day he taught, but had no input into the content and did not perform any kind of "evaluation." Moreover, because she wasn't told about the concerns with sourcing or the Bircher orientation of the instruction material, she had no context to understand what she was hearing, though she certainly could tell it had little to do with policing.

Kringen told the group it was "unfair to disregard Andrea’s evaluation and my decision to get her perspective and share it with the committee by characterizing it as being an attempt to validate anything." But again, Andrea made no "evaluation." She just sat through a "weird" lecture that seemed irrelevant and inappropriate to teach to cadets.

Kringen tacitly acknowledged this, saying Andrea thought, "some of the time spent on history could be better utilized. Her suggestion to improve the class would be to reduce the time spent on pre-Constitutional history and focus more on the [state-licensing-agency-required] bullet points." Of course, getting rid of the "weird" history rooted in Bircher ideology and focusing on actual police training was what the committee asked for a year ago. But that was not done.

Kringen still insists the same instructor should continue to teach the class and, in practice, completely defers to instructors as to what changes should be made to the curriculum. At this point, it's fair to say nothing substantive can or will change as long as that's the process.

I don't know Kringen so Grits cannot say whether this is an example of overt bad faith on her part or if she is simply disempowered in the process and police-department brass won't let her fix what's wrong. But it doesn't really matter which it is, the results are the same.

If the curriculum review can't get this fixed, it's hard to imagine anything will change regarding police training in Austin.

Clearly, that's exactly how the Austin PD brass wants it.


Mimi said...

There is a big difference between reading AMERICAN History and writing it. Obviously we can’t rewrite our early history so quit trying! We all learned that this is not a perfect country but it sure as hell is not the worst. Criticizing those who support it instead of finding solutions does nothing but dividing us even more. If AMERICA is so bad why are millions literally dying to get here? Why is that?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Your question has nothing to do with what new cadets should be taught in the police academy. No one is "criticizing those who support" this country. That's a red herring. Teaching accurate history is good. Teaching skewed, phony, ideologically biased history is a problem. Teaching history rooted in the ideology of the John Birch Society is an abomination.

Anonymous said...

There is a thing called "testilying" where a police officer lies in court - under oath - to get a conviction, believing that it is for the greater good (it isn't).

The training in a police academy history class shouldn't condone that criminal conduct with an instructor lying to his students about their nation's history.

You don't teach integrity by lying about the nation's history.

Jeff Davidson said...

Hi Mimi!

I used to be a law enforcement instructor in Virginia. There's a role for teaching history to LEOs or civilian employees, but it should be factually accurate history and should be relevant to the job at hand. There's virtually - maybe literally - nothing about Jamestown that would be relevant to the job of a modern LEO. There's also virtually nothing that is accurate in Skousen's work. Political extremism has it's place in the national dialogue, but that place is not in a classroom for people who will be enforcing the law.

Anonymous said...

Your conception of the John Birch society as "neo-fascist" is just as wrong as construing the original Constitution of 1789 as some kind of laissez-faire apology.

You probably don't realize that the John Birch Society was intended to serve the purposes of people who think like you, Grits. The actual fascists who began with the Birch society either left or were forced out. In fact, JBS is regarded by White Nationalism 1.0 as the poster child for intentionally weak and ineffective opposition.

At its heart, the Birchers were a conservative organization. No fascist supports laissez faire economics.

The effectiveness of the John Birch Society was that it was a catch basin to keep people on the far right away from white identity politics. Free market economics might seem like just another code word for racial politics, but in fact it is not.

JBS is and was the system's own controlled opposition, pretending to oppose what fascists actually do.