The Abolitionist

By David Preston

One evening last week, a police contact whom I’ll call Officer Terry messaged me to say he’d just finished a mandatory (WAC 130.11.020 (1)(r)) two-hour online “anti-bias” training course. The course, entitled “The Criminal Legal System: Structural Inequities, Monetary Sanctions, Policy and Reform,” is offered by the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) at their facility in Burien, Washington and is taught by University of Washington sociology professor Dr. Alexes Harris. It includes a series of PowerPoint slides narrated by Dr. Harris and is divided into four modules.

Dr. Alexis Harris (Alexes-Harris.com)

A captive audience

I asked the officer to give me his impressions of the course material. “My reaction on seeing the material was, What is this?! It sounds like CRT [Critical Race Theory] you hear Chris Rufo exposing. The absurdity of the ‘curriculum’ speaks for itself. It reminded me of another anti-bias training we had in 2019 where the instructor was another college professor. He had a captive audience of several hundred of us. He started down the implicit bias rabbit hole, and the pitch was ‘You are biased, and you can’t disagree with me about that. Statistics back me up.’ That’s an oversimplification, but that’s how it came across to me. I suffered through it. My takeaway from both these anti-bias trainings was that police departments are merely checking a box to say that, yes, our officers sat and listened to this.”

“Do we need training? Yes. We need anti-bias training. We do not need CRT. CRT is NOT anti-bias, it is Marxist. Anything Marxist is fundamentally anti-American and anti-freedom. Anti-bias training is smart from a risk-management perspective; it’s similar to hazardous materials awareness, sexual harassment prevention, and the like. But someone dropped the ball on checking the curriculum this time.”

He sent me this video he took of one segment of the course…

All slides and videos are from the “Structural Inequities” online course.

“The iceberg is a metaphor for structural racism according to Harris,” he said. “The implication is that cross burning (overt racism) and structural racism (the racism “beneath the surface”) are directly linked, that overt acts flow naturally from thoughts or social relationships. I disagree. I would argue that cross burning is a tiny chunk of ice, floating by itself in the big ocean of society.”

“In her presentation of crime statistics, she removes freedom of choice and personal responsibility from the equation [of black people who commit crimes]. In her view, blacks commit crimes because of structural racism. And if they’re caught, convicted and imprisoned? That’s structural racism, too. So everything is structural racism.”

–So what about black-on-black crime? Harris had anticipated that objection. In the slide below, she raises the issue but then quickly dismisses it, saying it’s a discussion for another time:

Black-on-black crime: an issue for another day

I asked Officer Terry whether any of his fellow officers liked the course.

“One coworker took it the day after me and he had rhetorical outbursts in response to Harris’s claim that punishment of criminals always reflects bias. ‘What about personal responsibility?’ he said. Another took it over the weekend. The first officer and I asked the third one, sarcastically, So how did your CRT training go? He just shook his head and rolled his eyes and said something about it being a waste of time.”

“Our command staff have to take the course, too. I talked with one of our commanders about his experience and he was similarly unimpressed with the course.”

I asked my contact: Did Harris provide any tips or strategies for how law enforcement officers should behave differently than they are now, particularly with regard to black citizens? “No,” he declared. “There was no guidance on how officers should behave differently.”

Officer Terry felt the course should be exposed for its CRT and Marxist underpinnings, but after reviewing the course material, I didn’t think I could make a strong case for that. I found the course troubling for other reasons, though. Regardless of whether the material is actually Marxist, some of it is still controversial and non-scientific, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, when opinions are presented as fact and students are not allowed to challenge them and are “tested” on them as if they were factual, that’s a problem.

One-way communication

There is a short multiple-choice test like the one below at the end of each of the four modules. These could be used as a tool to ascertain whether the officers understood the main points Dr. Harris was making (whether they agreed with them or not), but they could also be a subtle way of getting the trainees to agree with her. Trainees’ answers are determined to be “correct” or “incorrect” responses to the trainee’s choices. There’s no way for the trainee to signal that they disagree with the premise of the question; trainees must accept the material as presented in order to complete the course.


Like other UW professors, Dr. Harris is evaluated by her students at the end of each course, so the concept of being rated on her abilities is not new to her. Moreover, it’s a common practice for government-contracted training courses to include an evaluation at the end, with an eye toward improving the course. However, trainees taking the “Structural Inequities” course are not invited to provide feedback on the course after it’s over. Why? Could it be because no factual information is actually being taught in this course? It’s reasonable to infer that the CJTC chose not to solicit feedback precisely because they knew this training would be perceived by trainees as ideological indoctrination. Given that, the last thing they’d want to is invite trainees to air their grievances or create a paper trail showing that trainees found the course to be of little value.

Lack of a formal evaluation process wouldn’t stop trainees from giving informal feedback, but such feedback can be easily ignored. One of Officer Terry’s colleagues did some critical feedback on the course to their commander who had also taken the training and who also saw problems with it. The commander agreed to pass along the feedback but was “not encouraging” about whether the message would get through.

When I asked Dr. Harris about the lack of an evaluation process for the course, she didn’t respond directly to the question. (See my questions to her in the “Going to the source” section below).

Personal Opinions Matter

Along with the course materials Officer Terry sent me, he included one of Dr. Harris’s tweets in which she thanks her research collaborators and encourages them to continue their “fight for [police] abolition.”

Officer Terry found this tweet disturbing. “Great,” he said, ironically. “A police abolitionist who is training… the police. It’s like letting a computer hacker service your computer, a computer that will one day melt down from malware. Who at the CJTC let this Trojan Horse in? What a disgrace.”

Police abolition means different things to different people, but many take the word abolition literally to mean the ending of police as a social institution. What the word means might not matter so much in the intellectual void of the Twitterverse, but it matters a lot in the context of a scholarly lecture or police training course. Does Dr. Harris think that police should literally be abolished? If so, then why would she be providing a course designed to reform them? And what implications does being a police abolitionist have for her ability to present a fair view of what role police have in society?

Rather than speculating as to what her understanding of the word meant, I asked her in an email whether she considered herself an abolitionist and, if so, what the term meant to her. She declined to answer, saying it was a personal question and not related to the course material.

In a September 2020 interview with King 5 news anchor Joyce Taylor, Harris spoke favorably of “depolicing.” Depolicing, like abolition, has a wide range of meanings, so in my email I asked Harris what that term meant to her. She again declined to answer, saying it was a personal question.

It gets worse

In the same interview, Harris repeated an oft-cited myth on the left that modern policing has its origins in the slave-catching “patrollers” of the antebellum South:

Source: King 5 TV

A reasonable person might conclude that statements like this reflect the speaker’s attitude toward police officers, and white male officers in particular.

Still, Harris made this statement back in 2020 in the heat of the George Floyd riots. I thought that she might have changed her position since the, so in my email to her, I pointed out that the first five municipal police forces in the U.S. were created in Northern cities, the first one being in the strongly anti-slavery city of Boston, in 1835 [Source] and asked her if she still believes that there’s a direct connection between “slavecatching” and police. But here again, she declined to answer on the grounds that it was a personal question and had nothing to do with the material or the way she taught the course.

Going to the source

In all, I asked Dr. Harris nine questions about herself and the course. I didn’t bring up Critical Race Theory or Marxism because I didn’t see anything in the course material Officer Terry gave me suggesting that it reflected a Marxist perspective, and in any case,. I didn’t want to muddle things up with an arcane discussion of theory. Most important, I didn’t want to put Harris on the defensive as I knew such a questions would have. My questions to her therefore reflected only the reasonable concerns Officer Terry brought to me about her attitudes toward police and about the lack of practical guidance provided in the course.

You can see the full text of my questions by clicking on the image to the right.

Dr. Harris told me she couldn’t answer all my questions in detail, and in fact she didn’t answer any of them in detail, and in some cases she skipped the question all together.

Below is a synopsis of my questions with Harris’s verbatim responses. In some cases, I had to guess on which answer went with which question. I gave her numbered questions but she didn’t reply in the same order:


Question 1: Can I view the course material online somewhere?

Alexes Harris: I don’t think it is online for you to access. I’m not sure how law enforcement access the modules.


Question 2: What specific implications does structural racism have for police engaging with black and brown offenders they witness engaged in crimes?

AH: [No response.]


Question 3: Would you describe yourself as a police abolitionist? If so, what does that mean to you?

AH: [No response.]


Question 4: Do you support “defunding” the police? If so, what does that term mean to you?

AH: [No response.]


Question 5: Did you work with any patrol officers in Seattle or elsewhere in Washington as you were developing this training? If so, what did they contribute to the training? If not, why not?

AH: The cadet training facility* asked me to prepare a training on structural racism and my area of research – monetary sanctions. Their request was in response to the new state statute that requires a certain hours of this type of information. The leadership at the training facility (current and former law enforcement) reviewed all material. I have presented to different groups three times and incorporated all of their feedback and suggestions. 


Question 6: Some of the material is controversial but it is presented as factual and the post-module quizzes reinforce that. Given the one-way nature of online training it could be an obstacle to learning. Would you consider making the course more interactive? If so, how would you do that?

AH: People are not required to pass any test prior to moving through the modules.** No one is monitoring their responses in fact there is no where to enter in test question responses. It is supposed to be reflective. I do think material is best learned through interaction. However, the online modules were what the training facility wanted.

The material is all based on research that is peer reviewed. Any claim or fact, concepts I discuss has links to official sources (are cited as on each slide) and I also provided a bibliography of all sources.


Question 7:  There is no post-course evaluation. Can you see how that might prevent students keeping an open mind about the material? Give me your thoughts.

AH: [No response.]


Question 8: Do you have a metric by which you judge whether this course is having any effect on the behavior of law enforcement officers? If so, what is that metric?

AH: [No response.]


Question 9: In a King 5 interview from 2020, you said that modern policing evolved from slave-catching in the antebellum South. Do you still believe that? If so, how does it influence your training material?

AH: [No response.]


*The Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission is not a “cadet academy.” It provides in-service training to all Washington peace officers (except WSP). It also runs the Basic Law Enforcement Academy but officers in training are called recruits, not cadets.
**Officer Terry disputes this claim: “I had to answer the questions correctly to move on. I know this because in one of the modules I missed two of the questions and had to take it again and get the correct answers to get to the next module. 

A few minutes after sending her reply, Dr. Harris sent me a clarifying note. Perhaps she felt that leaving six questions out of nine unanswered looked bad and she wanted to explain:

“I’ll add to what I just sent you,” she said. “I think many of these questions should be directed at the leadership at the WA law enforcement training facility as they were the ones who decided on what and how the curriculum would be designed. I also will not answer any of the personal questions as they are not relevant to the scholarship and teaching I engage in.” [Emphasis added.]

Dr. Harris talks about her research work in this video from 2020. (YouTube)

Summary

Officer Terry and his colleagues believe that anti-bias training is a necessary part of their job, but they struggle with some of the concepts and claims in Dr. Harris’s course. My initial purpose in writing this piece was to help her better connect with trainees like Officer Terry who are understandably skeptical of both the material and the trainer. Officers are less likely to be receptive to such training when it’s filtered through an ideological lens and where there is no classroom engagement, as there would be with an in-person class or even a zoom meeting. I wanted to see whether Harris was open to an officer’s feedback when passed along by a third party, but I didn’t want her to see me as hostile, so I was careful how I worded my questions. Unfortunately she made scant reply to three of my nine questions, ignoring the others.

To my question about whether she’d sought input from officers while devising the course, Harris replied that she’d prepared it in response to a request from the CJTC and that “current and former law enforcement” had reviewed it. In other words, she didn’t answer the question. She left unanswered substantive questions about how she measured the success of the course or how a trainee might put the material into practical use. Should officers treat black citizens differently than white ones? I asked her. –No response.


The “Structural Inequities” course features a raft of statistics, terminology, and theories, but there’s little information that a cop on the street can use to do a better job of engaging with people of color. If the  course were summed up in a line or two, it would be: The system’s biased and so are you. Here’s why… And this is sadly typical of the “anti-bias” training given officers today.


In her follow-up email to me, Harris suggested I take the matter up with the CJTC: “I think many of these questions should be directed at the leadership at the WA law enforcement training facility as they were the ones who decided on what and how the curriculum would be designed.” Forgive the pun, but that’s a cop-0ut. I will ask the CJTC about this, but I expect they’ll probably brush off my questions, too. But one thing I’m sure they won’t do is say that they contracted with Dr. Harris for a training course that wouldn’t give officers practical guidance on how to reduce bias in policing.

On the matter of Harris’s personal beliefs on policing, those do, in fact, have a bearing on her effectiveness as a trainer of police officers. How could they not? Her controversial views are a matter of public record, easily discoverable by any prospective trainee; they’re an open door for any skeptical trainee to walk by and slam in her face, as I’m sure many have done. “So you think I’m a latter day slave catcher? You want to abolish my job? I’m tuning you out…”

That Dr. Harris chose not to respond to my questions about her public statements speaks to her credibility, and, ultimately, her character. It’s as if she’d been caught plagiarizing another academic and then simply denied it. I sent her a final email explaining why I felt her beliefs do have a bearing on her effectiveness as a trainer, but she didn’t respond and I don’t know if she even read it.

Maybe Harris doesn’t care what her trainees think of her or her course anyway, and maybe she doesn’t have to. As an academic apostle of inequity (a black female, yet) her reputation is made so perhaps she doesn’t have to care about making sense or changing minds. In retrospect, Officer Terry and I might just be barking up the wrong tree here. In a world looking for affirmation that cops are bad, asking questions about how they could get better seems to miss the point.

–DP

ADDENDA

Slave catchers and police: What’s the connection?

Top image: Slave patrollers check papers of black men on the road in the pre-Civil War South. These roving militias were largely funded by a tax on plantation owners. Their job was to prevent slave escapes and capture “runaways.”

Inset: Seattle’s first and only black police chief, Carmen Best. Best resigned in late 2020 after the city council approved cuts to the police budget. (Karen Ducey / Getty Images)

Bottom: A protester is arrested near City Hall by Seattle police during a gun-rights rally in 2018. (Ted Warren / AP)

Slave catchers and police: what’s the connection? Despite the claims of anti-police activists and their allies in the media and academia, there really isn’t one. Slave patrollers were bands of armed and mounted deputies in the antebellum South. They were not tasked with keeping the peace or mediating disputes between individuals. They had one job only and that was to patrol the roads for runaway slaves. All other law enforcement duties were left to local constables and deputies. Standing police forces generally didn’t develop in the South until after they developed in the North, and this was because the South was more rural.

The first modern municipal police forces were founded in Northern anti-slavery cities like Boston (1838) and New York (1845) (source) just years after the creation of London’s Metropolitan Police Force (the Bobbies) in 1829. American police were tasked with the same job as those in London: keeping the peace. If American police evolved from slave patrollers, what did the Bobbies evolve from? I’d be curious to know what Dr. Harris thinks about that, if the question’s not too personal.

So where does this mythical link between slave patrollers and modern-day police come from? Modern police, like the slave patrollers of old, are an armed body empowered to enforce the law, so there’s a superficial similarity there. It’s also true that police departments created in the South after the Civil War were tasked with enforcing racist Jim Crow laws and racist social norms. But that was primarily a function of Southern society and not policing per se. Southern courts would be even more culpable for that state of affairs as Southern police forces, so why doesn’t Dr. Harris extend her argument to courts as well? Why doesn’t she style herself a court abolitionist? (In a way, she is one, but I’m sure she would never use that term to describe herself or any of her colleagues. It’s too soon for that.)

Unlike the slave patrollers and the notorious Southern sheriffs, modern police are required to enforce laws equally on all citizens, and if they fail to, there are legal remedies. Equating two institutions – slave patrollers and modern police forces – based on characteristics that define one institution but not the other is intellectually dishonest.

On complainers

In this tweet, the black woman in Dr. Harris seems to be repudiating one of the academic woman’s core principles. If life is “never Fing fair” and people should “suck it up” as she says, then why is she teaching a course designed to make life more fair so people won’t have to suck it up? Or does she believe that some complainers are more equal than others?

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