The concept of utilizing the humanities to help train Providence police cadets might have once strained the imagination.

Thanks, though, to support from the administration of Colonel Dean Esserman, the Providence Police Department and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities worked together to redesign the 63rd Providence Police Academy’s cultural competency curriculum. The intention of the new curriculum, which was introduced last fall, is using the humanities to improve communication between police officers and community members. “Critical thinking is imperative to good police work,” explains Sara Archambault, RICH’s executive director. “We are trying to teach problem-solving, not just being reactive.”

During the last 30 years, RICH has served Rhode Island by spreading the knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, and ethics through various grants and projects.

As befits a community where most of the residents are members of minority groups, the police department is making an expanded effort to better represent Providence’s racial and ethnic diversity. “It was the right time and the right place,” says Pam Steager, RICH’s project manager. She adds that it’s not just the growing Hispanic population that needs to be taken into account, but the heightened complexity of the community. An officer, for example, might interact with a homeless, transgender, non-English speaking person in crisis. “How can they know how to handle a situation like that?” she asks. 

The new curriculum doubled diversity training to include 44 hours of subjects encompassing topics like mental health, Hispanic cultures, and sex and gender. An advisory group of local community members, former police officers, and experts in education, psychology, and anthropology worked together to create the pilot.

During the classes, cadets listened to community speakers like Eric Polite, director of diversity at the Gordon School, discuss African-American culture; They read essays such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and participated in role-playing and critical analysis. They even tackled poetry, say Steager and Archambault. To their surprise, the recruits responded positively to the somewhat offbeat approach. “Many of the recruits said there wasn’t enough time dedicated to this kind of training,” Steager says.

Armed with their new insights, the 12 recruits are now on the street. Detective Donald Latimer, an instructor at the Providence Police Training Academy, says the training is imperative since officers are asked to act, in effect, as lawyers, doctors, and psychologists.

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