After the death of George Floyd and growing calls for police accountability, Minnesota State University, Mankato — home to the state’s largest four-year law enforcement training program — is taking a hard look at how it trains future officers.

And officials there are asking for the public’s help.

This month, MSU Mankato is hosting virtual, town hall-style community listening sessions focused on reviewing the college’s criminal justice and law enforcement curricula.

Last month, the Minnesota State school system — of which MSU Mankato is a part — announced that it would review its law enforcement programs in response to Floyd’s May 25 death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. School system officials said they will assess their programs for any potential bias.

MSU Mankato’s law enforcement program has been around since the late 1970s. The university awards more bachelor’s degrees in law enforcement than any other school in the state.

The listening sessions mark the first time the school has sought community input during the review process. Since Floyd’s killing, faculty and administrators said they thought it important to be transparent about curriculum revisions and updates.

Four panelists from the university — Henry Morris, vice president of its Division of Diversity and Inclusion; Matt Loayza, dean of its College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Pat Nelson, faculty chair of the Department of Government; and Sherrise Truesdale-Moore, associate professor of corrections — joined the first town hall session Tuesday, July 14.

The goal, Loayza told the members of the community who joined, is to ensure that the school’s educational approaches align with the real world — and to analyze the ways policing fits into the broader society.

“So, you’re looking at policing not just under a tunnel-vision, myopic focus,” he said, “but just look at how it plays into many of the challenges that we’re facing as a broader society and look to address these inequities on a systemic level and contribute to our broader society.”

Morris encouraged attendees to offer up suggestions for what future students should learn — and what key components might be missing from the university’s current classrooms. It’s important for higher education to play a role in systemic change, he told them.

“We’re not just innocent bystanders looking at it,” he said. “We have an active role in trying to make a difference. Not the only role and maybe not even the most important role, but we know we have a role — and so that’s why we’re here to listen in.”

As the university reviews its curriculum, leaders say they’re considering collaborations between the school’s criminal justice departments and others such as history and sociology, to approach instruction through a variety of lenses.

Nelson pointed to a freshman-year program in which criminal justice students learn about building relationships with the communities they police.

“That is a common theme that you hear from all of our faculty members is that we are community members, there is no ‘us versus them,’” she said. “We are all part of the community and you should be thinking of those people as your neighbors and not the enemies. That is a very strong thing that we try to teach.” The school’s program, she said, is not focused on what she called “fear-based training.”

The members of the public who joined Tuesday’s session brought both questions and solutions: They wanted to know if students are learning about the history of policing’s role in communities of color. They asked about de-escalation. They asked if white students who don’t come from diverse communities have opportunities to interact with people of color.

Some attendees asked about criminal justice students’ learning requirements, and whether some courses — history, for instance — should be mandatory and built into the curriculum moving forward. Nelson said that’s one possibility that the university could consider.

“Does everybody in our program study the same amount of history? No, they don’t,” she said on the video call. “Should they? Maybe they should. But then, deciding what part of that they shouldn’t or they should be required to study is a conversation we need to have.”

Attendees also asked if the program teaches students about the historic role that police played in enforcing oppressive and discriminatory laws and policies during the era of Jim Crow — and about the underlying mistrust many communities of color bring to their encounters with the criminal justice system.

Truesdale-Moore said that it will be crucial, going forward, that the school’s curriculum includes study of the underlying issues that create interactions between law enforcement and the community. Understanding those conditions, she said, is foundational to criminal justice work, whether in corrections or law enforcement, and that solely focusing on law enforcement itself ignores a larger issue.

“What are those conditions that create something that give you good or bad outcomes?” she said. “I don’t want to just zero in on what law enforcement has to do.”

The next step in MSU Mankato’s curriculum review process will be to convene a community work committee made up of members of the public and faculty to assess — and potentially revise — the schools criminal justice and law enforcement curriculums. Any changes the school makes to its programs would go into effect in the 2021-22 school year.

Community forums

MSU Mankato's forums are free and open to the public, but registration is required.

  • Monday, July 20, 5:30-7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, July 22, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

For more information or to register, visit mankato.mnsu.edu/about-the-university/news-and-events/criminal-justice-program-listening-sessions/.