What Can Peace Education Teach us about Police Reform?

By Monisha Bajaj

After the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minnesota earlier this year—while the world was sheltering in place and watched the viral video—massive reforms are underway in Minnesota and elsewhere to defund and transform police forces. In Minnesota, one month after Floyd’s death, the City Council voted to get rid of the police force. They have proposed and are discussing the creation of a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention that will have “peace officers” who would respond to emergencies.

Police forces in the U.S. have roots in the slave patrols that violently enforced the codes of human bondage. Across the globe, we see unchecked and rampant police violence from Brazil to India.  Reforms that take place in one location can certainly influence reforms elsewhere. As such, it is an opportune moment for insights from peace education to inform how police should be trained for their new roles.

As a professor of peace and human rights education, I argue that the new “peace” force must come from a holistic understanding of peace. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”  This aligns with the comprehensive definition of peace that scholars such as Betty Reardon and Johan Galtung have developed that peace is constituted by addressing not only direct violence (rape, war, police brutality, torture), but by also eliminating structural violence such as economic, educational and health disparities often caused by racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression. We also have to transform cultures of violence through education directed at telling stories of peace, cooperation, and solidarity rather than violence and domination.

Given the need for these new “peace” officers to have holistic understandings of peace, here are some recommendations for what should go into their training.

  1. Critical understandings of the history of violence, conflict and inequality in their society. Peace officers need to understand the roots and current impact of structures of inequality whether it be based on caste, race, ethnicity, class, religion, or gender. Books and other educational materials can offer new insights into the multiple perspectives on history that give voice to marginalized narratives. For example in the United States, books such A People’s History of the United States and An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (each with young readers editions as well) are a great place to start to understand the complex history of race relations and indigenous genocide in the U.S. Currently, most police departments do not require a college degree (just a high school diploma or GED). Instead, peace officers should have at least a community college degree with demonstrated coursework in race relations, social work, sociology, conflict resolution, and/or ethnic studies.
  2. Center Empathy and Solidarity. Training for peace officers needs to allow them to cultivate an understanding of the psychological and emotional impact of violence on marginalized communities. A deeper understanding of how communities cope with the toxic stress of structural inequality such as racism or caste-ism, as well as the adverse mental health impacts of police brutality from generations violent interactions, must undergird efforts to establish trust and rapport between peace officers and the communities they serve. In India, for example, human rights education has been a tool for equipping Dalit (formerly called “untouchable”) communities with the knowledge, skills, and strategies to advocate for justice (Bajaj, 2010; Bajaj, 2011).
  3. Conflict Transformation Skills. Peace officers must understand the roots of violence to understand the diverse ways in which conflict can be mitigated. For example, approaches such as restorative justice and community accountability can be powerful ways to achieve justice as opposed to the profit-driven prison-industrial-complex. Understanding how diverse individuals and communities approach conflict, dialogue, peacemaking and inter-group solidarity can offer multiple ways to restore “peace” when a transgression occurs. For example, in her work with incarcerated men convicted of rape, feminist and reproductive justice activist and human rights educator Loretta Ross talks about how through their dialogues, these men discussed their own aggressions as well as how they were often brutalized as young children; through the healing process of sharing together, they formed the first anti-sexual assault program led by men called Prisoners Against Rape in the 1970s.
  4. Deep Listening. Before jumping to conclusions often rooted in implicit biases, peace officers must be trained to listen and understand what is happening. What if police officer Derek Chauvin could have listened to George Floyd’s explanation after being accused of handing over a fake $20 bill rather than kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes? Emergency room technician Breonna Taylor’s front door forcibly opened in March this year with a “no-knock warrant” in Kentucky and before a question could be asked or answered, officers had shot her eight times to her death. In India in June this year, a father and son were arrested for allegedly criticizing the police handling of COVID lockdown enforcement; they were tortured and killed while in police custody. Listening first allows for greater clarity of the situation, rather than snap judgments that turn fatal so often in police encounters with marginalized communities. Deep listening can also inform processes of reconciliation such as in South Africa’s historic Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the 1990s, and efforts underway to undertake truth-telling in the U.S. (see also the Truth-Telling Project co-founded by peace education scholar Dr. David Ragland).
  5. Community Accountability. A majority of police officers, at least in the United States, do not come from or reside in the communities they serve. Many public servants have a “residency requirement” to live in the communities they are elected or appointed to serve (for example, in the U.S., see Boston’s requirements). Peace officers should be required to live in the cities they serve. When they see their children at school with the children of the families they are working to serve, there may be more pause before assuming the worst about a suspect, and utilizing deadly force. Obviously, a corollary to this is that the “peace” force should resemble the community make up in racial/ethnic/caste, gender, and other forms of diversity. Peace officers must be representative and accountable—a sharp contrast to the current constitution of most police forces worldwide at present. And, police must be held to account when they violate the law; in many places, including the United States, “qualified immunity” laws make it virtually impossible to bring a police officer to justice in cases of excessive use of force and deadly violence.

We have a chance to start anew with community “peace-ing” in this moment of radical reflection and transformation. If peace is our goal, then we must understand and ensure its flip-side which is justice. The global field of peace education has rich insights and perspectives to offer to the systemic restructuring of police forces and to the training of officers. Peace officers must be held to a higher standard and truly uphold and advance peace in the communities they serve.

*This piece draws from a framework for critical peace education competencies developed in the article “‘Pedagogies of Resistance’ Critical Peace Education Praxis,” available here.

About the Author

Monisha Bajaj is Professor of International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco. Dr. Bajaj is the editor and author of seven books, as well as numerous articles on education for peace and human rights, and migration and education. Dr. Bajaj has developed curriculum—particularly related to peace education, human rights, anti-bullying efforts and sustainability—for non-profit organizations and intergovernmental organizations, such as UNICEF and UNESCO. In 2015, she received the Ella Baker/Septima Clark Human Rights Award (2015) from Division B of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Her TedX talk can be accessed here.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I have shared it in my News Feed and implored my friends to read it. It’s high time we get on with the Call to Greatness—‘PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO ALL!’

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