A Complicated Relationship: How California’s Community Colleges Educate Future Police and Why Our Curriculum Needs to Change

By Keenan Norris, Rubén MendozaOctober 4, 2021

A Complicated Relationship: How California’s Community Colleges Educate Future Police and Why Our Curriculum Needs to Change
AFTER MY ESSAY “Racism, Cop Curriculum, and Campus Safety” was published in fall of last year, Professor Rubén Mendoza contacted me to discuss a revised community college curriculum for students who aspire to work as police officers and to share his own experiences teaching this subject at East Los Angeles College. This is our dialogue around the issues of college curriculum, law enforcement training, ethnic studies, and other related issues. — Keenan Norris


KEENAN NORRIS: In a past life, I was a full-time professor of English at Evergreen Valley College, a community college in San Jose, California. The school is notable for its diversity — the student body is roughly 95 percent people of color — high matriculation rate, and robust Administration of Justice program. For years, the campus was neighbored by the South Bay Regional Public Safety Training Consortium, “the Academy” for short. This meant our teachers and students were treated daily to the spectacle of future police officers plodding along on their morning marches and runs, hundreds of blanks being fired, resounding throughout the campus commons, not to mention the sights and sounds of hand-to-hand combat training, and lots of screaming.

After a few years of gunshots and krav maga combat as afternoon theater, I became desensitized to the Academy and grudgingly accepted the voluble spectacle as the price of our community college doing its business, fulfilling its larger educational mission to the students of San Jose, California.

The Academy eventually relocated to a different area of San Jose, not before imprinting the omnipresence of the police state upon generations of students and faculty. But the Academy continues to route its trainees through Evergreen classes, making for a problematic higher education partnership.

What can we do about this? I see three possibilities: accommodation, abolition, and reform. The accommodationist approach is the only one that has been attempted, and it’s also the least acceptable. Continued noncritical engagement with the police in service of fiscal prerogatives is craven and unacceptable.

The abolitionist approach is out of reach on both political and financial terms. Policing institutions are not going to simply dissolve into thin air because activists want them to. The police and their backers are equally as passionate and ideological. Abolishing the business partnership between the community colleges and the Academy would not only roil political conservatives, but it also would meet opposition from college administrators: in an economy wracked by a global pandemic, those tasked with the solvency of the community colleges will be loath to remove any of its steadfast economic pillars. Though abolition may be a worthwhile long-term goal, in the present term, it is fanciful.

Reform presents the widest range of options and is the most immediately actionable option. As a professor, I’ve found myself in position to work with many police-officers-in-training. It was my job to meet them where they were, not where I wanted them to be. And it is obvious that we are not doing a good enough job of educating future police officers.

In California, as in most states in the country, college is not a mandatory part of police training, which lets the Academy roll out a line of self-congratulatory rhetoric based on the fact that they are providing their trainees much more holistic preparation for public safety work than these people would otherwise receive. But the Academy’s curriculum is incomplete — it does not require specific and lengthy study of the conditions faced by African Americans and Latinos, historically and currently. The lack of ethnic studies requirements for these student majors means that our most educated police officers are still undereducated in the life conditions of most of the citizenry of our state.

This gap in cop learning also means that ethnic studies, as well as ethnic literature classes, which are constantly facing existential threat, are given elective status where, in fact, they are most vital to the education of a specific group of public safety professionals.

My proposal, therefore, is for administration of justice and criminal justice majors to include the following reforms:

• A mandatory course in Black studies that must be passed with an A or B

• Creation of such courses at colleges that do not offer them

• An independent study with a professor outside their major dealing with systemic injustice

• A thesis project on a historical or current ethnic studies matter

• Biannual policy panels on campus and community policing, held in the evening, open to the public

• A mandatory course in psychology for all majors

• A required associate degree in administration of justice or criminal justice for all California police officers

RUBÉN MENDOZA: In the midst of the Black Lives Matter uprisings in June 2020, 18-year-old Andrés Guardado was shot in the back and killed by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies as he fled. A young Salvadoran American, Andrés was a student at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, which is a nearby sister campus to East Los Angeles College, where I had been teaching in the Department of Chicana/o Studies since 2009. The killing took place about eight miles from the ELAC South Gate satellite campus where my position was informally based, in the same general area of Southeast Los Angeles that the satellite campus serves.

I did not know Andrés personally, but I have known him, hundreds of times over, in my classes. Like so many of the students who have reached my classroom, his trajectory traced a diasporic path of fleeing violence in his country of origin — violence propagated and inflamed, in large part, by US influence and policy in the region. Like so many of my students over the years, Andrés was a young Latino with big dreams and hopes. When I see his photograph, I can easily imagine Andrés sitting in one of my classrooms, learning about Chicana/o history, culture, identity, literature.

When I read Professor Keenan Norris’s initial proposal and account of teaching in East San José, it struck a deep chord with me — not least because I actually grew up in East San José, very near the college where he taught. I reached out and thanked him for sharing this important story. In response to his proposal about making ethnic studies a requirement for administration of justice/criminal justice majors, I shared some of my own story as a Chicana/o studies professor with experience teaching Latina/o administration of justice students at ELAC. He then invited me to respond more formally from my unique perspective. As I hope is clear, my account below is an attempt not just to provide such a response, but to work through the complexities of how to even respond in the first place.

Before providing this account, I want to address Professor Norris’s proposal, first with a question-based approach to lay a foundation of the difficult issues, questions, and contexts that my account traces below, and then with attention to his specific points. These questions include:

• What are the specific issues of interracial relations, racism, and colorism that should be discussed in the context of demographic changes in South and Southeast Los Angeles’s traditionally Black communities, like Compton and Watts, which have seen significant increases of Latina/o populations?

• What exactly is the responsibility and role of faculty in such efforts, especially faculty in fields like ethnic studies, related to disproportionate recruiting efforts by military and law enforcement agencies on campuses that serve communities with large populations of low-income students and students of color?

• If we entangle ethnic studies with law enforcement, do we undermine ourselves?

• Not every future police officer is going to enjoy hearing about systemic racism. What are the political ramifications of implementing critical curriculum in disciplinary environments that may be inherently hostile to analysis of systemic racism, and yet, for this very reason, arguably could benefit the most precisely from such analysis?

• These future police officers are part of the communities that we, as educators, are charged to serve. We’re also part of the communities that they will be charged to serve. So what exactly do we mean by “serving,” both as educators and as law enforcement, and how do we approach the complexity and messiness that result when those two areas intersect at the specific site of specific student bodies in classrooms?

In direct response to Professor Norris’s specific proposal points, I would add the following:

• Chicana/o studies requirement in addition to African American or Black studies requirement (and explicit specificity of these two particular fields versus a more general ethnic studies requirement)

• A clear, formalized structuring of who exactly would be able to teach such courses and a formal set of requirements involved to be established by qualified professionals in African American/Black studies and Chicana/o studies

• Independent study and thesis projects must involve Community Service Learning (through non-law-enforcement-related programs)

• Development of specific Chicana/o studies and African American/Black studies curriculum involving the relationships between communities of color and the legal/justice system (including law enforcement but also the corporate military-prison industrial complex, the judicial system, and legislation and public policy)

The above response to Professor Norris is based on my experience teaching at ELAC for many years. In 2016, I began teaching full time in the Department of Chicana/o Studies. But I had been teaching there since 2009 as a part-time instructor, so I was already familiar with the department and the South Gate satellite campus where my position was informally based. Over the years, I’d heard from several students about their discomfort with a sense of constant and ubiquitous law enforcement presence on this campus. But it wasn’t until I was going there every day that I fully realized the outsize presence of the Administration of Justice program and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies on the campus, including student members of the sheriff’s cadet training program.

Within the small space of the South Gate campus, the sheriffs have a relatively large, always manned office. In addition, the main entrance of the building has a raised lectern/desk station usually manned by either a sheriff’s deputy or a cadet. And many days during the week, the student AJ Club would set up tables across from this station to fundraise with snacks. Members of the club are AJ majors, and many are cadets. At any given time and place on campus, it is difficult not to encounter some form of law enforcement representation.

Unsurprisingly, then, I found that my South Gate courses included disproportionate numbers of AJ majors. In an economics or biology course, this likely would have little bearing on the classroom environment. But Chicana/o studies is a field shaped around critical examination of contemporary and historical issues affecting Mexican Americans and other Latina/os. The field itself was born from 1960s and ’70s political struggle against long histories of anti-Mexican white supremacist violence and disenfranchisement of Mexican-origin populations in the United States. It therefore involves study of state repression, including racist police brutality directed at these populations.

This includes the killing of Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies as part of a wider attack on peaceful antiwar marchers in East Los Angeles during the 1970 Chicano Moratorium protest. It also includes earlier anti-Mexican racist violence of LAPD officers working in concert with nearby naval personnel in coordinated attacks on Mexican American “Zoot Suit” youth in 1940s Los Angeles. And it includes the longer history of anti-Mexican lynchings throughout the Southwest after the Mexican American War and up into the 1920s, which involved heavy participation and coordination by formal law enforcement working with informal vigilante groups.

My classrooms at ELAC have always been almost entirely Latina/o, which reflects the demographics that the campuses serve. And when I’ve taught these kinds of historical facts, in general, I’ve found that students are often shocked to learn much of this history that usually is either not included in K–12 courses or is brushed over — especially because it is their own history. But by and large, once past the shock, students have always expressed their appreciation for developing critical awareness and understanding of it. This critical historical reconsideration and reexamination is, after all, precisely a key part of the purpose of Chicana/o studies and ethnic studies more broadly.

However, what I found with my South Gate classes, with their heavy AJ presence, was a different kind of classroom environment that required modulating my teaching approach. For example, I learned quickly to provide a clear introductory statement on the first day of class, in which I explained the history and politics of Chicana/o studies. This included the specific political meaning of the word Chicana/o itself (as distinct from the merely ethnic identifier of Mexican American, or other, more politically problematic terms, such as Hispanic).

“There’s a reason this is called Chicana/o studies,” I would begin. “That word Chicana/o means something political. What do you think I mean by that?” Tracing the history of this struggle and the politics involved would then help to make sure everybody understood, up front, what it meant to be taking a Chicana/o studies class.

This sort of modulation in my teaching resulted specifically from the presence of AJ students, whom I’d discovered sometimes reacted with more than just shock at learning about the kind of history detailed above. What I’d sometimes encountered was a kind of conditioned reactionary response to any material that might be remotely critical of law enforcement and other fields of institutional power. While unfortunate, such reactions are not surprising, given these students’ career and identity investments in law enforcement. Such investments often seemed to dovetail with more general conservative politics, but to be clear, this kind of conditioned response wasn’t merely about having a more conservative opinion; rather, it appeared to reflect a reactionary hostility to examining these issues at all in the first place.

At the same time, many of the AJ students who took the courses with open minds and willingness to engage the material often did very well and seemed to get a great deal out of the classes. Some of them were actually my best students over the years. Many would later communicate the same kind of appreciation for learning about their history and communities as other students did. A few, in fact, were so affected by what they learned that they changed majors entirely, including more than one who decided to heed my encouraging advice and pursue a path to law school instead.

This was the context in which I approached a colleague in the AJ Department (also stationed at the South Gate campus) with a proposal for a slight modification to the major requirements. What I proposed was inclusion of several Chicana/o studies courses in a set of general education classes that meet requirements for AJ students. Part of my motivation was, admittedly, to increase enrollment in Chicana/o studies courses on campus. Given the large presence of AJ students, it made sense to try to attract more of them to our classes. But beyond this, as I explained to my colleague, my experience working with such students had suggested that Chicana/o Studies might play an important role in providing these students with sorely needed historical and cultural awareness. Such awareness could potentially work toward addressing issues of police brutality and entrenched systemic racism in law enforcement.

My colleague responded enthusiastically and set about shaping these suggestions into a formal proposal. A Black retired LAPD officer, he acknowledged the value of ethnic studies and what it offered potential future members of law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, the proposal never made it through the long bureaucratic process, mostly because of unrelated departmental issues at the time. But the experience provided me opportunities to think further on the complicated issues involved in serving students — in particular, Latina/o students — who are on law enforcement career paths.

The complexity here included my own misgivings, as a Chicana/o studies professor and as a Chicano, about working with law enforcement in any form. This was not just based on critical historical awareness. It also reflected my own personal experience and the experiences of so many other Chicanas/os in my life. I wrestled with the proposal so much that I nearly didn’t follow through. What does it mean for a Chicano professor — of Chicana/o studies — to propose inclusion of Chicana/o studies courses in AJ curriculum? How would people in my field read such an effort? And my colleague’s supportive response to my proposal, as a Black man (and a retired police officer), only further complicated my position. What did it mean to receive such an enthusiastic and supportive response from a professor in the AJ department, who was also from a minoritized population (in addition to being a retired police officer) — and who was just so damn nice about it and such a nice guy in general?

All of it messed with my head as I weighed my various misgivings. These misgivings only increased in the aftermath of the 2020 BLM uprisings and in light of subsequent responses to them. Liberal politicians and administrators paid lip service to opposition of ongoing police brutality against communities of color, only to quickly fizzle out into milquetoast measures. “Bold” statements acknowledging the “problem” and handwringing commitments to change proliferated, sometimes even flirting with the more radical language of “defunding” and “abolition.” But then almost as quickly as such words flashed on social media, departmental websites, and press releases, the backtracking began. The irony of budget proposals actually increasing police funding to provide antiracist training, in response to defunding pressures, speaks to a more general phenomenon of mechanisms that function ultimately toward the same goal: maintenance of white supremacist structures, even through feigned efforts to the contrary. At the same time, such responses have dovetailed nicely with neoliberal co-optation of antiracist language to hawk goods with revamped “woke” corporate identities.

All of this speaks to the specific dangers of co-optation and appropriation involved in engaging sites of concentrated institutional power and entrenched white supremacism and helps contextualize my own misgivings. One thing that is clear from the first 50 years of Chicana/o studies, celebrated in 2018, is the kind of negative impacts on critical potential that can arise from having to navigate institutional pressures and violence. But one thing that is also clear from those same 50 years is the positive impact that can result from engaging institutional power from within. As I have often explained to my students in that first-day lecture, without the Chicano Movement and the development of Chicana/o studies, it is very unlikely that any of us would be there — in that specific classroom, or even in any higher education classroom at all, given the grotesque educational disenfranchisement of Chicanas/os prior to the movement.

Chicana/o studies was created on a model of inclusion within dominant institutions. One thing this means is that a Chicana/o studies classroom at a place like ELAC will have AJ majors who aspire to law enforcement, and the vast majority will be Latina/o because that’s predominantly who goes to ELAC.

And so these are not just my students, whom I am dedicated to serving to the best of my abilities, as an instructor, regardless of their major; these are also predominantly my people — whom I also am dedicated to serving, as a Chicano, to the best of my abilities.

I understand what is at stake on a deeper level than political disagreement or misgivings about engaging with law enforcement. Currently, Latinas/os are the largest United States minority population (about 60 percent of whom are Mexican-origin). After Asians, we are also the fastest growing minority population. Much has been made of the heavy swings in the Latino vote toward Trump and more conservative candidates in the last election. Data make clear that this swing has often been overstated and misinterpreted — pollsters fail to disaggregate according to various Latino national and ethnic identities, for example. But there was indeed a growing conservative vote away from stalwart support of the Democratic Party, and it is something worth noting. The importance of this point has to do with the related fact that about 30 percent of ICE agents and 50 percent of Border Patrol agents are Latina/o. It has to do with deeper cultural shifts that are occurring in tandem with the demographic shifts noted above. Specifically, it has to do with a push toward assimilation that intertwines with racialization, white supremacism, and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

After more than 150 years of anti-Mexican racism and exclusion from the melting pot narrative of assimilation into US whiteness afforded to other groups, some Latinas/os increasingly believe our “time” has finally come to take our place among Italian Americans, Irish Americans, and other European-origin populations. This particular American Dream involves manifesting our “destiny” as hyphen-less Americans with acceptance into the universal (white) “American.” Given the Trump administration’s virulent attacks on Mexicans and Latina/o migrants (including documented human rights violations), and the related increase in white nationalist/white supremacist activity, it is perhaps comprehensible why some might gravitate toward such a model of assimilation: fear, anxiety, survival instinct, lack of historical political consciousness, 500 years of colonization baked into institutions, social structures, and one’s very DNA. Fearmongering demagoguery about building walls denigrates and others young Latinas’/os’ identities. In this context, I find it unsurprising, actually, that many might grasp then at what they perceive as an opportunity to assert their position on the “right” side of that wall of Others — with badges and uniforms to prove it.

But this model of assimilation has been, and always will be, one that is premised on “melting” into whiteness. And thus, it is about underlying imperatives to participate in excluding Others from the “pot” one has been allowed to melt into — Black people, migrants, Indigenous people. As we examine in Chicana/o studies, for Latinas/os, pursuing such a model of assimilation involves disconnecting specifically from Indigenous American ancestry, from diasporic migrant origins, and from any nonwhite racial backgrounds that are part of our mestizaje.

I did not know Andrés Guardado personally, but I have known him, hundreds of times over, in my classes. And as easily as I can imagine Andrés in one of my classrooms, I can picture his police assailants there too. In fact, on any given day, all three could easily have been together in the same class with me, learning the same material about Chicana/o history, working together on group presentations about Indigenous culture and resistance to colonization — or about police brutality and the white supremacist racialization of Mexican Americans and Chicano Movement resistance.

With humility in the face of deep complexity, my response here begins with asking what role I might be able to play in averting more tragedy like this — not just the tragedy of the lives lost to bullets but of the lives lost to shooting those bullets at other Brown people and at Black people in service to institutions built on entrenched white supremacism. With humility, I recognize my limitations as a teacher and the limitations of what any one class can ever really do to make real difference. But with humility, also, I recognize my responsibility to pose these questions and address them with action.


Keenan Norris is an assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. His just-published novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, explores issues of police brutality, over-sentencing, the surveillance state, and environmental injustice.

Rubén Mendoza has taught Chicana/o studies and English in higher education since 2009. He holds a PhD in English from UC Riverside.


Featured image: "LAPD Lakers Parade" by J R is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributors

Keenan Norris is an assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. His just-published novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, explores issues of police brutality, over-sentencing, the surveillance state, and environmental injustice.
Rubén Mendoza has taught Chicana/o studies and English in higher education since 2009. He holds a PhD in English from UC Riverside.


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