IUP professor uses programs to hold conversations about police use-of-force issue

INDIANA, Pa. — An English professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania is taking on the issue of police use of force.  She’s using several programs to start a dialogue that she hopes will lead to change.

Veronica Watson led the “Let Me Read You Your Rights” program along with the Frederick Douglas Institute Collaborative.  The goal of the online forums was to bring students, community leaders and law enforcement together to build relationships and understanding.

“We had topics like technology and policing, we had the court system and policing and the intersections there and really thinking about the history of policing and race, and all of those different topics. So it was a really intense experience for students to hear a variety of voices and perspectives, but also to be the leads of those conversations, facilitating the opportunity for people in our communities to come together and really take on these issues in a much deeper way,” said Watson.

Watson added that it allowed everyone involved to look at things from others’ perspectives and opinions.

“We’re developing leadership skills around that — how to learn about these topics, how to do things in addition to protesting in the streets, if that’s what they were initially doing, but also how to do that in a more measured and academic way. And hopefully that leads to some activism in terms of them wanting to get into politics or public policy and making changes in those arenas,” Watson said.

Another of the professor’s projects is called “I Fear for My Life”.  It’ll eventually be a website with stories, interviews and short movies. School systems all over the state can use it for educational purposes.

“We got a grant from the 400 years of African American History Commission to conduct research on policing, and these very deadly engagements between officers and unarmed Black people. When we started this project, it was imagined as a book project that was capturing this moment of so much activism, right? People leaving their homes going out in the streets, students doing the same as agitating for change on campus so the whole gamut of this,” Watson said.

Watson also is addressing the issue from the other side. She’s using her love of literature in a pilot project at the Criminal Justice Training Center. She’s using it to inspire, influence and help the cadets walk through stressful situations while in a calm environment, so when a real emergency happens, they’ll be able to apply their training.

“One of the things that really strikes me and that I talked about quite frequently when I’m teaching this material is that when we see an officer like we do with George Floyd kneeling on a man’s neck and he’s dead and there are other officers standing around, that’s not a failure of policing, that’s a failure of humanity,” Watson said. “We’re not going to address that problem by more procedures and policies and better training on how to drive a car or how to write a report: we have to address that at its root, and to really think about what is the disconnect that’s happening between an officer and the human being.”

Watson’s vision is simple. It’s a world where people of color and police are comfortable with one another.

“The hope is that one day there will be a time I’m not afraid for my children when they hop in my car to go around the corner to a store,” Watson said. “It is very personal. It’s about creating the community that you think you can thrive in, not just survive.”