At Davidson, a study of policing, criminal justice and fake news

Protesters chant in front of CMPD officers in November after the officer who shot Keith Scott was not indicted.
Protesters chant in front of CMPD officers in November after the officer who shot Keith Scott was not indicted. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The unrest after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and news that a fellow Wildcat graduate helped push fake news to millions of people during the 2016 presidential election cycle hit me hard because they represent things extremely close to my heart: journalism, criminal justice reporting and Davidson College.

That’s what drove my decision to return this fall to the college, where as the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy I will teach journalism courses dealing with policing and criminal justice, fake news and journalistic ethics. The first day of class was appropriately interrupted by the moon deciding to blot out the sun for a few minutes, casting unusual shadows and a pale over the area. That’s precisely how the past year and a half-long news cycle has made the country feel: out of sorts, with the most unusual presidential election cycle in modern times and clashes about how we are policed, how we should protest and the rise of open, hoodless white supremacy.

By the end of this semester, we hope to provide more light and less heat, more fact and less speculation. To that end, students will interview area police officers, study the intricacies of police training and re-examine a 20-year-old shooting in Davidson that ended in the death of a cop and the young man who killed that cop.

The students will launch an implicit bias project that will involve not only police officers, but Davidson College leaders and professors. We hope to move out of the realm of the abstract and test what implicit bias actually means at a place like Davidson, and in the broader world. We don’t know what students will uncover – Do professors and other academic professionals score any differently on the test than police officers? Does it matter either way? – but are eager to find out. The plan isn’t to judge, but to examine.

Issac Bailey Photo by Steve Jessmore

To that end, we have begun reaching out to people who can help provide students a rounded view of these incredibly complex problems, including a police officer forced to shoot a fleeing suspect, family and associates of a man who was shot by police, and attorneys and other legal experts who can provide insight from what they’ve experienced inside the courtroom, police station and training room. If you know of individuals who may be able to help, please let us know and we’ll see if it makes sense to have them visit a class or to provide their insight in some other way.

The recent explosions of unrest in Charlotte, Charlottesville and elsewhere have raised myriad questions in the minds of local students, and we are hoping that a serious examination will help them process what’s going on in the world today, and possibly inspire them toward solutions the rest of us haven’t even contemplated.

That’s why we also reached out to Cam Harris, the recent Davidson College graduate who made national headlines when The New York Times reported that he was at the center of the proliferation of fake news during this past presidential election cycle. We hope he plans to participate in this process in any way he feels comfortable.

During times like these, it is more important than ever that we make decisions and judgments based on a sober, serious reading of the facts, no matter how uncomfortable or ugly. We’ll be busy doing that this fall and hope others follow suit.