Prospect Magazine: Cool Classes

Street Smart Scholars

In Richard Greenleaf ’s Police and Society class, students learn from their professor’s life in blue.

The students in Richard Greenleaf’s Police and Society class want to hear about his past. Who can blame them? Before Greenleaf, an associate professor of sociology and director of Elmhurst’s criminal justice program, began teaching classes about policing, he worked the topic from another angle. He spent seven years in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Department, first as a patrol officer and later as a sergeant.

“They can’t wait to hear the war stories,” Greenleaf says of his students. “But when I tell a story, it’s usually to put some meat on the bones of some reading they’ve done. I want to integrate the academic and the real world. It’s my job to expose them to both.”

In Police and Society, Greenleaf’s lectures jump from the textbook to the street and back. On a Friday afternoon in a basement classroom in Hammerschmidt Chapel, the class considered some ways police departments fall into legal trouble. The discussion ranged from the technical (the difference between malfeasance and nonfeasance) to the practical (how surveillance cameras change the behavior of the police and the public).

The technical points had students busy taking notes, but it was the practical bits of street wisdom that got the discussion going. One student volunteered that the proliferation of cellphone cameras and other video recorders should make arresting police think twice about using excessive force. Another responded that what appears to be convincing video evidence doesn’t always lead to successful prosecution of police. And Greenleaf told the class that even before cameras became standard equipment in police cars, he carried a small audio recorder with him on traffic stops. If the interaction took a confrontational turn, out would come Greenleaf’s tape recorder.

“I would ask the person if he would mind repeating what he just said into the recorder. That usually had an effect,” Greenleaf told the class. “Behavior changes when people know they are being recorded.”

Most of the students enrolled in Police and Society are criminal justice majors, and Greenleaf says more than a few of his students plan to attend law school or pursue careers in law enforcement. Many of the topics covered in the class—community policing, the use of coercive force, police corruption, racial profiling—are familiar enough to anyone who reads a newspaper or watches tv cop dramas. That may help explain why students are so eager to jump into the fray with comments and questions, and Greenleaf likes it that way. He says he encourages the input and feeds off his students’ interest and energy. But he adds that one of his challenges as a teacher is to counter the version of police life that students get from television.

“You watch Cops on TV and think policing is 30 minutes of action,” he says. “I say police work is hours of boredom relieved by moments of terror.”

Despite those moments of terror, Greenleaf says there are aspects of his former police life that he misses, most notably the camaraderie with other officers. Certainly his experience on the streets has added an extra dimension to his work as a researcher and teacher. His research includes several recent papers on relationships between police and young Latinos and
African Americans. Though they were once a rarity, Greenleaf says former police officers are becoming more common in academia.

“The field is more accepting of former law enforcement officers than it once was,” he says. “My experience serves me well. If we’re at a conference and we’re talking about the responsibility of supervisors in certain situations, I can say, ‘I was a supervisor, I know.’ In some ways, being a former officer gives me added credibility.”

His students, it seems, are not the only ones who value Greenleaf ’s war stories.

A former policeman, Richard Greenleaf directs the sociology department's criminal justice program. He says students "can't wait to hear the war stories."
Photo by: Roark Johnson

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