Tanya Gladney.

Tommie Experts: College of Arts and Sciences' Tanya Gladney on Police Reform

Tommie Experts taps into the knowledge of St. Thomas faculty and staff to help us better understand topical events, trends and the world in general.  

Since the killing of George Floyd by police and the ensuing protests across the world, law enforcement has been under intense scrutiny. With words including reform, defund and abolish being mentioned when it comes to police structures, there are many ideas currently being discussed. The Newsroom turned to Sociology and Criminal Justice Associate Professor and Department Chair Tanya Gladney, who has worked with police departments for nearly a decade leading cultural awareness, racial equity and implicit bias training, to gain a better understanding of the subject.   

With a law enforcement and military background that includes 10 years as a police officer and eight years with the United States Army Reserve, Gladney knew she wanted to contribute to the criminal justice field and found her place in academia as a sociologist. In her classes at St. Thomas, she teaches the history of policing, the role of police in society and what training in law enforcement looks like, including in the areas of excessive use of force and ethics.   

Well respected in her field, Governor Tim Walz recently appointed Gladney to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), an occupational regulatory agency responsible for licensing more than 10,000 peace officers.   

The Newsroom talked with Dr. Gladney about her new POST role, what changes she believes are needed when it comes to policing and how the death of George Floyd has affected her.    

Why did becoming a member of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training appeal to you?   

Being a person of color and female, I feel it's important to have diverse perspectives and I look forward to adding that lens to the board. I may see things through a different lens, and you need all lenses. You need additional voices about policing from the communities that law enforcement serves. Being on the board, I can help contribute to the law enforcement profession in Minnesota by supporting the mission of the board to provide equitable service across all communities. I consider myself to be a bridge – I understand law enforcement and I also understand community needs. I would like to bring that voice to the board.  

With the current conversations we're having about police reform, it's important to have those different perspectives more so now than ever on the board when making decisions, looking at different types of training and understanding how certain things may have a different meaning to different communities. Understanding some of those nuances will help enhance the type of training that law enforcement receives to fill in those gaps, to fill in those blind spots certain training may indirectly be teaching. They may not understand what it’s like through the lens of a different perspective and that might produce unintended outcomes that can cause inequity when the goal is to serve and protect.  

Discussion concerning the current system of policing has ramped up since the killing of George Floyd. What are your thoughts on police reform?  

Studies have shown for many years that when we're looking at communities of color, they don't perceive law enforcement the same as other communities. Reform is needed to raise the level of equitable service and to reflect on the profession of law enforcement. Reform is a good thing for law enforcement as well by looking at different needs of the community that can be redirected to the proper expertise. That way, law enforcement isn’t expected to show up and have expertise in all these different areas where they can get it wrong. Sometimes they may get it right, but it can be detrimental when they get it wrong.   

As a sociologist, I think reform is needed to look at some of the social problems that exist within communities. There’s a lot of strain on communities in the form of unemployment, poverty, addiction, health services, etc. The proper expertise is needed to address these issues and that’s not always through a criminal justice approach, which tends to be law enforcement. I feel taking a holistic view on how we define public safety will include all those factors. Are we limiting it to just law enforcement? Without a doubt there is a need for law enforcement. But when law enforcement does show up, having the training that will equip that officer to understand diverse cultures, the different nuances and community behaviors is important. Let's take a closer look at that training. Let's do a deep dive to see what can be tweaked (or eliminated) and incorporate the voices of the community. They must be part of the conversation.  

There’s also confusion when talking about defunding the police. This doesn’t mean eliminating police, right?   

In general, defunding means to allocate funds more proportionate according to the needs of the community. That means we might need to decrease the funding for policing to increase the funding for mental health services, reducing homelessness, increasing job programs and adding more programs for youth. If people are hanging around and being enticed to engage in criminal behavior, usually that means they don't have anywhere to go or things to do. In general, that's what defunding can mean.   

Defunding doesn't mean that you don't fund the police department, it means you're taking a closer look to see how you allocate those resources. Words such as defunding, dismantling and abolishing policing will generate conversations on the role of policing in society, but once you move beyond the headlines, there’s still going to be a space for policing no matter what the catchphrase says. Using my sociologist lens, if you don't eradicate poverty, unemployment, addiction, homelessness – all of those push factors that drive people into crime, people are going to figure out how to survive and in some cases that's going to be through criminal activities.    

As a person of color and as someone who teaches and trains law enforcement, what was your reaction to the killing of George Floyd?   

I was speechless. It took me to a place of great sadness. How can a person be so heartless to the point to where there was no mercy. There wasn’t any concern for human life. A person who is part of the law enforcement profession, who has a badge, is supposed to serve and protect. To disregard the sanctity of life so cruelly and to not let up especially when you hear a person pleading ... the part that hurts the most is it was a total disregard for human life. And that was in a profession that's supposed to reflect protecting humans. This was the direct opposite. As devastating as this is, communities of color have always been vocal on disparate treatment of law enforcement – this tragedy has shined the light on those concerns.  

What I saw wasn't law enforcement, you're not trained to do that. Not all officers are like that, but this was an example of the type of corruption that communities of color complain about in law enforcement. Law enforcement doesn’t want that. Officers don't want that as part of their profession. They don't want corrupt behavior to reflect them as officers. They know that this reflects negatively on the profession. This is why officers are coming out and taking a knee. They're saying we don't support that; we don’t want this type of behavior in our profession. It's terrible for the law enforcement profession and for the community.