“Drop the gun!” Beloit Police Department officers yelled to Ron Nikora, assistant professor of political science.
“I lost everything, man,” replied Nikora, slowly getting up from the lone desk in the otherwise empty room.
As the police inched towards Nikora, he only became more visibly upset, raising his gun and pointing it at the officers while walking toward them.
Several minutes later, Nikora was shot. Red rubber bullets lay at his feet. The exercise was over.
This training session, held in a closed elementary school in Beloit, was one of several that Beloit College staff, faculty, and students have taken part in with the local police department this fall. Nikora is spearheading the training partnership on the part of the college to build mutual understanding between the police and the community. Volunteers work through role-playing scenarios that help community members understand how the local police department trains and gives citizens a chance to offer input on improving that training.
Nikora says he feels obligated to do this kind of work after a series of high profile police shootings of unarmed black men. While those shootings happened far away from Beloit, an incident on campus brought home the potential for misunderstanding between police and students.
One night in 2015, an altercation at a campus party ended with police using pepper spray on a student. Nikora says that depending on where students are from and what their experiences are, a situation like that could have easily escalated. For instance, an international student may be living on campus but come from a country where police are never armed with guns. Or, a student could come from a place where police are not trusted and feared by the community.
The campus incident propelled Nikora to invite members of the Beloit Police Department to a panel discussion about police-college interactions, which in turn opened the door for the training sessions with the department.
“I do this work because I believe I have to,” says Nikora.
“We live in a society that is profoundly segregated. The average white person doesn’t live with the average black person … that means that officers haven’t been exposed to certain ways that people interact and behave in society.”
The training sessions took place over several months this fall, each time with Nikora and others role-playing in a range of scenarios to which the officers had to respond. At times, subjects could be talked down, and in others, lethal force was the only option.
“It’s helpful to know what the police are going through and how they’re exposed,” says Nikora. “It humanizes them. Being able to see the officers take criticism and have the trainers say ‘Hey, that’s a good observation,’ convinces me to keep doing this work.”