How useful are the humanities? This policeman has an answer.

Historians in the News
tags: NEH, history crisis

Frank Biess is the doctoral advisor of David Livingstone, an NEH Fellow, and Professor of History at UC-San Diego. A different version of the piece first appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.

Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has prompted an entire series of spirited defenses of the Arts and Humanities. Most of the arguments against these cuts have centered on the importance of Humanities skills in today’s workplace: empathy, critical thinking, the ability to write and communicate well. But there is more to it still. The Humanities can actually save lives.

Meet my History PhD student David Livingstone, who also happens to be the new police chief of Simi Valley. For the last few years, his days have started before dawn when he rises to work on his dissertation. Then he starts his day job at the Police Department to support his academic endeavors. A day-off usually means a day at the UCSD library.

David was chosen as chief of police not despite but because of his PhD. His city council was proud to appoint a highly educated chief. Community members praised him as an “intellectual.” The skills that he acquired as a History graduate student proved essential to his success. His instinct as a historian has kicked in while managing the investigation of cold case murders. Because of his experience in historical archives, he has helped homicide detectives to follow paper trails and discover new evidence, potentially overturning guilty verdicts for serious crimes. When a young man was put in jail, the same historian’s skills allowed him to get him out by proving investigative missteps and errors in the testimony of a key witness. The boy’s parents, the Superior Court Judge, and local civil liberties groups commended him for his work. Like many graduate students, David also taught in an introductory course on the history of the world. His knowledge about the history of Islam now comes in handy in establishing relations with Simi Valley’s Muslim community. When a teenage girl confided in him her experiences with Islamophobia and harassment, she knew that she was talking to someone who would understand.

If David’s experience in the ivory tower has followed him on the beat, his lived experience as police officer has, in turn, enriched his research. His dissertation asks a big question: what is the role of the police in a democratic society? David is writing a history of the West German “Federal Border Guard”, a paramilitary unit that was founded in 1950 and existed until 2005. His thesis reveals shocking continuities across 1945, with many former Nazis continuing their police careers in the postwar Federal Republic. But he also shows how the institution and the people within them slowly adapted to the different values of a democratic society. This process is one reason why the number of fatal police shootings in today’s Germany is 100 times smaller than in the US (10 versus almost 1,000 in 2015).

The key insight of his thesis – institutions can change, and so can people – is no less relevant for the role of the police in American society today. It reaffirmed David’s critical attitude toward militarized policing in the US. Throughout his career, he has promoted a zero-tolerance policy toward police abuse. He has been in charge of many internal investigations, at times having to make unpopular decisions. His Humanities background is especially important in Simi Valley, a place that is often mistakenly associated with one of the worst cases of police violence. In 1992, the Rodney King trial was moved from LA, where he was savagely beaten by four LAPD officers, to Simi Valley. The officer’s subsequent acquittal then sparked the L.A uprising. This is why some of my academic colleagues were reluctant to announce publicly the news of David’s appointment as chief.

But I believe David’s story needs to be told now more than ever. As he leads a force of 125 police officers, he will draw on essential Humanities skills as a thinker, writer, communicator, critic, historian, and humanist. Cases like his illuminate the many ways in which the Humanities make the world not just a better but a safer place – and actually can save lives. I, for one, would feel much better if all police chiefs had rigorous training in the Humanities. And for me, this is also personal: as the father of an African-American boy, I worry about the future of my son and those who look like him. The “Black Lives Matter” sign in our front yard was repeatedly stolen or defaced. This is why I could not be more proud of my PhD student, the new police chief of Simi Valley.

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