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To uphold the Constitution, police must know it

The Department of Justice will release a report on its investigation of Baltimore Police on Wednesday. (Baltimore Sun video)

Police officers enter their profession by taking an oath to the U.S. Constitution. They are the human face of the Constitution in their community. Current news reports about tensions between police and the community emphasize claims about constitutional rights. So why is there no concerted effort to make police constitutionally literate? How much better might police-community relations be if police were constitutionally literate and led the community in developing such literacy?

Constitutional literacy entails knowing the Constitution sufficiently well to invoke it properly. Such literacy is a matter of degree, depending on knowledge required in a given circumstance. A non-sworn citizen need not know the Constitution as well as judges or police officers should know it. But those who take an oath to the Constitution have the responsibility to know its contents and interpretations of it— such as court decisions — that are professionally relevant. Greater literacy would include understanding the historical and theoretical background of the Constitution, as well as discussions and applications of it since its ratification. Even the most basically literate person is able to distinguish the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence, recognizing that the two documents differ concerning law, rights, and justice.

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Having taught courses on ethics and on the Constitution to law enforcement professionals for two decades, I have amassed scholarly, anecdotal and empirical evidence of constitutional illiteracy. The students I encounter are excellent at their craft, but their knowledge of the Constitution, judging from their scores on an exam I give them, could be better: Scores average around 50 percent. Police basic training varies widely from state to state, with the duration of training ranging from 360 hours (in Louisiana) to 2,700 hours (in North Dakota), the mean being approximately 800 hours. On average, approximately 6 percent of the training focuses directly on constitutional matters, usually focusing on relevant amendments and court decisions. Having graduated from the academy, the police officer rarely receives further training on the Constitution.

Police officers may have a successful career without reading the Constitution. But how sincere is one's oath to the Constitution if one hasn't read it or doesn't understand it? How much more engaged in defending the Constitution might one be if one knew it well and understood the importance of being its public face?

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As an Episcopal priest, I'm encouraged to ponder the 2,000 years of history, tradition, wisdom and values that Christian clergy represent. People seeking a priest look to benefit from all the priest represents. Of course, all I can offer is one person's take on it, but the more I study and understand the tenets of the faith, the better prepared I am to represent it.

Similarly, police academy graduates taking the oath to the Constitution are committing to represent the history, tradition, wisdom and values that underscore the original document, its background, and its subsequent applications. These graduates have, in effect, been ordained into the ministry of the Constitution. This obliges them to know what they are taking an oath to, to engage in on-going study, and to help the community develop its constitutional literacy. As with religion, the conversation about the Constitution needn't suffer because of different interpretations and emphases, so long as everyone in the conversation has made a good faith effort to read the core document, come to understand it as best as one can, and commit to open and respectful dialogue about it.

To this end, one can imagine certain changes in police academies. Suppose, for example, recruits took the oath at the beginning of their training, just as the military does. And if not the formal oath, why not have the recruits recite the oath on their first day and then encourage them throughout the training to challenge their instructors on the constitutional relevance of their training. At graduation such training is apt to give the newly minted professional a depth of commitment not seen at present. Once police have entered the profession, their agencies might continuously encourage them to sharpen their constitutional skills. These agencies might also sponsor gatherings of police and community to study the Constitution together.

Whether such efforts at promoting constitutional literacy will help police-community relations, only time will tell. But in the meantime, such efforts couldn't hurt.

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Christopher Dreisbach (dreisbach@jhu.edu) is an Episcopal priest and director of Applied Ethics and Humanities in The Division of Public Safety Leadership in Johns Hopkins University's School of Education. His book, "Constitutional Literacy: A Twenty-first Century Imperative" (Palgrave Macmillan) is due out this fall.

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