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Education is the key to improving law enforcement

During the last two years, police departments nationwide have come under severe public scrutiny after the Rodney King beating and the Simi Valley trial.

Mere days after the King video aired, programs to improve relations between cops and the communities they serve and protect sprang up in most major cities. Many of these efforts are sincere, with officials providing sufficient funding and committing themselves to improving their departments.

A model agency, one trying to live up to its slogan of being "committed to excellence in professional criminal justice," is the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office in St. Augustine, which calls itself "First on the First Coast."

This Northeast Florida county of about 85,000 residents _ known mostly for St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city, and its potatoes and cabbage crops _ is an unlikely place for bold law enforcement innovations. And yet this sheriff's office of about 300 members is one of a handful of Southern departments committed to real change in how cops perform their duties.

In fairness, I must point out that, even before the King incident, Sheriff Neil J. Perry, first elected in 1985, was modernizing his department. The firestorm in Los Angeles simply legitimized his efforts and convinced elected officials that he is right.

Perry believes that education is the best way to improve law enforcement. To this end, he has turned the county's criminal justice facility into an institution of higher learning for his staff, St. Augustine police officers and deputies of neighboring Clay County.

The sheriff has contracted with St. Johns River Community College, NOVA University of Fort Lauderdale and Indiana's Vincennes University to provide a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum. Officers can earn a bachelor's degree by taking most of their courses at the facility.

As a result of this move and other innovations, the St. Johns County Sheriff Office is the only Northeast Florida department to be accredited by the national Commission for Accrediting Law Enforcement Agencies.

"We have deputies who want to move up and who want to do their jobs better," Perry said. "We want to upgrade the entire department. To upgrade, we must educate our people. We all must get our sheepskins."

I'm proud to say that, as a NOVA University adjunct, I'm one of the program's teachers. My course, argumentative writing, challenges the 36 students, most of them hardened by their street experiences, to look at difficult subjects in new ways _ if only for the sake of argument and reflection.

When NOVA first asked me to teach the course, I hesitated because I didn't know if a group of white cops would accept me, an African-American male, as their teacher. I almost turned down the offer after learning that the sheriff himself would be one of my students.

What made me accept? The realization that my fears were part of what the sheriff wants to erase.

I realized, too, that not only will the eight-week course benefit the students, I will learn also. Then, I remembered that the students _ few, if any, having taken college classes _ were scared to death of "English."

But our first night was excellent. The students got to know me, and I certainly left St. Augustine impressed and humbled by their sincere desire to learn. We pushed through our race consciousness in a few minutes, moving toward our shared goal of learning, of thinking and writing logically.

Unlike my spoiled day-students at Santa Fe Community College, who moan about looking up a word in the dictionary, these cops _ many carrying service revolvers _ wrote three-to-four-paged diagnostic essays and eagerly waited in line for me to grade them. After I told them that all of their out-of-class work had to be typed, not a single person complained.

Imagine my unique position: Street-hardened cops have entrusted part of their English education to me. I certainly want to help them become better writers.

Sheriff Perry has taken a bold step, and other departments nationwide should take note. Education is the key to improving law enforcement. In fact, we have a moral obligation to do better, to learn as much as we can about our fellow humans, to prevent more Rodney Kings from occurring.

Now, I must put aside this column and grade 36 essays _ including Sheriff Perry's.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Gainesville Sun.