Philosophy for the Police


In 2015, Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries in the back of a police van. Since then, the Baltimore police department has instituted various reforms, including an educational program for police that includes philosophy and literature.

Drawing on his master of liberal arts degree from Johns Hopkins University, the 48-year-old [Detective Ed] Gillespie teaches a curriculum that includes bite-sized chunks of literature, philosophy, and history. “You can get so into the outcomes, into the methods, [that] you don’t look at the ethic with which you’re operating in many cases,” Gillespie said. “And we’re trying to get officers to delve into it.”

In a course on Plato, he introduces officers to the philosopher’s idea of the tripartite soul, which can be governed by the intellect, by the “spirit,” or by the appetites. Gillespie has his students discuss real stories of police misconduct in Platonic terms. “The ultimate point is that you have to … take a moment, and stop and use your intellect, and ask, ‘What’s driving me right now?’” he explained to me.Gillespie and his work are the subject of a recent article at The Atlantic.Gillespie is trained to teach nuts-and-bolts courses on terrorism response, extremism, and gangs. But since the unrest of 2015, humanities have occupied the bulk of his time. The strategy is unusual in police training. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never heard of an instructor using this type of approach,” said William Terrill, a criminal-justice professor at Arizona State University who studies police culture. But he nevertheless understands the general theory behind it. He’s authored studies showing that officers with higher education are less likely to use force than colleagues who have not been to college. The reasons why are unclear, Terrill said, but it’s possible that exposure to unfamiliar ideas and diverse people have an effect on officer behavior.

The police in Gillespie’s classes aren’t always receptive to his teaching; they can get defensive and clam up. But sometimes the discussions go well and there seems to be real learning going on. As The Atlantic article mentions, it is unclear what effect programs like the one in Baltimore will have over the long run. Still, it

We’ve posted about philosophy in prisons before (see here, here, and here for example), and discussed teaching about police violence and mass incarceration and managing related class discussions, but we haven’t, to my recollection, talked about philosophy for police. Given the time limitations and various other pedagogical considerations (including the receptivity of the students to various materials), what works of philosophy do you think would be worth teaching to police?

UPDATE (11/29/17): Julian Baggini makes some suggestions here.

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