D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham makes an announcement in April about officers attending a course on critical race theory. Third from left, over Newsham’s right shoulder, is Bernard Demczuk, who holds a doctorate in African American history from George Washington University. (Lauren Lumpkin/The Washington Post)
Columnist

When Bernard Demczuk does diversity and cultural awareness training with police, he gives a history lesson. Call it: Why black people distrust police.

He uses a timeline, starting with the role of slave catchers in the United States in 1706 to police black bodies to the enforcement of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws passed during the 19th and 20th centuries to restrict African American freedoms.

He notes the role of law enforcement post-emancipation in supporting the system of convict leasing, which provided prisoner labor made up of mostly African American men. Finally, he connects those early efforts in policing — through both official and unofficial channels — to today’s “stop and frisk” policies and the disproportionate use of deadly force toward African Americans.

“What I do in my class, I say to police, ‘Guys and gals, you have been on the wrong side of history for 310 years,’ ” Demczuk said. “You may be trying to do the right thing, but if you don’t know the history, you might not know what the right thing is.”

For the past year, Demczuk, who holds a doctorate in African American history from George Washington University, has been teaching these lessons at the Metropolitan Police Academy in the District. More than 2,000 officers have been through the program, and another 2,100 are scheduled to take the class. In February, he said officers from Anne Arundel County, Hyattsville and Cheverly will be visiting his class to learn more about his training model.

He recently offered his services to the town of Greensboro, Md., on the Eastern Shore, which continues to roil from a police-involved death of an unarmed black resident. The town has a four-man police force, including the chief. But when it comes to friction between African Americans and law enforcement, the size of the police department doesn’t matter.

In September, police received a call about a man “dragging an unidentified 12-year-old down a street.” When an officer responded, Anton Black, 19, said he and the young boy were brothers. They were not.

Both ran from the officer. He pursued and was joined by two off-duty officers from a neighboring town and a civilian on a motorcycle.

Video taken from the Greensboro police officer’s body cam was released last week.

Black was “schizophrenic,” one of the officers radioed in during the chase. They found Black hiding in a parked car, and a struggle ensued. Black was wrestled to the ground on his stomach. One person held him by the head, another held his feet, a third lay across his back while a fourth put his knee on Black’s shoulder.

A few minutes later, Black’s body went limp. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

“Nothing we could do,” one of the officers was heard saying on the body-cam video. “He had superhuman strength. It scared me.”

That reasoning is part of a familiar pattern, Demczuk said. It was used to justify the beating of Rodney King by four officers in Los Angeles in 1992. It was used by New York City police officers in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in 2014. And it was used to explain the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., also in 2014, just to name a few, Demczuk said.

“We have been predisposed to see black men as predators for over 400 years,” Demczuk tells the officers in his classes. “Part of white-supremacist ideology is that the black man could be killed with impunity because white women needed to be protected from them.”

Demczuk resides in Caroline County, Md., where Greensboro is located. So his offer to help the police department is both professional and personal.

“I want to help my local police departments,” he said. “We can learn to confront implicit bias and find new ways to confront suspects that de-escalates the chance of violence rather than make the situation worse.”

The Greensboro Town Council is expected to vote soon on whether to bring in a diversity trainer. Some, including a few of Black’s relatives, still don’t quite understand what good that will do.

“Why do you need to teach four grown men how to act like decent human beings?” said LaToya Holley, Black’s sister.

The way Demczuk sees it, even decent men will embrace police culture without realizing how much racial baggage they’ve taken on.

“One of the questions that police ask about the Anton case is, ‘Why did he run?’ ” Demczuk said.

Set aside the fact that the first officer to confront Anton had been videotaped kicking a black suspect in the face at his previous job. In his classes, Demczuk looks at the cumulative effects of racist policing.

Police officers enforced laws backing segregation, often with excessive force and violence. Historically they did little to stop or investigate the thousands of lynchings throughout the United States.

“And you ask, ‘Why did he run?’ ” Demczuk asked.

The purpose is not to guilt-trip the police, he notes, but simply to let them know where the mistrust comes from and the police behaviors that perpetuate it.

“We can’t change the past,” Demczuk said. “But if we understand it, we can change the future.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.