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UVa police diversity officer redefining sensitivity training

Since joining the University of Virginia Police Department as its first diversity, equity and inclusion officer in 2019, Courtney Hawkins has made it her mission to bring police training into the modern age.

All department members are enrolled in three new courses that train participants in hate crime identification, LGBTQ+ awareness and effective communication styles.

UVa is one of only two university police departments in the country with a designated diversity position. Penn State’s University Police and Public Safety hired its first diversity director in 2020.

“The focus on diversity, equity and inclusion will always rise and fall,” Hawkins said. “But at [the university police department] and for police officers, that focus cannot go away.”

Hawkins joined forces with police community engagement specialist and UVa alumna Dani Lawson to create a new way to equip law enforcement with the tools necessary for respectful interactions in the field and beyond.

Hawkins and Lawson hosted the “Aristotle’s Double Headed Coin and its Relation to Law Enforcement” five-day conference where they shared details about the training with the public for the first time earlier this month.

The courses are available in 30-minute increments, which officers take once a month for 12 months.

The police department partnered with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice and Meta on the content of the new in-person hate crime training.

The course educates law enforcement using lessons on the history of federal and state hate crime laws with case studies, online hate trends, a conversation with survivors of hate crimes, the student perspective on hate at UVa and protocol for partnering with the FBI, when necessary.

University officers received the training on Sept. 1, exactly one week before police reported that an unidentified individual hung a noose on a statue of Homer located at the end of the Lawn on UVa grounds.

The recent training allowed police to identify the incident as a hate crime without second-guessing it, Hawkins says.

The training also includes skills for navigating the department’s recent partnership with Meta, formerly named Facebook, in a session titled “Working with Meta to Enhance Your Investigations.” The partnership teaches officers how to request social media posts or messages if they are relevant to an ongoing investigation.

This prevents victims of cyberbullying from having to relive their trauma by retrieving screenshots, for example.

This partnership does not, however, give police access to personal information or private messages from any Meta account.

The department collaborated with Stellar Diversity Training, a Richmond-based organization, to build an interactive LGBTQIA+ curriculum for officers to complete.

The acronym includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual persons.

“We wanted to make sure that we supported community organizations in our area without sticking with big firms and big establishments,” Hawkins said. “We chose to go locally to find people that could help us all together, who knew the city, which was able to make things more personal and more centered around what Charlottesville looks like.”

Star Peterson, the founder of Stellar Diversity Training, created animated videos and corresponding analytical questions about microaggressions, misgendering, pronoun inquiry, gender-neutral language and more.

Last year, Hawkins and Lawson introduced the “Foundations of Effective Communication,” training, which is derived from a similar course at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

PVCC communication experts educate university police officers on the basics of various communication styles, active listening and emotional intelligence. The course includes skills for implementing this new knowledge into daily practices that will help officers improve de-escalation skills and minimize the use of force while in the field.

The four-hour course is split between three hours of live instruction on Zoom and two 30-minute pre-recorded training videos.

“All of these trainings are about basic respect,” said Officer Thomas Wilson, who has been with the department for more than 26 years. “We went from racial sensitivity training to cultural sensitivity training to bias training, and all of them were basically the same. These are different.”

Although all members of the department are enrolled in the new training, the courses are still in the pilot stage, meaning they are not yet accredited by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Over the course of two years, all police officers are required to take 40 credit hours of mandatory service training in the areas of career development, diversity, equity and inclusion, and legal matters that have been approved by the department.

University police plan to relaunch the training courses next year, which will put the agency in a better position to apply for the department to receive service credit hours, Hawkins says.

Deputy Chief Bryant Hall has also been crucial in improving the department’s diversity efforts since joining the force in 2019. Over the past two years, Hall has helped increase minority hiring by 33% and minorities in supervisor positions by 200%.


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