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Indiana University criminology student working to change perceptions of police officers

​Thanks to a unique collaboration, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student is learning some important lessons about policing—and also teaching some others.

Amirah Macon, a senior criminology major from Philadelphia, has spent this school year doing an internship with the local police force, where she learns how and why officers do what they do, which, she says, has been an eye-opening experience.

“I feel like I share a lot of similarities with them,” she said. “But we have a lot of differences, too. It’s weird how people can be so different but so similar. They’re just people, too. I tell everyone that the officers eat at Chipotle just like I do.”

That’s a far cry from what Macon originally believed about police officers. Growing up in Cheltenham, just outside Philadelphia, she said she was raised not to trust them.

“As a black child, you grow up being afraid of the police,” she said. “And now, with so much influence in the media, parents are scared for their children. … A lot of those feelings are deep-rooted.”

At IUP, Macon got involved in the local chapter of the NAACP, and she rose to the rank of president. As part of her duties, she took over an internship with the Indiana Borough Police Department that her predecessor, Marcia Newman, had started.

Macon was unsure at first if she should work with the local police department, but she knew it would be beneficial to her education as a criminology major, and she dived right in.

“She’s fit right in,” said Bill Sutton, the Indiana Borough police chief, “It’s a little different than normal internships, but it’s a positive thing.”

Macon’s job her first semester was to ride along with the officers and learn how they do their job. She asked a lot of questions and learned a lot about police procedures, but she also learned a lot about the officers themselves.

“I felt a little uncomfortable at first,” she said. “Being the background that I have—and a lot of other black kids have—we grow up believing the system is against us. Minorities, in general, are over-represented in the criminal justice system. I wanted to get a picture of why. But the officers have made me realize, and I can only speak for their department, that all cops are not bad cops. Some of them are officers only eight hours a day. Some are coaches. Most of them are parents.”

Macon said the officers also got to know a lot about her, and what it’s like growing up with a different view of police than a lot of other people have. She hopes they understood where she was coming from, and that learning her story might help them in their daily duties.

“Telling them my story has opened their eyes about the animosity,” she said.

Sutton said he’s sure his officers have learned a lot from Macon.

“I hope so, and I believe so,” he said. “One of the problems with society is that we don’t get it that police officers are the same as everybody else. They come in all shapes, sizes and demeanors. So who wouldn’t learn from a program like this?”

Macon ended the fall 2016 semester by writing a paper for the department detailing her experiences.

“It was a good thing,” he said. “Because of her position with the NAACP and with the things that are going on across the nation, we asked her to do the essay, and it was very helpful.”

This semester, Sutton said he’s having Macon compiling data from previous years to determine the reasons for the rise and fall in the number of calls for service.

Macon will graduate in May with her bachelor’s degree, and she plans to enroll in graduate school next fall. Her long-term plan is to go to law school and work in the communities to make things better for everyone.

For now, she’s enjoying her life-changing experience with the local police force.

“It’s definitely opened my eyes to what policing is,” she said. “I have a lot of respect now for police officers as a whole; not just the Indiana Borough Police Department.”