‘You can only make changes from within’: Black History Month, a conversation with Tommy Williams

Spokane, Wash. — Tommy Williams has been teaching Criminal Justice at NewTech Skills Center for four years, preparing students for careers in Law Enforcement.

But he says it’s been challenging in the last two years.

From 4 News Now’s Destiny Richards:

Williams is the only Black instructor at NewTech, taking on a heavy task.

Encouraging his students, especially his students of color, to pursue these careers after seeing the way some Black people have been treated by police in recent years (i.e. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor).

Tommy Williams has a background in social work, CPS investigation and at the Downtown Juvenile Detention Center.

Here’s how he’s preparing his students to enter the workforce today.

Destiny: How would you say that experience has gone for you so far in these last four years?

Tommy: At first it was a little overwhelming. Working with the curriculum, some of the curriculum I had to do from scratch, make up from scratch, but now I have a really good system.

We have squads we have four squads, squad leaders, and these are all leadership positions for my students to apply for. I have a captain and the captain is responsible to really help run the program.

So a lot of things are now coming into play with my students being out in the community.

They’re now working with Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and so they’re able to do their internship there.

And I also have them connected with Spokane Explorers program, so that really helps out to where they’re really getting hands on experience.

Which that was the whole goal from the beginning is to get them out in the community.

Destiny: Before this interview, you expressed that some students were shying away from pursuing careers in law enforcement especially in recent years, you’ve felt that sentiment. Why is that?

Tommy: You had a lot of publicity around George Floyd, you had a lot of publicity around other African-Americans who were shot and killed or brutality beaten because of whatever and they’re [police are] violating their civil rights of whatever it may be and then you see people who don’t look like them actually being the aggressors.

That is where it’s been hard for me to get young people, especially young people of color, to be involved in criminal justice because they see what goes on they’re like “Well, I don’t want to be a part of that.”

I understand them and I’m honest with them about that too.

When that was going on, I didn’t want to teach criminal justice anymore. I had an internal conflict about that because of what was going on but I eventually had to change my mind about that because you can only make changes from within.

So I’m literally on the front line and my job is to get these young people to grow up in a system that they see themselves being a part of the system but then also preparing them of what they’re going to go into.

Destiny: Whenever that was happening in real time, what were you talking about with your students? How were they feeling?

Tommy: Well first, I was talking about this with my sons. I have biracial boys that I have to have “the talk” with as far as — when you come into contact with a law enforcement officer, you have to keep it short.

You’ve got to know what your rights are. You have to be respectful. Yes, sir. No, sir. And knowing that I want to have them to come home safely.

But when that happened, we were doing online because of the pandemic, the shutdown, and there was a lot of things going on.

I think if we weren’t in a pandemic, I don’t think it would have gotten that much publicity, I hate to say that, but because everybody was shut down in their houses watching TV all the time, the news was always on, and that video clip was like Rodney King. It was looping all the time.
I was conflicted.

Destiny: Tell me about your class right now and how things may have changed, their perspective on law enforcement, since two years ago.

Tommy: I know I’ve had a lot of students change their minds, but they stay in the class and — not to say it’s because of me, but they say “Well, I’m here because of you”.

Destiny: That’s good though!

Tommy: Yeah, so my students call me Mister “T” and they’re like “Mr. T, I like what you’re doing” and they like how they feel when they leave me.

That’s my whole goal is that I want them to leave inspired, I want them to leave thinking that they can make a difference no matter what career they go into.

I have a few that still, they’re sticking to law enforcement, I have a few that want to go into the military, but again, it’s more of getting their minds open to what “Crim-J” is about.

Tommy’s Crim-J Curriculum: Morals

The first thing we go through is our morals and as far as — what do you stand for?

If you don’t stand for something, then you’ll fall for anything. You may have a partner one day as a police officer and they might do things that may be morally against what you stand for and if you don’t say something about it, then you’re going to be just as bad as them. So you have to stand up for that now.

That’s one of my main focuses is to get, not just kids of color, but all of my students to understand that.

Tommy’s Crim-J Curriculum: Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is one of the main pieces that I focus on to get them to understand how to repair harm. When you create harm, and as a law enforcement officer, sometimes you create harm, and how do you resolve that? You can use some kind of restorative practice in order to do that.

So that’s how I start my class off at the beginning of the year is we study restorative justice practices and how that can help in any setting.

Destiny: Over the past four years, have you had a good number of Black students? What are your thoughts on more representation in law enforcement?

Tommy: I’ve had three African-American students. One, Cody, is a co-op officer so he’s about to graduate from Eastern Washington University. He’s in line to be a police officer. So he would be my first African-American student who came through my program to actually be a police officer. He’s going to come back and talk to my students.

But I don’t want to be counting on one hand of how many students there are. I just want to not be able to do that.

I want to have dozens to come through this program. But it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work and I’m prepared to do it.

For more stories and conversations about Black History Month in Spokane, see kxly.com/blackhistorymonth.

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