The Course: Law and Inequality: Policing, Protest, and Reform
What is it: This William S. Boyd School of Law course is a mandatory one-credit course for first-year law students. It was inspired by events unfolding across the country over the past several months. The new course will provide an introductory legal and historical context for the recent mass protests, and a framework for understanding the reform proposals that have emerged from them. On one end of the continuum, a 2015 presidential task force proposed modest police reform; on the other end, some call for moving police funding into other social services.
Why it's being taught: Questions about policing, racial inequality, and criminal justice, including here in Las Vegas, came to the national forefront due to the protests that erupted in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Those questions directly implicate the legal system, so law schools have a unique ability to address them.
Who’s taking it: Designed for incoming first-year students, the fall 2020 course is open to second-, third-, and fourth-year students as well. Evening first-year law students will take the course in spring 2021.
Who’s teaching it: It will be team-taught by four members of the faculty with expertise in criminal law and procedure, racial justice, and policing.
- Stewart Chang teaches Contracts, Property, Immigration and Family Law; he is a critical race theory scholar whose work focuses on how race, gender, and sexuality intersect with legal rights.
- Frank Rudy Cooper teaches Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, and his research focuses on how race and gender impact policing. He directs the school’s Program on Race, Gender, and Policing (which Chang and Addie Rolnick co-facilitate).
- Eve Hanan, a former public defender, teaches and writes about racial disparities in punishment. Hanan teaches Criminal Law and co-directs the law school’s Misdemeanor Clinic.
- Addie Rolnick teaches Criminal law, Civil rights, and Critical Race Theory; she writes about self-defense law and race and gender disparities in juvenile incarceration.
How it works: The 12-week course will alternate between large lecture sessions and small group discussions. All of it will take place online as part of the university’s response to coronavirus. Student group discussions will be moderated by instructors, with assistance from up to eight additional members of the law school faculty. In total, about a quarter of the law faculty will be involved in teaching this course.
Readings will include historical material on policing, criminal justice, and civil rights. For example, students will be introduced to the constitutional standards that apply when determining whether a police officer’s use of force is legal, and remedies available to victims in cases of police misconduct.
Although these topics are covered in other law school classes, in-depth coverage would require taking at least six separate courses, many of which are electives not taught every year. This class will give law students a basic overview of several different areas of law that are relevant to the current moment, and it will include historical and social science background that might not otherwise be covered in law classes.
The reading list: No textbook. Readings selected by the professors include primary historical sources; academic writing on criminalization, policing, civil rights remedies, and the Black Lives Matter movement; present-day policy proposals; and reports on local police reform.
What students might be surprised to learn: Policing and criminal justice reform are not new issues in the struggle for civil rights.
What excites instructors the most about this class: Making sure that students who graduate from the Boyd School of Law will have the background necessary to understand and assess the various reform proposals that will grow out of this summer’s protests.
What even laypeople should know from this course: It can be quite hard to hold police accountable in court. Criminal prosecutions, civil rights lawsuits, and federal investigations of police misconduct are all very difficult to pursue because of the legal rules that govern each area. Efforts to hold police accountable for violence against Black people have been going on for centuries. Understanding history helps to understand both the current protests and the more sweeping calls for change.
Where students go next: The law school offers advanced courses in criminal procedure and civil rights as well as a clinic where students represent clients arrested for misdemeanor crimes. In addition to the introductory class for incoming students, the law school will also offer a new clinic on Policing & Protest, taught by Elizabeth MacDowell, which give upper-division students the opportunity to work on community education and law reform initiatives.