His destination is the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
It may seem strange to look for hope in America’s racist history of slavery and lynching. The logic becomes clear when the continuum is perceived from slavery to lynching, racial terror, Jim Crow laws, institutional racism and mass incarceration.
Duncan is hoping to learn something in Montgomery to change the discourse on community policing in Peoria.
His goal: the deaths of Eddie Russell Jr. and Daniel O. El represent the past. The future will be a community known for justice, not known as one of the worst cities in the nation for African Americans.
Duncan is African American. Going with him to Montgomery is Peoria Police Officer Cole Klein who is white and two young people in the police Explorer Program.
Their destination opened just eight months ago. The museums are being hailed as unlike anything ever seen before in this country. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum both use verified historical facts, art, design, poetry and sculpture to change information from abstract cerebral understanding to an embodied, emotional understanding.
Lynching becomes less remote and more connected to the here and now. The injustice becomes more intolerable, and it weighs heavy on our perception of the world today.
The New York Times recently listed the Montgomery museums as among the best of 2018 art. “You come away changed,” said the Times’ art critic.
Duncan’s search for answers to mass incarceration and racism started years ago.
He graduated from Manual High School in 1995 and began his career in law enforcement in 1999 in Clayton County near Atlanta, Ga. He attended the police academy in Georgia.
He was a law-and-order cop.
Then he began to notice problems and incarceration rates were not improving. He moved back to Peoria and joined the police department here. He started taking classes in criminal justice at Illinois Central College and recently graduated from Illinois State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
He’s no longer all about incarceration. He’s a community police officer and talks about his focus as “becoming one with community.”
“I used to pull over a guy 10 times, impound his car, suspend his license, give him more fines and jail time.
“I was all about incarceration – 100 percent,” he said.
He readily acknowledges some people belong in prison, but some people are in prison because they could not access the community resources they needed before their incarceration.
He figured there must be a better way, and he’d like to learn it.
“I saw getting the guy bus passes and help with the fines changed the outcome,” he said. “A lot of police say that’s not our job. We protect and serve. But we also have to understand, we’re caseworkers and role models. This is the direction police departments are going.”
He’s an advisor and teacher for the police department’s Explorer Program helping young people to learn about options in community policing. The emphasis is not just on learning techniques but also about volunteering with various community programs. Duncan also meets regularly with students in Peoria Public Schools.
“If we don’t change the way we’re policing, we’re going to keep getting the same results,” he said.
The video-taped beating of Rodney King by white Los Angeles police officers was a turning point for changing police culture and shifting toward a philosophy of “one with community,” he said.
But being part of institutional change is not easy. At one point, some of the drug dealers Duncan worked to incarcerate collaborated on a story that he was taking kickbacks. He was suspended for a year while the FBI investigated the case and ultimately cleared him. That gave him a year to reflect and study. He took classes on implicit bias with Illinois Central College Professor Anthony White.
“A lot of people react to implicit bias with ‘Who? Not me. I’m not biased,’” White said. “But implicit bias is hidden. It’s beneath our level of consciousness.”
And it shapes and almost pre-determines the outcome of interpersonal relationships. Because implicit bias is under the radar, people don’t realize it’s a constant program operating in our subconscious.
Fortunately, implicit bias is “malleable,” White said. With training and study it can be identified and changed.
However, if left unaddressed, it transforms into explicit bias. The mounting accumulation of negative interpersonal relationships snowballs and accelerates the transformation.
White not only teaches at ICC but leads training programs with the Peoria Police Department and other departments.
“It takes constant work to understand implicit bias. It’s not a one-time facilitation or training session,” he said.
White and Duncan still meet and talk. Duncan speaks to some of White’s classes at ICC.
“His policing is not ‘warrior wisdom’ but community guidance,” White said of Duncan. “It’s not us versus them. To effectively tackle crime, we have to work together.”
Duncan sees absent fathers as foundational for much criminality in children. He teaches parenting classes at the Peoria County jail.
“There are people in the police department here who can formulate this change and things can be improved with community policing,” he said, endorsing the mantra to “comply and complain” if an interaction with police is unfair.
When he was growing up, he’s not sure there were a lot of people within the department receptive to a complaint of bias. “Who was a slave going to complain to?” he said, alluding to the cultural legacy against complaining.
With diversity training, more people are aware of bias and learning to redress it, he said.
Duncan has agreed to be part of a public forum discussing his trip to Montgomery, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. He and other panelists will discuss how an accurate understanding of the legacy of slavery and racism can help change the future of the Peoria community.