Police Training Is Broken. Can It Be Fixed?

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This piece originally appeared at The Hechinger Report & IowaWatch.org.

In late May, when video began circulating of George Floyd trapped under the knee of a police officer, struggling to breathe, it was the latest reminder of America’s failure to address the racism and brutality that pervades U.S. policing. For those who train and educate law enforcement officials, Floyd’s death — along with the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and other Black Americans — was also a moment of reckoning, prompting some of those educators to examine their role in preparing officers for a profession responsible for so much senseless violence.

In Virginia, where community colleges enrolled some 2,200 students last year in programs designed to train law enforcement officials, school system administrators decided it was time to review their curricula for future officers. Across the country, in California, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the state’s community college system, called for a similar examination of police training. A few college police academies announced their own reviews.

In Minnesota, where Floyd was killed, the interim director of the state board overseeing police education pledged to develop a “sweeping action plan” for change, while advocates pressed the legislature to pass reforms, including more investment in de-escalation training. Bills introduced in Congress in recent weeks, one by Democrats and the other by Senate Republicans, both called for more training for law enforcement officials.

But any effort to improve police education will have to contend with the reality that America’s system for training officers is a complex patchwork of hundreds of different programs that operate with virtually no standardization and little oversight. At present, police academies, the shorter-term, skills-based programs for officers, skew toward a military-style training model whose leaders have often been dismissive of change, say law enforcement experts. There are few mandates to give officers substantive training in anti-bias, conflict resolution and other approaches that some experts say could help mitigate violence. While efforts to ensure that police are educated about de-escalation and racial bias have gained momentum after Floyd’s death, there’s also a growing sense that training cannot reach very far without a more fundamental reimagining of the role of police.

“There is something about policing itself that makes it very difficult and resistant to reform, that makes things like implicit bias training and de-escalation training something of a dead-end,” said Brendan McQuade, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine who favors police abolition. “The problems are so entrenched. They say a few bad apples rot the barrel. The policing barrel is so rotten it’s mush, it’s totally toxic, it’s fermented … dump it out and start again.”

Police academies began to adopt an aggressive, military approach to training in the 1960s and 1970s, amid the escalating “war on drugs” and electoral successes of politicians campaigning on “law and order.” While the 1991 beating of Rodney King prompted a shift in some departments toward community policing, which emphasizes positive relationships between officers and citizens, the attacks of 9/11 reinvigorated warrior-style training and prompted police departments to increase their reliance on military equipment.

There is scant data on police education programs, which are operated by a mix of police departments, colleges and other agencies. A 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, one of the few on police training, found that 48 percent of police academies followed a military model, compared with 18 percent that emphasized academic achievement. A third balanced the two styles.

“The problem is we treat a police academy kind of like we treat a military boot camp,” said Lorenzo Boyd, a former law enforcement official and the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven. “We should treat it more like a classroom setting where we’re allowed to ask questions and use critical thinking skills.”

Police recruits in basic training spend a median of 60 hours on firearms instruction and 51 hours on self-defense skills, according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. A median of 11 hours is spent on cultural diversity, and eight hours on mediation and conflict resolution. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that between 2006 and 2013, academies increased the time recruits spent on firearms an average of 8 hours, while time spent on community policing rose by an average of one hour, despite calls for greater focus on this law enforcement approach.

In 2014, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, then-President Obama set up the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to recommend changes to law enforcement. Among its proposals: encourage the state boards that oversee police training to mandate instruction on crisis intervention, implicit bias, cultural responsiveness, “the disease of addiction” and other topics. But Tracey Meares, a professor at Yale Law School who served on the task force, said it’s impossible to know the degree to which those and other recommendations were implemented because of how little data the federal government collects on policing.

John DeCarlo, a former police chief who directs the master’s program in criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said there ought to be a national curriculum for policing, or a national certification and minimum qualifications for police chiefs at the very least. He also said that federal and state governments should incentivize officers to get higher levels of education, and that more non-cops should be teaching future officers.

“Where cops learn to be cops in the United States is sometimes from TV and that’s where we don’t want them learning to be cops. We want them to be educated. We don’t want them to be mirroring the Dirty Harrys of the world,” said DeCarlo. “I want gender scholars and race scholars and criminal justice scholars to be teaching future cops, not TV.”

Some academies have already moved from a “warrior” approach to a more “guardian” approach. In Washington State, under the direction of former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, recruits are trained in “procedural justice,” which emphasizes fairly resolving disputes and winning public trust.

Last year, Northeastern University partnered with the Cambridge Police Department to open a police academy for recruits from across Massachusetts, based on a philosophy of valuing people and human life. Ruben Galindo, the university’s director of public safety who spent 31 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department, said he and the university police chief, Michael Davis, proposed the idea for the new academy because of the “dysfunctional environment” in existing training programs.

While the Massachusetts academies’ curricula had evolved somewhat to meet new state requirements, said Galindo, the way they operated had not. Instructors bullied and demeaned new recruits and referred to people on the street as “scumbags,” “junkies” and “punks,” he said. “They almost want to break [recruits] down to build them up,” said Galindo of academy instructors, “but we are not preparing officers to go to Vietnam.” While Northeastern’s basic curriculum is the same as that of other programs, its culture is starkly different, he said.

Camden, New Jersey, also altered its approach to training officers after the city’s police department was disbanded in 2013 and replaced with a county-led force. The Camden police department and the community college-run academy from which it recruits now place greater emphasis on conflict resolution, de-escalation and developing awareness of implicit bias, police officials said. Complaints of excessive force dropped from 65 in 2014 to three last year, according to department data. “The whole atmosphere of the academy has changed dramatically since these changes were put in place,” said Donald Borden, president of Camden County College.

President Obama visited the city in 2015, citing its progress in police reform. Kevin Lutz, a Camden police captain who formerly supervised the department and college’s training, testified in Minneapolis last year as part of a task force on police reform convened by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. Still, as the news media has looked to Camden as an example of police transformation, many people have suggested that the changes are notuniversally positive. For example, members of the local NAACP chapter argue that the police force is whiter and less representative of the city than it was before.

Colleges and accrediting boards that are seeking to re-examine how they instruct and oversee police officers are running up against a lack of detailed standards and data. Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, said that a panel of experts would be examining current curricula because little is known at the state level about what is being taught. In Virginia, the college system runs degree programs designed for future law enforcement officers but does not operate police academies. DuBois said he didn’t have the authority to shut down a program but that he could “ask some pretty uncomfortable questions.”

Ortiz, the chancellor of California’s community college system, which operates academies and degree programs for future officers, said that colleges need to “take personal responsibility and personal accountability. We cannot sit here as educators and say the problem is somewhere else.” If the college system determines that any police academies are not committed to making needed changes to their approach and curricula, he said, “then we need to sever that relationship.”

Erik Misselt, the interim executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, which accredits the state’s police education programs, said the board had begun an audit before Floyd’s death to examine the programs and how they compare with those in other places. While the board’s “learning objectives” require that officers learn about racial bias and conflict resolution and how to respond to people with mental illness, there’s no guidance on how those topics are taught or how much time officers spend on them.

“We know there are changes that need to be made,” said Misselt, “and certainly the need for those changes has been nothing but accelerated with recent events.”

Still, Misselt said Floyd’s death was not a training issue per se. Academies and programs do not teach the tactic used by the officer who pinned Floyd to the ground, he said. “You can have the best training in the world but at the end of the day it comes down to morals, it comes down to the culture of an organization, it comes down to what’s tolerated,” Misselt said.

And, in some ways, Minnesota’s system for educating officers is, at least on paper, more progressive than those in many states. Since the late 1970s, it has required that officers have at least a two-year college degree. (Most of the officers involved in Floyd’s death held college degrees.) Serving in the military also fulfills that requirement.

Part of the problem is that police officers can find ways to secure training outside of what is approved by the state. In 2019, the Minneapolis mayor banned a warrior-style training course after the officer charged with shooting Philando Castile was found to have attended it. (The training was run by an individual and not credentialed by the board Misselt oversees.) The police union president was reportedly so upset that he pledged to find ways to continue making the class available to interested officers.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota and around the country, calls to dismantle the police are growing louder. A majority of the Minneapolis City Council has pledged to disband the police force and create a new system of public safety.

If the role and responsibilities of police narrow, said Misselt, officer training will adapt too.

He noted that some police officers question why their work has ballooned to encompass emergency services like intervening in family disputes and responding to people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. As an officer, he would sometimes respond to 911 calls from parents who wanted help getting their child out of bed and to school. “Why on earth is a police officer being called into that situation?” he said.

“I do push back a little bit when people say it’s entirely a policing or a training issue,” said Misselt. “Society needs to decide whether we are going to put funding and the appropriate resources toward the other social issues that we’re all dealing with. That’s not a place for a police officer. That’s not what a police officer’s job was ever meant to be.”

This story about police training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. IowaWatch is the exclusive partner in Iowa for The Hechinger report. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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