Jun 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

America's broken system of training cops

Illustration of a cracked and broken police badge

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The structural failings in American policing begin with officers' training, which largely focuses more on using force than reducing the need for it.

Why it matters: While holding officers accountable is most important in stopping them from using excessive force, training that focuses on empathy, fairness and de-escalation could lead to fewer violent conflicts between officers and the communities they serve, according to law enforcement experts.

The big picture: There are more than 18,000 police departments in the U.S., but there's no federal standard on how officers should be trained. And the training that officers do receive has little to no emphasis on empathy, says University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert.

  • "The real issue is not how to use force, it's when to use it," Alpert told Axios.

Rashawn Ray of the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland, who leads implicit bias training for police departments and the military, notes that "police departments do a lot of tactical training. They don’t do a lot of training that is focused on social interaction. ... But nine out of 10 times, or even more, their job is simply having a conversation."

  • Franklin Zimring, a University of California-Berkeley professor and author of "When Police Kill," says it's possible to cut the number of fatal shootings by police in half by creating "don't shoot and stop shooting rules."
  • "It means a lot of confrontations will last longer, will involve more police officers, and will be very frustrating," Zimring said. "But from the standpoint of the value of civilian lives, that stuff isn’t rocket science."

The backstory: The outrage over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis echoes the nationwide protests against officer conduct sparked by the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

  • Ferguson prompted the Obama administration to create the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which recommended improvements to officers' training such as teaching de-escalation tactics for creating space and distance in tense encounters, task force co-chair Laurie Robinson told Axios.
  • "Since Ferguson, there's been a greater emphasis on de-escalation," Ray said. "That's good because when departments require de-escalation, it results in 15% fewer killings per capita."

Yes, but: "Even though those recommendations exist, there's many police agencies that are not doing them because we fell short," Chris Burbank, a former police chief who is now vice president of law enforcement strategy for the Center for Policing Equity.

  • "We got a nice commission, but there was not the will to put in place the law to force everybody to participate."
  • The Minneapolis Police Department has trained its officers on de-escalation tactics as part of crisis intervention training, department spokesperson John Elder said.
  • On Friday, the city agreed to ban the use of chokeholds.
  • The department also has instituted some of the other reforms outlined in the Obama report, including making use-of-force data publicly available and requiring officers to turn on body cameras at the beginning of each call, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • But the efficacy of those changes is dwarfed by the city's powerful police union that protects officers from punishments, WSJ notes.

What's next: Training can only do so much — which is why reform advocates also want changes in the law. The Center for Policing Equity is among several organizations pushing for reforms at the federal and state level, including a national standard on use of force.

  • A 2016 report on guiding principles around use of force from the Police Executive Research Forum said "there is significant potential for de-escalation and resolving encounters by means other than the use of deadly force."
  • "We have not changed law enforcement," Burbank said. "Our first reaction in all these circumstances is always train the officers, train the officers, train the officers. Well, no, let's do a little change the law, change the law, change the law."

The bottom line: After Rodney King, Michael Brown and George Floyd, experts say the need for change is clear, as are the specific changes needed. What's lacking is a will to implement them.

  • "The data is there telling departments what to do," Ray said. "But until police departments are mandated to do it, they won’t do it."

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