May 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The slow moves to improve police training

Illustration of a book with handcuffs surrounded by excerpts from studies on police training. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Police departments around the country have been ramping up training programs in the year since George Floyd's death — but no one should expect them to have enough impact in one year to prevent more tragic deaths of people of color, according to training experts and practitioners.

Why it matters: If the training does have a meaningful impact in steering officers away from deadly confrontations, it could take years to see results, experts say — and there's little solid evidence that it works.

  • "The problem has been, there are no national standards to show what the training should look like" — how many hours should be offered or how often it should be refreshed, said Frank Straub, an expert on police training at the National Police Foundation. That leaves a patchwork of police departments going it on their own.

How it works: The programs that are gaining interest are designed to avoid the use of force in different ways, including:

The big picture: "The good news is, moves toward better training in law enforcement have happened since George Floyd’s death," said Scott Wolfe, a criminologist at Michigan State University who has studied the impact of de-escalation training.

  • The pandemic has worked against the training efforts, which generally have to be conducted in-person to be effective.
  • But now that COVID is becoming less disruptive, trainers around the country report increased interest in de-escalation techniques and recognizing implicit bias.

The backstory: A fair amount of de-escalation and implicit bias training is already in place, driven by a heightened interest after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

  • Wolfe said there are no national statistics on the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. But he noted that a 2019 CBS News survey of 155 big-city police departments around the country found that nearly all offered some form of de-escalation training and 69% said they offered implicit bias training.
  • The quality can vary widely, though. "There is a lot of crap training. Not all training is created equal," said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and expert on use-of-force training who testified for the prosecution in the Derek Chauvin trial.

The other side: The series of deaths at the hands of police in recent weeks — Daunte Wright, Andrew Brown Jr., Mario Gonzalez, Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo — have shocked many Americans once again.

  • And they've raised new questions about whether training has improved enough to guarantee that people of color, particularly Black Americans, can expect fair treatment from the police.
  • A new Axios-Ipsos poll found that nearly seven out of 10 Black Americans — 68% — said the police do not look out for people like them well. That's a drastically different perception than other groups: 83% of white Americans, 60% of Hispanic Americans, and 61% of Asian Americans all said the police look out for them well.

Unfortunately, the public shouldn't expect a turnaround dramatic enough to prevent those kinds of incidents in just a year, training experts say. *It’s going to take a number of years to see an impact," said Robin Engel of the University of Cincinnati, who has studied de-escalation training.

  • It's also not clear how much difference even the best training could have made to prevent the recent incidents. How much training does an officer need to tell a taser from a gun — the mistake apparently made by the officer who shot Daunte Wright?
  • "It obviously should never have happened, and police agencies will say, 'are we doing everything we can to prevent this from happening?' And they’ll say 'yes' and move on," said Stoughton.
  • Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff who provides use-of-force training to California police departments, said de-escalation tactics only work in situations where someone may be threatening to hurt others or themselves, but there's time to talk it out. "It just isn’t applicable" when there's an immediate danger and everything happens in seconds, he said.

Between the lines: Even if every police department in the country adopted some of the newer training techniques, there's not a lot of evidence yet that they change officers' behavior.

  • One study of de-escalation training by the Louisville Metro Police Department found that the use of force declined. But a study of implicit bias training by the New York Police Department didn't find evidence that it reduced racial or ethnic disparities in police actions.
  • "My concern as a researcher is that we have very little evidence of the effectiveness of any kind of officer training," said Engel, one of the researchers who worked on the Louisville de-escalation study.

What to watch: Whether Congress gets involved — or whether there could be other initiatives to effectively suggest national training standards. A White House official noted that President Biden has endorsed the House-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would beef up training and require officers to try de-escalation techniques before using deadly force.

  • "We would hope now that in this post-George Floyd era, and sadly in these subsequent uses of force … that there would be an opportunity for the federal government to step in and say what the standards of training should be," Straub said.
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