Would better training prevent police killings?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The case of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, as well as several other high-profile officer-involved shootings, have once again intensified the debate over how to reduce the number of people killed by police.

Commonly suggested solutions range from incremental measures, like new laws to increase police accountability, to more radical responses, like defunding or even abolishing the police. One of the most frequently proposed reforms is changing the way police are trained so they are less likely to respond to incidents without using deadly force.

There are no nationwide police training standards in the U.S., so the length and content of training programs vary based on local rules. On average, prospective officers spend about 840 hours, or 21 weeks, in basic training, according to the most recent data from the Department of Justice. These training periods tend to focus on teaching recruits how to defend themselves and use their firearms than on strategies for responding to domestic violence or mental health incidents.

“We need each and every police department in the country to undertake a comprehensive review of their hiring, their training and their de-escalation practices,” President Biden said last summer in the midst of a wave of racial justice protests across the country. During the campaign, he promised to invest $300 million in a program that would include training aimed at reducing the adversarial relationship that sometimes exists between police officers and the communities they serve. House Democrats last month passed a new version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Among its many reforms, the bill would require all departments that receive federal funding to hold mandatory anti-discrimination trainings.

Why there’s debate

Advocates for reforming police training, who include some current and former members of law enforcement, say current programs overemphasize the violent aspects of policing at the expense of other critical skills that officers need. They call for more time spent teaching recruits how to handle things like de-escalating situations before force becomes necessary, responding to people experiencing mental health emergencies and recognizing how racial bias affects their perceptions. Others call for more comprehensive changes to eliminate the military-style training used in many academies, a strategy they argue instills a “warrior mentality” in officers.

Skeptics say training is unlikely to make a substantive difference in officers’ behavior as long as the broader system of policing remains intact. As evidence, they point to cities like Minneapolis, where the police department implemented a broad range of new training programs in the years preceding George Floyd’s murder. Police reform advocates say the only way to prevent police killings on a nationwide scale is to fundamentally reconfigure the role that law enforcement plays in society.

What’s next

The conclusion of Chauvin’s trial has reinvigorated calls for Congress to pass substantive police reforms. It’s unclear, however, whether the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act can garner the support of the 10 Republicans needed to avoid a GOP filibuster.

Perspectives

Optimists

De-escalation training would prevent normal interactions from turning violent

“Police chiefs across the country should be prioritizing better training and de-escalation tactics to prevent the next minor traffic stop from becoming a deadly encounter, further eroding the already-damaged image of the American police officer.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Military-style police training must end

“The nation must jettison paramilitary approaches to policing. That means moving beyond shallow critiques of ‘police militarization,’ most of which focus narrowly on federal programs allowing the transfer of military equipment to police, and looking at subtler and more entrenched aspects of police culture as well.” — Rosa Brooks, Atlantic

Police need more help learning how to communicate with the communities they serve

“Police officers have dangerous jobs, but a large share of their work depends far more on effective conversation and problem-solving than how to fire a gun. Officers need more instruction on communication and critical thinking skills, which are vital to their everyday interactions, and their own safety.” — Michael Nutter and Cynthia Lum, Philadelphia Inquirer

Training reform is already making a difference

“As America grapples with tensions between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, particularly minority communities, better training and procedures for de-escalating conflict are important steps. … That work has been going on quietly for years.” — Editorial, Post and Courier

Police departments need more money for training, not to be defunded

“The notion of ‘defunding’ the police has things inside out. If we’re going to solve the problem, chances are part of the answer will involve better training. Which will cost money.” — Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

The U.S. needs national police training standards

“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.” — Caroline Preston, Hechinger Report

Skeptics

We need to reimagine policing, not reform it

“I don’t have confidence that the existing members of the larger law enforcement community today are able to be retrained out of how they’ve been socialized into policing. We need to give them less to do and diminish the public’s exposure to them. Or we need to start over with a different set of safety actors who have not been socialized into this punitive legal culture.” — Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard Kennedy School, to NBC News

Past efforts to reform trainings have had little impact

“I honestly don’t know whether policing can be reformed or not. Multimillion-dollar legal settlements. Consent decrees. Public shaming. Promises to do better. Firings. Hirings. Racial bias training. De-escalation requirements. Nothing has worked.” — Erika D. Smith, Los Angeles Times

Training on its own is useless

“Training only works when combined with other structural initiatives, like instituting effective, transparent systems of accountability and oversight, carefully reviewing formal and informal incentives and establishing joint community-police opportunities for meaningful contact and relationship building.” — Peter T. Coleman, The Hill

The only way to stop police killings is to reduce the public’s interactions with the police

“The alternative is not more money for police training programs, hardware or oversight. It is to dramatically shrink their function. We must demand that local politicians develop non-police solutions to the problems poor people face.” — Alex S. Vitale, The Guardian

The root causes of police shootings run too deep

“Anyone familiar with American history can see that more money and more training won’t lead us to fewer killings of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police. It won’t fix the racism that led to the creation of the institution of slavery or the modern-day police practices that are new iterations of a system designed to control and regulate Black people.” — Jameelah Nasheed, Teen Vogue

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