George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, and now Tyre Nichols – they are all part of a growing list of people killed by police.
Nichols’ recent, disturbing death at the hands of Memphis police officers has renewed calls for police reform.
“The world is watching,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Thursday when he announced charges against the five police officers who allegedly beat Nichols to death earlier this month. “We need to show the world the lessons we can learn from this tragedy.”
A recent report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an independent research organization focused on critical issues in policing, shows significant gaps in how police are trained in the United States when compared to their international counterparts.
more: Memphis police release video stopping traffic of Nichols’ photos
According to the report, titled “Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles,” the training standards of more than 18,000 US police agencies are outdated, inconsistent, and often provide very short training — with an emphasis on weapons and tactics and little emphasis on decision-making. Communication and other critical thinking skills that officers use every day.
The report states that “every major aspect of policing has changed radically in recent decades, except for one: how we train officers.”
matter of weeks
Police training in the United States is often measured in weeks, while in many other countries it is measured in months or years.
“Our training is archaic and outdated, trying cheaply what other places have done in an inclusive way,” PERF executive director Chuck Wexler told ABC News.
A 2018 Department of Justice study of state and local law enforcement training academies found that the average length of basic police training in the United States is 833 hours, or less than 22 weeks. A more recent survey by PERF found a similar finding, with responding agencies reporting an average of 20 weeks of basic police training.
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By comparison, police recruits in Japan receive between 15 and 21 months of training. Police in Germany get 2.5 years of training. And in Finland, police education takes three years to complete.
American law enforcement agencies often provide additional training for on-the-job police who serve in specialized police units such as drug enforcement and violent crime teams. But in Memphis, it was one of those special units—Street Crime Operation to Restore Peace in Our District, or SCORPION—whose members were accused of fatally striking Nichols during a traffic stop. The unit is now disabled after Nichols’ death.
Like the army
Many police academies in the United States still look like military boot camps, where cadets in buzzcuts and hair buns are yelled at by drill instructors.
“Giving orders, giving orders and kind of military thinking – that’s not a problem-solving approach. It’s not critical thinking,” Wexler said.
Much of the training in US police academies focuses on skills such as marksmanship and defensive tactics, with less emphasis on so-called “soft skills” such as communication and crisis intervention.
“People call these soft skills — these are not soft skills, they are hard skills,” Wexler says. “Communicating, being a good listener, you answer, you think, and sometimes you say, ‘You know what, we need to back off, we’re not the right people here.’” For this we need to bring in another person. These are important skills for knowing your limits and also for asking the right questions.
A 2020 University of Cincinnati study looked at the impact of a training program focused on de-escalation and critical thinking skills at the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky. The program called Integrated Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) was developed by PERF. University of Cincinnati researchers found that ICAT training was associated with a significant reduction in use-of-force incidents as well as the number of injuries for both citizens and officers.
LMPD officers who participated in ICAT training experienced a 28% reduction in use-of-force incidents and 36% fewer injuries, compared to their peers who did not receive training. In addition, the number of people injured in encounters with officers who had the training decreased by 26% compared to officers who did not.
“It turns out that using a critical decision model is actually … not only safer for the person you’re dealing with, but it’s actually safer for police officers,” Wexler said.
Regardless of their training, experts say, police in the United States face unique challenges compared to many of their international counterparts. American streets are awash with guns and illegal drugs like fentanyl, and training alone isn’t going to change that.
Meanwhile, police departments across the country continue to struggle with staffing shortages. There is a shortage of qualified new recruits, and many departments are not keeping pace with the number of police personnel retiring or leaving the profession.
Expanding police training is expensive and can have the undesirable effect of slowing the flow of new officers at a time when law enforcement agencies can’t get new police online fast enough. According to a 2020 PERF survey, 71% of police agencies spend less than 5% of their budgets on recruit training.
As a result, Wexler says, improving policing requires an extensive investment in the profession.
“There has to be a national commitment to wanting to basically train … and to compensate the police at a level that makes them professional,” he said.
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