Are We Training Cops to Be Hyper-Aggressive 'Warriors'?

The New York City Police Academy's graduation ceremony. (Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri)

Are We Training Cops to Be Hyper-Aggressive 'Warriors'?

Thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement, police training is coming under fresh scrutiny.

Race dominated the coverage of the 2014 shooting of John Crawford. Crawford was a young black man gunned down by white cops in a Beaverton Creek, Ohio, Walmart as he talked to his girlfriend on the phone while absentmindedly holding a BB gun he had grabbed from a store shelf. Ohio is an "open-carry" state where it's perfectly legal to walk around with a loaded AR-15.

What got less attention is that less than two weeks before the shooting, the officer who shot Crawford had been trained to respond to "active shooter situations" by shooting first and asking questions later.

According to The Guardian, officer Sean Williams and his colleagues were "taught to keep in mind that 'the suspect wants a body count' and therefore officers should immediately engage a would-be gunman with 'speed, surprise and aggressiveness.'" At that training, they were told to imagine that a crazed gunman was threatening their own relatives.

Dispatchers led Williams and his partner to believe that an active-shooter situation was underway. Store surveillance video showed that Crawford was shot and killed just seconds after police made contact with him, and probably had no idea what was happening. They followed their training, acting with speed, surprise, and aggressiveness.

Thanks in large part to pressure brought by Black Lives Matter activists, some police experts are calling for a complete overhaul in the way cops are trained, both as cadets and during the "in-service" training they receive over the course of their careers. There are no national standards for training police, and the amount and quality of their instruction varies from agency to agency. But a survey of 280 police departments conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington, DC-based think tank, found that American cops are given extensive preparation for using violence, and very little guidance on how to avoid it.

The median police recruit in the United States will receive 129 hours of instruction on defensive techniques and using his or her gun, baton, OC-spray, and Taser. That cadet will receive another 24 hours of scenario-based training, drilling on things like when to shoot or hold fire. The median trainee also gets 48 hours of instruction on constitutional law and his or her department's use-of-force policies.

But that same future police officer will receive only eight hours of training in conflict de-escalation. And despite the fact that a quarter of the 838 citizens shot dead by police this year showed symptoms of mental-health issues, according to The Washington Post, the median cadet gets only eight hours of training in crisis intervention.

The study paints a similar picture with in-service training. A total of 59 percent of a cop's time is spent on using their weapons or defending themselves. That's more than four times as much time that he or she will spend on de-escalation and crisis intervention. Almost all of the agencies surveyed offer their cops continual training with firearms, but over a third offer zero in-service instruction on conflict de-escalation.

Chuck Wexler, PERF's executive director, tells The Nation, "The reason that's important and significant is that the way officers are trained makes them dependent on the strategies they've learned. So if they've spent a lot of time on firearms and what we call less-lethal weapons, to the detriment of de-escalation and crisis intervention, they're much more likely to use a higher level of force than might be necessary."

The median police recruit gets only 8 hours of training in conflict de-escalation.

Wexler and his colleagues have studied policing in the United Kingdom, where most officers are unarmed. While he acknowledges that the environment in which those cops operate--American police not only shoot many more citizens than those in other Western democracies, they're also a lot more likely to be shot--he says we can nonetheless gain some important insights from how they work.

"What we've learned in England and Scotland is the importance of communication, of engaging and slowing things down in certain circumstances," says Wexler. "There are times when you get called to a situation where someone is obviously distraught or emotionally disturbed and they might have a knife or a stick or a rock, and that's where we need to slow things down, maintain a safe distance and call in additional resources. And most importantly, we need to start at a lower level of force and begin to communicate." He adds: "With a mentally ill person, the worst thing you can do is shove a gun in their face and start barking orders at them. It's counterproductive."

Wexler thinks our lightning-fast, high-tech culture is part of the problem. "Some of the officers coming out of police academies approach these situations asking themselves, 'Which of my technologies can I use to get this person under control? Should I use a gun, or should I use a Taser or a baton or whatever.' They're not thinking, 'What do I have here, what is the situation? How can I take this person who's at a very high level of anxiety and try to bring them down to earth?'"

Mass shootings, which seem to be an everyday occurrence in the United States, heighten the tension between how police are trained and how they should ideally behave. Before the Columbine massacre, patrol officers were trained to secure the area around an active-shooter incident and call in specialized tactical officers--SWAT teams. Since then, cops have been taught to seek out and neutralize a suspected gunman. But as common as they seem, those mass shootings only represent a tiny fraction of police calls, and the training for those incidents runs counter to the training for scenarios cops encounter more frequently.

In August, PERF issued a report calling for a radical "re-engineering" of use-of-force training. It detailed how the instruction officers receive, the ways that their performances are evaluated, and the culture of American policing combine to undermine what might be considered best practices.

From a cadet's first day at the police academy to a veteran cop's daily briefings, it's hammered into most officers' heads that their first job is to get home safely every day. While police obviously need to protect themselves, the job requires some risk, and this constantly repeated message leads many officers to see citizens as threats--and to view themselves as "warriors" rather than "guardians" of their communities.

Police are taught to be assertive, establish their authority and immediately take control of a situation. Failing to get that done may be seen as a sign of weakness. Many agencies evaluate cops in part on how many calls they answer, which is another incentive to react to events quickly rather than taking stock of a situation and taking a step back when it's appropriate to do so.

Another example is the "21-foot rule." It originated in a 1983 article in SWAT magazine arguing that a knife-wielding suspect could close a 20-foot gap in the time it takes for an average cop to draw his or her weapon, take aim and fire. According to PERF's report, cops say "the 21-foot rule is a part of police culture, handed down informally from one officer to another, or mentioned in training, over the generations." The author of the article, a Salt Lake City cop, urged his fellow officers to use defensive tactics to stay outside of that 21-foot zone, but police officials interviewed by PERF staffers say that over the years many cops took it to mean that there's a 21-foot "kill zone" where deadly force is justified. "Instead of protecting officers' safety," reads the report, "the rule has been cited to justify the use of deadly force in incidents when other tactics might have allowed a resolution of the situation without deadly force."

An institution's culture isn't easily moved, but training is a good place to start. In August, a number of prominent Black Lives Matter activists released a comprehensive set of policy proposals they called "Campaign Zero." It calls for a laundry list of changes to how police are trained, with a new emphasis on avoiding implicit racial bias and improving cops' relationships with the communities they serve. It also calls for officers to undergo extensive training in "crisis intervention, mediation, conflict resolution and rumor control."

The good news is that with so much focus on policing, some departments are reexamining their use-of-force policies--and their training regimes--and talking openly about the distinction between turning out "warriors" and "guardians."

Elk Grove, California Police Chief Robert Lehner told PERF, "The concept of police officers as warriors, whether we like it or not, has run through our profession, certainly for the almost 40 years I've been in it.... I think we need to confront this issue." He says his department has stopped using firearms and use-of-force training programs designed by SWAT, "whose tactical perspective is necessarily different than routine patrol."

A number of departments are now deploying psychiatric social workers along with specially trained officers when they get calls to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

After the killing of Eric Garner, the NYPD required all 35,000 of its cops to undergo a three-day in-service training program--it typically offers eight-hour sessions--that included a day of de-escalation tactics and techniques. Chief Matthew Pontillo explained, "We focus on the impact of high-emotion, high-stakes encounters and what that does to an officer's stress level, what the flow of adrenaline does, what they can expect, and how they can mitigate against that. Unnecessary use of force is often tied to an officer's adrenaline or anger, so you have to know how to control that."

Some are reexamining their hiring practices in an attempt to weed out potentially bad cops from the start. Thomas Hongslo, chief of the Lenexa, Kansas police department, told PERF that his agency goes "to great lengths to ensure that we're hiring people...who mix well with the community. We look for empathy, for compassion, and I think that goes to the guardian model of policing. We've had people come in who could do the job, but they were warriors, and they were in the job for a different reason."

This kind of thinking won't be evident on the streets overnight, and many of the country's 18,000 police agencies are hunkered down in a defensive crouch rather than reexamining how they serve their communities. But with continued pressure, it might lead to a real paradigm shift down the road.

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