It’s difficult to watch the news or read the newspaper for a week without seeing a story of alleged police brutality or a case where misunderstandings between citizens and officers spiraled wildly out of control, putting lives in danger on both sides of the handcuffs. Jobs as an officer are undoubtedly some of the most stressful and dangerous, especially in the charged climate of strained relationships between departments and the communities they are sworn to serve in many cities across the nation.
In light of this, the most influential minds in law enforcement agree that changes need to be made in how police officers are prepared for their jobs. When we dig past single current events, we start to see a training system that is in need of some significant improvements. However, the focus needs to be on system-wide improvements, rather than placing the blame at the feet of individual officers, wrote Ronald Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (a division of the United States Department of Justice).
“If we are to achieve real and sustainable reform in law enforcement, our focus must shift from the police (those individuals sworn to uphold the law) to policing systems (the policies, practices, and culture of police organizations),” Davis wrote in an open letter to his colleagues around the nation. With that in mind, we took a look at some of the suggestions that officers and academics have given in recent months for improving the way officers are prepared for their jobs. They might not account for every incident gone wrong, but could ward off unnecessary conflict or violence.
1. Departments need more universal standards
There are approximately 18,000 local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies across the U.S., according to Davis’s letter. The United States is unique in that there is not a centralized police system, and authority to those officers is given by local governments, rather than at the federal level. While this upholds the idea of local control that the Founding Fathers sought to maintain, it also means every department has its own procedures and training.
A police department will need to operate differently in New York City than, say, a rural town in Idaho. In that regard, having varying policing methods is advantageous. When it comes to serving individual communities, a one-size-fits-all model simply won’t work. However, there are general principles that every department should be following. In 2014, President Barack Obama authorized a task force to analyze the ways in which police departments could improve relations with their communities. Their findings outline 59 concrete recommendations, built upon six key themes like building trust and providing for officer wellness.
The expression of those recommendations will vary by department. However, adopting them on a universal scale will likely bring about more consistency when dealing with the public. When people know what to expect — and they can count on certain tenets of respect and decency no matter where they are — it could go a long way toward avoiding conflict altogether.
2. Training should be less militaristic
The debate about whether police officers are “guardians” of their communities or “warriors” within it is common in today’s culture. Though it is controversial, many experts believe that current training models ingrain warrior-like tendencies instead of preparing future officers to be guardians — ultimately leading to more conflict instead of de-escalation.
The militaristic warrior method ends up inadvertently preparing officers to “go to war” with the people they are sworn to serve, The Washington Post reports. “The goal of the guardian officer is to avoid causing unnecessary indignity,” Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer in Tallahassee, told the Post. “Officers who treat people humanely, who show them respect, who explain their actions, can improve the perceptions of officers, or their department, even when they are arresting someone.”
In some cases, such as the shooting in Dallas where five officers were killed, the guardian training has its limitations, Tracey Meares, a professor at Yale Law School and a member of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, told The Atlantic. There are simply some situations that can’t be resolved peacefully. However, going into every potentially violent situation thinking it will end in a shootout is a compounding problem.
“It’s important to not be ‘all stick,'” officer James Thompson, who has gone through guardian-centric training in Washington state, told the Post. “It’s important to remember we are the voice to the people who don’t have voices.”
3. Training should be progressive, not all at once
The number of training hours an officer goes through varies depending on the state and local departments in which they are hired. Basic training for police officers only became a mandate in every state in 1980, according to a column that the Manchester, Missouri chief of police John Connolly wrote for Police Chief Magazine. Right now, training hours can vary from 120 hours (just 15 days) to more than 1,000 hours (the equivalent of six months). Connolly didn’t advocate for a certain number of hours, but instead said that training should be streamlined to include the most essential information, without requiring officers to sit though ultimately useless lectures of “filler” content simply to reach those hourly demands.
Connolly did promote one system used in Texas, in which recruits receive the most essential basic training when they are first hired, but continue training seminars throughout their career. That allows them to get into the field with the most vital training under their belt — thus helping short-staffed departments — but also ensures they receive ongoing training that is relevant to the community they serve.
This also allows for academy-centric learning to take the forefront, such as proper firearms training and defensive tactics, while academic aspects could be learned in online formats that many recent recruits are more accustomed to anyway, Connolly wrote.
4. Recruiting needs to be a part of the conversation
Training adjustments could certainly play a role in improving police and community relations, but who departments recruit should also be examined, Donald Grady II, a retired police chief with over 30 years in uniform across multiple cities, told The Atlantic. “In 36 years of policing, I cannot suggest to you a single training course that I could give someone that would change their thinking when it came to making a decision to shoot or not shoot when there is absolutely no threat to their person,” Grady said.
“This is not a training issue. This is an issue of who it is that we’ve decided we would allow to police our country,” he summarized. In previous jobs, Grady said he knew of potential recruits who were ultimately rejected because they were thought to be too “docile” for the job. However, hiring only officers who have aggressive tendencies can lead to bigger conflicts later on, he argued. “I can teach you to be appropriately assertive. What I can’t do is pull unreasonably aggressive tendencies out of a person,” Grady said.
Aside from that, Meares of the task force said there is evidence that other factors like age and education can lead to a force that is more prepared to handle complex situations. “We know most evidence points pretty strongly that having more-highly educated and older people starting the job makes a difference, but then of course that impacts our ability to hire a more diverse workforce,” Meares said.
5. What we call officers matters — and needs to shift
No matter who is being asked to join a police department, talking about recruits as “peace officers” rather than “law enforcement” can change the dynamics a bit. “In the state of Illinois, the statutes don’t call them law-enforcement officers, they call them peace officers, but they don’t refer to themselves as peace officers,” Grady said. “They refer to themselves as law-enforcement officers.” That might seem subtle, but it speaks to the overall mission of policing.
“They have given themselves a mission of law enforcement, but law enforcement was never the mission,” Grady said. “Law enforcement is only one small part of what we should be doing in policing. Policing is community building.” When officers are called “peace officers” — and see themselves as such — it can be a paradigm shift that affects how they approach interactions with the public.
6. Body cameras should be required for all officers
Body cameras, which are worn on the front of an officer’s uniform, can be a costly investment for departments. However, many experts agree the cameras can only benefit officers and the people they serve. “I am incredibly, and have been, in favor of body cameras, since 2012, when I was a chief in New Orleans and called for every officer to have one in the field,” Ronal Serpas, a former New Orleans police chief, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and the chair of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, told The Atlantic.
Here’s what Serpas had to add:
Body cameras do give us everything before, during, and after from that camera’s point of view; but when you have multiple officers with cameras, you suddenly start seeing this panoramic view. You get to see so many more things, and that’s how you can better diagnose what might be a training deficiency, or a disciplinary deficiency, or [conclude] there was nothing that the officers could have done differently. Body cameras bring us there.
Some experts like Meares don’t believe body cameras will solve individual incident disputes. However, she does believe the training potential is definitely present. “I think body cameras can make a big difference in terms of training … We can and should be able to leverage actual footage of what cops do to be really effective training mechanisms.”