After a summer saturated with images of police violence and brutality, conversations of police reform have quickly taken center stage in the collective American consciousness. Cities across the country now weigh their options, from complacency to defunding to dismantling. Baltimore, Portland, and Austin have answered the calls of the “defund the police” movement, reallocating significant portions of their department funds to social services and education investments in an effort to reduce the need for police contact with civilians. The state of California, along with many major cities, has made use-of-force regulations — including banning the type of chokehold that was used to kill George Floyd in May. Time will tell how effective these measures will be. As of now, many communities are still distrustful of their policing institutions, which have fundamentally remained the same.
The issues present in American policing are not simple or easy to fix. They are tangled in a web of department policies and national politics. Creating change in an institution that is structurally complex requires a multifaceted solution. This three part series will outline three key avenues of reform to reduce unnecessary violence in policing: Training, Civilian Oversight, and Hiring and Staff Maintenance.
Part One: How Police Training Reform Can Combat Excessive Use of Force
Unnecessary use of force or violence within policing institutions can be symptomatic of a variety of departmental flaws. The training that US officers receive from police academies, of which there are just over 600 nationally, is often the first point of failure in the policing system that leads to police brutality. Berkeley Police Department’s (BPD) Lieutenant Spencer Fomby, a use-of-force specialist and 20 year veteran of the BPD argues that training should “focus on human performance under stress … the biggest issue is how the officer processes information and makes decisions under stress.” The American system of police training is not fit to emphasize this in its current form.
Fomby told the Jacket that “a lot of police agencies get minimal training.” According to a 2013 report by the US Department of Justice, police academies in the US are 21 weeks long on average. In contrast, police officers in Finland and Germany are required to train for a minimum of two and a half years, with the option to earn the equivalent of a four-year policing “master’s degree” in Germany. On top of this, time spent training varies greatly from department to department, since American policing generally operates on the city or county level. Fomby asserts that “the biggest issue is that there aren’t national [training] standards,” and that there are “some [police] agencies [that] do the bare minimum that the state requires, and other agencies that go above and beyond.” This discrepancy contributes to the difference between departments that police effectively and departments that don’t.
This combination of minimal training and a lack of national regulation becomes even more precarious in the dangerous policing environments of many American cities. World-leading rates of gun ownership and violence distinguish policing environments in the US from almost every other country in the world. In 2017, 73 percent of all homicides in the US were gun related, compared to just 3 percent in England and Wales. American citizens are also far and away the most armed of any country in the world, with there being 120.5 guns for every 100 citizens in the US. When this is juxtaposed to the 32.4 guns for every 100 Finnish citizens and 19.6 guns for every 100 German citizens, it is clear that American police generally have to operate in situations where the threat of lethal force is more prevalent, making the minimal training requirements even more nonsensical.
Because of the inherent danger that comes with policing a heavily armed population, academies spend a high portion of the available training time covering survival tactics in life-threatening situations. According to the 2013 Department of Justice report, police academies in the US allocate about 30 percent of training time (168 hours on average) towards “firearms, self-defense, and use of force,” while spending 2.6 percent (13 hours) on “social issues” and 1.8 percent (10 hours) on “mental illness.” Additionally, the report did not list any documented hours of de-escalation training, about which Fomby said, “prior to this year, was department specific,” and, “If … certain police departments or sheriff’s agencies decided that [de-escalation] was a priority, they may have a formalized program, but many of them still don’t.” To reduce the amount of police shootings, academies must be extended so trainees spend a higher percentage of their time working on skill sets other than firearms, self defense, and use of force.
It is clear that police academies should be extended to facilitate a more well-rounded training program, but what specifically should be added?
The concept of de-escalation has become a mainstream avenue in the police reform conversation. Most applications of de-escalation training involve officers trying to verbally handle a situation before using force, and exhausting lower levels of force before higher levels whenever possible. Procedure based strategies of de-escalation can be developed for many common interactions that officers have with civilians, and compiled into courses. De-escalation courses, such as the state of California certified tactical de-escalation course that Fomby has developed, should be implemented in police academies as a first step to broadening the learned skill sets and readjusting the emphasis of training. Fomby says that in most departments, “there’s no scenario-based training. … [At BPD] we put our officers through scenarios.” The police academy should be extended enough to facilitate comprehensive training of concrete, written, scenario-based de-escalation. If a department devotes a large amount of time to practicing procedures designed for various common scenarios, officers will have many more well-trained options to rely on, rather than just their firearms and self defense training.
The design of these situational de-escalation procedures will make or break their success. A source with a background in law enforcement psychology who wished to remain anonymous told the Jacket that de-escalation is “all psychological.” Although those with experience in policing may be able pull from their knowledge of real life situations while developing de-escalation tactics, without knowledge of psychology they can only understand the behavioral aspects of a scenario. The Jacket’s source stated, “In order for you to appreciate the motivation behind the behavior you must have a professional psychologist involved. Otherwise all you’re doing is coming up with a script for the cops.” De-escalation procedures and tactics should be developed by both psychologists and law enforcement experts, and taught thoroughly in police academies. This psychological attention to detail will make de-escalation more effective.
Psychological aspects of scenario-based training — the understanding of motivation, emotions, and mental health issues — should not only be applied while formulating procedures, but also taught to officers as a portion of their required training. Police academies should provide basic psychological education as a foundation for the psychologically backed, scenario-based training they will receive. Additionally, Riva Simmons, a forensic psychotherapist, believes that police officers “should take general psychology and an abnormal psychology” course both as a way to help them understand their own psychological mannerisms when dealing with civilians, and to recognize the symptoms of civilians who may be struggling with psychological issues.
The most publicized case of police brutality in the past year happened in May 2020, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for an extended period of time while Floyd yelled out, “I can’t breathe,” eventually killing him. Although the officers involved in Floyd’s killing may have shown proficiency in the existing areas of training covered by most police academies, they did not exhibit any attempts to de-escalate their interaction with Floyd or use minimal force. Firstly, officer Thomas Lane pointed his firearm at Floyd just seconds after their interaction started, although Floyd was unarmed. The predisposed inclination to threaten the use of lethal force displayed by Lane is a clear example of an officer turning to their use-of-force training before other, more appropriate options. Lane’s body camera footage shows that his first interaction with Floyd involved repeatedly yelling at him to “put [his] f*cking hands up.” If Lane was required to operate under procedural de-escalation guidelines, he would not have been able to draw his firearm immediately, and rather, would speak to Floyd before threatening to use force at all.
By threatening to use violence and using hostile language immediately, Lane escalated the situation. Floyd then repeatedly explained that he had been shot before, that he was afraid of being shot again, and immediately began to cry. Throughout the interaction Floyd displayed signs of anxiety. The officers involved did not have the understanding of the psychological implications of Floyd’s anxiety or how it affected his behavior, and they continued to use excessive force on him despite him being non-violent throughout the interaction. Finally, Chauvin used a knee-to-neck chokehold in a way that the Minneapolis police manual classifies as a “deadly use of force.” Chauvin would have been obligated to avoid this chokehold had he been regulated by a de-escalation procedure.
Creating psychologically backed, scenario-based procedures will help to create more well-rounded and better equipped police officers, but these trainings can only go as far as a given officer takes it with them. For there to be greater change in police training, the procedures should be put into writing in departments’ use-of-force policies. However, these procedures are not possible in certain scenarios, and officers may have reason to bypass them. For interactions where procedures are violated that result in a violent altercation, a use-of-force complaint, or officer-inflicted injury, an external entity must be present to scrutinize the officer’s decision to violate the use-of-force policy procedure, and decide whether it qualifies as an exemption or not. This is where civilian oversight comes into play.
Return for the second part of this three part series, which will cover the role of civilian oversight in police reform.