Reforming Police Training

In the comments to the "Rabbit/Riot" post below, Larry made the following comment.
Larry said...
I agree, that phrase made me laugh, as well.

For as long as I’ve followed the posts in the Hall (I made my way to the Hall from Blackfive), deficiencies in the training of American police have been raised as a significant issue. I don’t know enough about their training to know where it’s deficient. Grim (and anyone else), can you give me more information about that?
It's been more than a decade that we've occasionally been treating this subject, so I thought perhaps it would be helpful to review the history. 

In general, I've tended to argue that the problem isn't a deficiency of training, but badly-founded training. More training is thus not the answer, because training people even more intensely to do the wrong thing will only intensify bad results. What is needed is a general reformation of police training based on the restoration of an older understanding of what police exist to do. 

My basic claim has been that there are two modes of understanding what police officers do: the 'peace officer' and the 'law enforcement' models. On the older 'peace officer' model, police are just full-time good citizens whose job is to help other citizens uphold the common peace. If you as a citizen should come across someone's livestock that has gotten out of their fence and into the road, it would be proper to stop and help them get it back inside the fence to protect travelers as well as property. If no other good citizens are around, the police exist as people you can call to come help you. Similarly, if you see someone being robbed or raped or murdered, a good citizen should put a stop to it. The police exist as full-time good citizens, spending all day working in the community to uphold the common peace.

The Norman Rockwell painting under the "older understanding" link idolizes this model. The police officer has options when he encounters a runaway (and truant). The one he chose was to take the boy for a snack, hear him out, and try to find solutions to his problems. It was not to slap him in juvenile for violating mandatory school attendance policies, or to bust up his family by sending him to the Department of Child/Family Services who will put him in foster care. The painting is idyllic, but the lesson is genuine. A peace officer can enforce the law, but that is only one tool. It is often not the right tool
Sir Thomas More [in claiming that the rule of law must be paramount] was speaking as an agent of the state. The argument that an officer of the state should 'give the Devil the benefit of the law' is an argument about the state recognizing legal limits to its power. Just as the play says, if we accept the state setting aside the lawful limits of its power to deal with evildoers, we will soon find it accepts no limits when it deals with anyone else.

The "we" who are accepting or rejecting the state's powers here are "We, the People." The distinction between the People and the State is that the People are those who retain the power described in the Declaration of Independence:

[T]hey are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
"The rule of law" is therefore not a principle for the People to accept as a first principle. They are the judges of whether "the rule of law" has become destructive to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Their first principles must be these three things.

The rule of law is a means to that end; when it becomes destructive to those ends, the law must be set aside in spite of itself.

If the law is unjust, "the rule of law" means the rule of injustice. Before we the People speak of 'giving the Devil the benefit of the law,' we must not forget that the Devil often has the best lobbyists. We should not commit to a moral principle that commits us to pursuing injustice on those occasions when the wicked have captured the law.


There is a second argument that applies even when the law is not unjust; even when it may be perfectly just.

The law is an exercise of the power of the state, and the power of the state is coercive -- it is based on violence, that is, even when an individual instance is not violent. Every act of "law enforcement" is an act of coercion.

Many times in life we find ourselves in disputes with others, and we could rely on rules and force to push people to accept our way. We might also be able to sit down, talk things through, and achieve a compromise position that everyone can live with. The second approach means that we do not get exactly what we wanted, but we do get a society that is more pleasant to live in. Very often, this second approach is the foundation of friendships and good relations with neighbors.

This is why we respect the old breed of "peace officers" more than the sort who consider themselves "law enforcement officers." A peace officer is preserving the order of society, but this often means letting certain things slide if an agreement can be reached between the parties in dispute. The law here is a tool, certainly, but he does not stand on 'the rule of law.' He mentions the law, and then talks people into sorting out their problems so that no one has to go to jail.
On the law enforcement model, the police are agents of the state who are set in opposition to the citizenry. Their job is to enforce unpopular laws (whose legitimacy is questionable in a democracy: by what right does any law exist if it is rejected by most citizens?), to collect fines to fund the state, and to put or keep people in prison. 

So that is one basic issue: conception of the role of the officer.

The second basic issue where police training is disordered is on the question of honor. Police work is inherently honorable just because it entails taking on risks to one's self in order to protect those who are weaker. However, police training on the use of lethal force -- especially in using handguns -- has become predicated on ensuring that the officer comes home alive. While it is desirable that the officer comes home alive, maximizing that outcome means pushing the risks of police work back onto the other people. If a police officer is trained to draw his firearm at the first potential sign of trouble, he protects himself more effectively; but it exposes the people he encounters to a higher degree of risk. That reverses the dynamic that made police work honorable, and makes it instead dishonorable: one becomes an armed agent of the state trained to shoot anyone who presents a potentially dangerous challenge. 

Police have a defensible case here in terms of how quickly things can go sideways. Someone with a knife can close the distance and kill you in seconds even from tens of feet away; someone with a hidden gun can kill you very quickly indeed. Knives and guns are, however, not illegal in the United States and ought not to become so. Whatever risk they pose, the mere possession of a weapon does not justify lethal force. (See discussion here.)

Likewise, the police training by focusing on their constant risk of death teaches them to overestimate how dangerous their job is. "[I]n a parallel discussion, somebody flipped the data: what about police killed by blacks vs. others? It looks like blacks represent about 4 in 10 cop killers, at 13% of the population. But again, how many police are killed? Not many! 126 out of 1.1 million, or 0.011%."

As a result, police are taught to respond much more aggressively than is prudent, against a population much less likely to hurt them than they are taught to believe. They end up shifting the status of their profession towards dishonor by choosing to prioritize self-defense over running risks to protect others; and they shift from being good fellow citizens to enemies of ordinary people by adopting the law-enforcement model over the peace officer model.

Finally, there is an issue about equipment.
I would say training reform begins with equipment reform. That's going to vary a bit by community, but we should have a conversation about what an appropriate level of force is for our communities. It may be that a shotgun ordinarily left in the car is all you need for many rural jurisdictions. In those cases when force was likely, you'd have more force than a handgun provides, but mostly you'd deal with people without weapons.

In more dangerous places, we might ask whether Tasers and CS gas are really needed. They don't seem to be very effective against dangerous people. They're just confusing the options and the legal after-game. Maybe the handgun is one option, and the nightstick or other melee weapon the primary choice for training. And that means a lot of training, because melee weapons are much harder to use well. There are lots of rewards to having a well-trained force that can leverage this capacity, though.

I think teams armed with military-grade gear should probably be almost done away with nationwide. We have the National Guard for that. If policing ordinarily requires that level of force in your community, we need to consider martial law until order can be restored. But that's a military problem, not a police problem.

I don't think the BLM people much like to consider that there may be neighborhoods -- even in majority black communities like those in South Chicago -- where martial law is the appropriate answer. But I think we could get to an eventual position in which less force on a day to day basis is required that way. When order is restored, it can be a much better kind of order.

We also need to address the separate issue of using police for revenue collection. That needs to stop. Maybe communities can be forbidden to collect revenue in this way -- all fines have to be donated to charities through a double-blind mechanism to prevent corruption, or something like that.

In addition to these global issues, there are localized issues that are beyond the scope of this blog to address. I spent the weekend with emergency personnel of my acquaintance who are local to the community, and they raised a number of complaints about the way Public Safety training is handled by the local community college (which handles a lot of the work of training EMTs, firefighters, and police, as the state has pushed a number of these duties off onto academia as 'training hours').  One example: There are issues about urban vs. rural America that crop up as the big city police/fire unions create demands for excessive training in order to try to drive up their departmental budgets (some of which gets diverted to their salaries, not that they don't deserve good pay). Poorer communities end up having fewer police and firefighters than they'd like as a result, because they just can't afford to keep up. 


Dad29 said...

It is very difficult to imagine the Rockwell vision as the norm in many parts of this country; the cops simply don't have the time to engage minor riff-raff in pleasantries. That may have worked when the population largely conformed to 'ordered liberty' (a/k/a the Ten Commandments), but budget restraints and frequency of calls strain most metro-area police agencies.

In this area, one has to be 30 miles or so from Downtown Big City to encounter infrequent police calls-for-service--and in those communities, there may be only 1 or 2 active officers on the graveyard shift, with 4-5 on the second shift, and 6 patrolling on first (days have all the brass and clericals who don't count.)

Your conceptualization of 'peace' v. 'law enforce' is a good one. The question is how to implement the former in budget-stressed Big Cities were ordered liberty disappeared in 1965 or so.

sykes.1 said...

A few days ago, a black man was shot to death in the emergency room of St. Ann's Hospital in Westerville, Ohio, an upscale, white suburb of Columbus. The whole incident was caught on police shoulder cams.

The man was found unconscious in a car in a parking lot, and transported to the emergency room by police. Once there, he was identified, and it was found that there were several warrants out for him. The police entered the ER (actually a separate, small examination room) to arrest him, and they discovered he had a gun. There was an wrestling match in the small room between two cops and the man. Repeated tasing had no effect (does it ever?), and the man managed to get off a shot. Subsequently the cops shot him several times.

Note that the first action of the black man when arrested was to fight the cops, not to submit. This is the standard procedure for black criminals, male or female, when confronted by arrest--they fight.

The discussion above neglects the other side of police encounters, the criminal. What were the cops in Westerville supposed to due? Two of them couldn't physically subdue the man in the confined space; the taser (as usual) didn't work; and he shot a gun.

Grim said...

I think the equipment section covers this. Tasers and gas should be eliminated, and replaced with training to use sticks in close quarters requiring a non lethal solution. Handguns should remain available for cases required lethal force in close quarters. Long arms, especially shotguns, should be available but not ordinarily carried.

Nobody said that no force would ever be required.

Christopher B said...

I suspect that if you eliminate tasers and gas you would effectively eliminate (biologically) female patrol officers. While stand-off distance is a net plus for male officers, not going close-quarters with suspects having significantly greater upper body strength and arm reach is vital to keeping female officers from being overpowered.

Mike Guenther said...

It seems to me like maybe the training now is less than what it was back in the 60's and 70's. Do they still teach hand to hand combat anymore where officers are taught the basics of how and when to use the night stick or baton? How to defend themselves and restrain an unarmed combative subject?

One of my Uncle's was a cop in a large city in the mid sixties. If memory serves, his academy training lasted about six months, plus he already had to have a bachelor's degree in a closely related subject.

Amusing story...he was the first cop to ever pull me over after I got my license. I hadn't done anything wrong, he just wanted to give me a couple of tips on what to do if pulled over.

Grim said...

...if you eliminate tasers and gas you would effectively eliminate (biologically) female patrol officers.

Over the last little while I've come around to Tex's view that it's not important to have women per se in police, the military, or sports: some women can hang, and they belong. Others can't, and don't.

That said, I studied Escrima a bit in the Philippines, and have used sticks in both Western (HEMA) and Eastern martial arts. A woman with a stick who knows how to use it is not necessarily at a big disadvantage. It requires a lot of training, to be sure. But it does work, and better than tasers.


Do they still teach hand to hand combat anymore...?

I don't know. I do know that my uncle, who was Air Force Security Police in the 1950s, received a much higher degree of training on those matters than current service personnel do today.

douglas said...

"But again, how many police are killed? Not many! 126 out of 1.1 million, or 0.011%."
That's one in about 9000. Not overwhelming, but not small enough to be considered rare. I don't know if there are enough men and women of honor and fortitude enough, under that risk, to serve as police who are willing to do it, and you'd expect the number killed to increase slightly with the changes you propose (perhaps).
Tough call.

The debate about use of force, and sticks vs tasers- the problem is the public at large doesn't have the stomach to support the use of sticks as weapons of submission now that, theoretically, you can taser someone and put them down almost as if by magic- again, theoretically- but most people live in theoretical space most of the time when it comes to policing and crime.
Certainly, it's unlikely that people are going to support making police better fighters even though people like we here understand that it would *reduce* the problems incurred in use of force scenarios.

Basically, so long as the public has no clue about how policing really is, they aren't going to support the kinds of changes that are really necessary.

I have no idea what to even suggest to try to fix it.

Dad29 said...

Side-note.....the maker of Tasers is now advertising it as a self-defense weapon 'less lethal than a gun, more effective than bear-spray.'

One wonders if his sales to police are descending by virtue of Taser's not-reliable stopping power.