To begin working in a psychiatric hospital, all new staff is required to take extensive training on the use nonviolent methods to deescalate potentially dangerous situations. These trainings include classes, on-line trainings, and simulation of real life tactics with other staff members to avoid using any physical contact with a patient. Refresher courses for all employees are required as well. Use of physical force is only applied if the person is a clear threat to himself or others. Quantitative evidence provides proof that the use of physical force has drastically reduced since use of these practices became mandatory for this national network of psychiatric/rehabilitation hospitals. Similar trainings and principles are applied when working in a public school system for teachers who are behavior specialists. Use of these various nonviolent methods to deescalate behaviors has been shown to be highly effective. Since my experience and education are in the field of behavior modification, I searched for evidence that U.S. police departments are requiring similar training for recruits to avoid physical and lethal force in potentially violent situations.
The need to rehash the extensive press coverage of excessive use of force by the police in the United States is unnecessary. The public has perhaps become desensitized to videos of shooting and killings of unarmed civilians and incidents of police brutality. To be clear, I am not taking a position that these incidents are happening throughout the U.S. on a regular basis or that the majority of police are committing such acts. The press coverage of these certain incidents has brought the subject to light and there is a call to look into policing to determine whether the use of lethal force can be avoided in the future. It has become clear to the public that other tactics might have been used to prevent such violence and death. There is still public outcry and ongoing investigations into police corruption and profiling. However the fact remains that the police in America use physical force to an excessive degree in comparison to other countries throughout the world.
The death of a knife-wielding civilian, Kajieme Powell, by a St. Louis policeman was the starting point in an interview with Maria Haberfeld, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of books regarding police forces in multiple countries. The interview centers about the topic of training of police officers in the United States. When asked, Haberfeld acknowledges that the distance of 21 feet between Powell and the police permitted lethal force under department rules. I couldn’t help but think of a situation in which I was engaged. Though the situation was clearly very different, I did encounter an individual wielding of a sharp metal object, comparable to a knife and at a much closer proximity. I was fortunate to be with a group of trained individuals, though not the police. With the use of de-escalation methods, the result of the situation required no use of physical force, and no injuries to the individual or others. Haberfeld asserts that the way police officers are trained is inadequate; the majority of police officers’ training focuses on the technical part: the use of force. There is a dearth of emotional, psychological, and physiological aspects in police training.
Each state and each jurisdiction have different training requirements. There is no standard national curriculum: agencies develop their own programs. Each state operates under a statewide commission that establishes minimum selection standards for law enforcement officers, sets minimum education and training standards. This commission also serves as the certification or licensing authority. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies provide statistics and percentages that indicate the average number hours of instruction required per recruit on various training topics. The specific topics listed are relevant to my inquiries: defensive tactics (60hrs), firearms skills (71), use of force (21), and use of non-lethal weapons (16). From this source, I can only compare the area of Self-Improvement, which training topics include ethics and integrity (8hrs), health and fitness (49), communications (15), professionalism (11), and stress prevention/management (6). There is no clear definition of what “defensive tactics” are in order to gain a better understanding of whether these include verbal de-escalation and other methods that do not involve physical force. According to BJS, the median duration of basic recruit training was 21 weeks across all academies with a range anywhere from four weeks to six months. After basic training, the median number of hours in the field-training segment was 180 hours or about eight weeks.
How effective is our method of policing in United States? Traditionally citizens have believed a centralized, national police force would result in an excessive concentration of power. There are questions of how local communities could hold a national police force accountable for abuses of power and whether the national government could use its police force to hold power illegitimately. Therefore U.S. police operate largely on a local basis with the ideal that this decentralization ties the police and the community closer together. However, there are many drawbacks to decentralized police system: the flow of intelligence may be delayed or obstructed, a limited relationship between police and overseers could result in corruption of both parties, and the variance and disparity of training and education hours.
Handing over governance of training requirements and educational curriculum and standards to a local level leaves the community at the mercy of the quality and rigor of these minimum standards. In order to have a working relationship between the police and the community, there must exist an element of social trust. If different elements of society cannot trust one another, the effectiveness of the unit will suffer.
In 2000, The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) collaborated to pilot a problem based learning strategy, titled the Police Training Officer (PTO) Program. The program sets out to create a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive law enforcement. The program uses training sets that encourage new officers “to think using a proactive mindset, enabling the identification of and solution to problems within their communities.” The PTO model seeks to involve the community as a collaborative partner in determining solutions to local issues, thus utilizing the principles of community policing at the very foundation of the post-academy experience.
Could a more centralized, enforced regimen of training and education create a more effective type of policing, that is, less use of physical/lethal force? The social aspects of use of force correlate to how events and incidents affect the community and how it impacts police-community relations. Would a national centralization of police training standards be met with disapproval? Could enforcing minimum selection standards and minimum recruit training and education standards with the inclusion of the PTO type model on a national level create a more cohesive national police standard while still keeping the police power system decentralized? Haberfeld is not reluctant to share her opinion about the quality of American police education and retraining. “There are a host of variables that go into things. And those variables, at least in my mind, should be constantly addressed, and not end with the police officer graduating from police academy, and then the only thing they have to do is to qualify twice a year whether or not they can still carry a weapon. But this qualifying twice a year is focused completely on the technical aspect of use of deadly force.