Why police training in the US falls short compared to the rest of the world: Report

(NEW YORK) — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, and now Tyre Nichols — all are part a growing list of people who have been killed by police.

The latest disturbing death of Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers has renewed calls for police reform.

“The world is watching us,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Thursday as he announced charges against the five police officers who allegedly beat Nichols to death earlier this month. “We need to show the world what lessons we can learn from this tragedy.”

But rather than looking inward, some experts say U.S. law enforcement officials may be better served by looking at the rest of the world for its lessons.

A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an independent research organization that focuses on critical issues in policing, shows significant gaps in how police in the U.S. are trained when compared to their international counterparts.

According to the report, titled “Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles,” training standards for the more than 18,000 police agencies in the U.S. are outdated and inconsistent, and often provide training that is too brief — with an emphasis on weapons and tactics and too little focus on decision-making, communications and other critical thinking skills that officers use every day.

“Almost every major aspect of policing has fundamentally changed in recent decades, except for one: how we train officers,” the report states.

A matter of weeks

Police training in the U.S. is most often measured in weeks, while in many other countries it is measured in months or years.

“Our training is outdated, antiquated, and is trying to do on the cheap what other places have done in a comprehensive way,” PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler told ABC News.

A 2018 Justice Department study of state and local law enforcement training academies found that the average length of core basic police training in the U.S. is 833 hours, or less than 22 weeks. A more recent survey by PERF found a similar result, with responding agencies reporting an average of 20 weeks of basic police training.

In comparison, police recruits in Japan get between 15 and 21 months of training. Police in Germany get 2.5 years of training. And in Finland, police education takes three years to complete.

U.S. law enforcement agencies do often provide additional training for police on the job who serve in specialized police units such as narcotics squads and violent crime suppression teams. But in Memphis, it was one of those special units — Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhood, or SCORPION — whose members are accused of fatally beating Nichols during a traffic stop arrest. The unit has now been deactivated following Nichols’ death.

Like the military

Many police academies in the U.S. still resemble military boot camps, with cadets in buzz cuts and hair buns getting yelled at by drill instructors.

“Barking orders and giving commands and sort of a military kind of thinking — it’s not a problem-solving approach. It’s not critical thinking,” Wexler said.

Much of the training in American police academies emphasizes skills like marksmanship and defensive tactics, with less focus on so-called “soft skills” like communication and crisis intervention.

“People call those soft skills — those are not soft skills, those are hard,” Wexler says. “Communicating, being a good listener, responding, thinking, and sometimes saying, ‘You know what, we need to step back, we’re not the right ones here. For this we need to bring someone else in.’ Those are important skills, to know your limitations, and also to ask the right questions.”

De-escalation training

A 2020 study by the University of Cincinnati looked at the impact of a training program focused on de-escalation and critical thinking skills in the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky. The program, called Integrated Communications, Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) was developed by PERF. University of Cincinnati researchers found that ICAT training was associated with a sizeable reduction in use-of-force incidents as well as the number of injuries to both citizens and officers.

LMPD officers who had participated in ICAT training experienced a 28% reduction in use-of-force incidents and 36% fewer injuries, compared to their peers who had not been given the training. In addition, 26% fewer citizens were injured in encounters with officers who had the training compared to officers who did not.

“It turns out that actually using a critical decision model … is not only safer for the person you’re dealing with, but it’s actually safer for police officers,” said Wexler.

The cost of reform

Regardless of their training, police in the U.S. face unique challenges compared to many of their international counterparts, experts say. American streets are awash in guns and illicit drugs like fentanyl, and training alone won’t change that.

Meanwhile, police departments across the country continue to struggle with staffing shortages. Qualified new recruits are in short supply, and many departments are not keeping pace with the number of police retiring or leaving the profession.

Expanding police training is costly and could have the undesirable effect of slowing down the pipeline of new officers at a time when law enforcement agencies can’t get new police online fast enough. According to a 2020 PERF survey, 71% of police agencies spend less than 5% of their budgets on recruit training.

And law enforcement remains a dangerous profession, with difficult hours and limited pay.

As a result, Wexler says that improving policing requires a wide-ranging investment in the profession.

“There has to be a national commitment to want to fundamentally train … and to compensate police at a level that makes them professionals,” he said.

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