How to fix the law enforcement crisis in America

How to fix the law enforcement crisis in America

A police department is like any other place of employment; officers needs to be given the tools and the training to do a good job.

NYPD officers from the Emergency Service Unit (ESU) in June 2009. (
NYPD officers from the Emergency Service Unit (ESU) in June 2009. (

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2015 – Recent events illustrate the continued tensions between police and communities. Most recently the Dallas shooting of Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man, after his mother called police for help, specifically asking for officers with training in assisting the mentally ill.

UVA student Martese Johnson was brutally beaten during an arrest by Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control police outside a bar after, according to his lawyer, he gave the wrong “zip code” when his identification was being checked.

Two black UVA administrators, Vice President for Diversity & Equity Marcus L. Martin and Dean of African-American Affairs Maurice Apprey, criticized the officers:

“His head was slammed into the hard pavement with excessive force,” Martin and Apprey wrote in a statement. “The student required medical evaluation and treatment at the UVa Hospital Emergency Department. This was wrong and should not have occurred. In the many years of our medical, professional and leadership roles at the University, we view the nature of this assault as highly unusual and appalling based on the information we have received.”

Despite efforts by police to professionalize, there continue to be tensions between police and communities. Several groups believe that the police are violating their rights and exceeding their powers. Many at UVA are questioning why a regulatory agency has a police force.

Read Also:  Police violence is an American problem, not just Black, Brown or White

On the whole, sworn police officers are caring and generally kind. As with any profession, of course, there are exceptions and problems in this workforce.

Many suburban jurisdictions have established extremely well-funded and progressive police departments.

Other jurisdictions are less progressive and less technologically sophisticated. They tend to conduct police activities based on their historical practices and do not change their approach and methods unless there is some external pressure to do so.

Police departments are frequently warned: “Pay now or pay later,” meaning that they can either initiate change and solve costly problems now or wait until they are publicly challenged and forced to change, when the costs are exponentially higher.

Unfortunately, significant changes within a police department often occur only after external pressure is applied. For example, when a police department is accused of using excessive force, the U.S. Department of Justice may step in and require that department to make changes. Some departments are sued for employment discrimination, after which they are forced to make changes by the justice system.

In the 1990s, there were significant changes in policing, motivated by external pressures. President Bill Clinton and Congress focused on improving police-community relations and funded community-oriented policing programs.

After 9/11, more federal grant funding became available for police departments to address terrorism and other large interagency events.

Federal funding was generous and relatively easy to obtain.

As a result of grant funding and a good economy, police departments were generally well-funded and improving. The economy was good, and tax revenues were strong in most places. Crime was decreasing all over the country. In due course, the Great Recession hit.

But crime continued to go down.

Read Also:  Rethinking the role of the police: When did we ask for today’s police?

Staffing changes contributed to the current shift in policing. Before 1990, many sworn officers worked for a single department for their entire 30 or 40 year career and then retired.

In the early 1990s, however, police departments began competing for competent officers, offering higher salaries while continuing to offer benefits. Money, external career opportunities and other benefits became motivators for career law enforcement officers to switch jobs rather than remaining with a single department.

Additionally, because experienced officers retired at the age of 50, police departments often have relatively young staff who are not supervised by experienced senior officers. During the last recession, our nation’s police departments were forced to save money. Their first choice was to save on human resource activities including recruitment, selection, promotion and training. Young officers today are being taught by young and inexperienced leaders, some of whom are not good leaders.

In short, police supervision and leadership are lacking in the law enforcement profession today.

Another problem is recruitment and promotion. In general, police administrators or other internal staff are not qualified to recruit, hire and promote their personnel. They do not know how to select people using reliable and valid processes. They are frequently pressured to hire based upon the wrong criteria, such as nepotism, cronyism or diversity, and they are rarely trained to select based upon valid criteria.

At the same time, the pool of applicants desiring to become police officers has changed dramatically. Today, applicants often are seeking the money and benefits that the profession provides, and are not interested in becoming long-term police officers. They also are less prepared for the position when they initially enter the force than were officers in previous generations.

Moreover, training in police departments is not systematic. In many departments, sworn officers only receive training when they are able to persuade their superiors to provide it. In very few cases is training based on the officers’ career development and the department’s long-term needs.

The crux of the problem is that training in day-to-day police work or police tactics is insufficient. Tactical training includes areas like use of force, protecting crime scenes, driving, pursuing, arresting, protecting and collecting evidence and handling common crimes against properties or people like robbery or burglary. After a police officer receives initial police academy instruction, there is very little, if any, hands-on and consistent additional training in these areas.

Read Also:  Good Cop / Bad Cop:  The culture of criminal police behavior

Federal Aviation Research in 2009 with airline pilots demonstrated that “scenario-based instruction, using real-world situations, increases a pilot’s critical thinking skills and makes them more comfortable and assertive in decision making circumstances. The evidence indicates that the more realistic and believable the scenario is the greater the training benefit.”

There is no systematic plan to provide training in many police departments. Young, inexperienced officers are not prepared for the situations they face. It is only systematic, repetitive, scenario-based training that will prepare them.

The recent use of force cases, including those involving the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, have inspired a massive amount of commentary. This abundance of commentary has not addressed police department needs in a detailed and specific way until now.

New York City has announced new use of force training for its police force. Citizens of this country are protesting in every state. There are federal investigations into the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Unfortunately, this external pressure will, once again, be short-lived. None of these actions will permanently fix the problems outlined in this report.

The key strategies to permanently reduce police officers’ tactical mistakes, such as using force incorrectly, include:

  • Reviewing and improving hiring standards for police officers.
  • Promoting more qualified leaders.
  • Providing systematic, scenario-based supervisory, management and leadership training.
  • Ensuring that officers are mentored by competent leaders who have the practical experience to teach critical thinking in hyper-tense situations.
  • Providing repetitive, tactical, scenario-based training.
  • Teaching how to control bias.

The most important solution to improving the current law enforcement crisis is repetitive, scenario-based training of officers at all levels. This type of training allows officers to be desensitized to highly stressful situations, to practice de-escalating hyper-tense situations, to avoid bias in policing and to practice thinking critically in the heat of the moment.

This type of training is equally necessary for police supervisors and leaders.

Read Also:  Joining protestors, former police captain Ray Lewis speaks out

Police departments must critically review and revamp their training models. They must define their training goals, systematize them and prioritize them correctly. Innovation and creativity are needed.

The correct type of training is repetitive, scenario-based training. For example, when officers attend roll call training at the beginning of their shifts, they should routinely participate in scenario–based training.

The training must be tracked and officers’ performance must be critiqued so they can learn. The U.S. Department of Justice seems to be a big proponent of this strategy. If officers are not responding properly to the scenario-based training, early intervention should ensure that one of those officers does not become the one who shoots one of our loved ones when there were alternatives available or treats members of our society differently because of their demographic.

In the last eight years, police departments have lost funding due to the recession and reduced tax revenues, and there has been an almost complete elimination of federal grant money. Two things could address these funding problems: Better budgeting and/or more funding.

With regard to law enforcement, politicians must change their funding priorities, and police departments must redirect their funding to significantly improve and implement the procedures and processes involved with recruiting, hiring, promoting and training.

Great improvements were made in law enforcement during the 1990s and early 2000s. There can be great improvements in law enforcement again.

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