WANT INVESTIGATIVE REPORT: American Police Use-of-Force

By Britton Masback

WANT Editor-In-Chief


Quanice Hayes crawled on his hands and knees from an alcove by a house in Portland, Oregon. Suspected of armed robbery and carjacking, the 17-year-old Hayes was following the orders of police officers on the scene. Commanded to lie face down on the driveway, his hands to his side, Hayes hesitated briefly, looking around. When Hayes’ right hand moved toward his waist, Portland Police Officer Andrew Hearst fired his AR-15 rifle, hitting Hayes in the head and torso, killing him instantly. Hearst, a seven-year member of the Portland Police Bureau and a graduate of Multnomah University bible college, later said that he never saw Hayes with a gun even though a toy gun was found at the scene. But, said Hearst, if he thought someone might have a gun, he was trained to shoot before he even saw a firearm, “. . . to defend myself and my coworkers, I knew I needed to fire my weapon.” The other officers on the scene estimated they were about 60 seconds from taking Hayes into custody. Instead, Hayes was dead.

Around the same time in Camden, New Jersey, a man threatens customers in a fast-food restaurant and emerges onto the street slashing the air with a knife. Police order him to drop his weapon, but the man ignores their entreaties. Several officers surround the man, but at a safe distance, and they move in unison with him as he moves down the street brandishing his knife. Eventually, the man drops the knife and the officers move in to arrest him. The tactical approach by the officers, the result of a new policy and special training implemented by Chief J. Scott Thompson of the Camden police, resulted in a peaceful arrest instead of the use of deadly force, which had been the norm in the past. Modeling tactics used by police in England and Wales, officers sought to “buy time and build rapport with the subject” for “as long as it takes” to diffuse and de-escalate the situation. While American police kill more than 165 people a year who are threatening others with knives, in England and Wales, where knives are just as available as they are in the U.S., police are taught to employ the “buy time and build rapport” approach in the nationally mandated, standardized training taken by all prospective police officers. In a five-year period between 2011 and 2015 there were only three fatal shootings of any kind by police in England and Wales.

American policing is in crisis. Elements of how policing evolved and is implemented in the United States have driven a culture and set of practices that differ substantially from police forces around the world and that result in outcomes featuring too much reliance on use of force. Law enforcement is a constantly morphing field, forced to respond to demographic trends, technological shifts, and the need to adapt policing policies to societal expectations. American policing has been under duress since the turn of the 21st century, facing extreme underfunding, a dearth of eager and educated applicants, and an onslaught of incidents of seemingly unnecessary or excessive police use of force that have continually tarnished the image of police. This environment of change and challenge has come at the same time that politicians and the community-at-large have demanded greater transparency in police operations. This has manifested itself most dramatically in demands for the implementation of community policing programs and in ongoing public oversight of training policies and practices, now seen as the crux of modern policing. In the United States, as in the rest of the world, the emphasis has changed from police “duty” to police “education.” This presents special challenges in the American context, where transparency and training are the responsibility of 18,000 separate and largely independent police departments (many with only a few officers and miniscule budgets). Without fundamental changes in how police officers in the United States are educated, recruited, and trained — changes largely in place in the rest of the world — police/community relations will remain in crisis across America.

History is determinative

Since the formation of village-based police forces in colonial America, there has been an element of distrust of police and their conduct. What we consider policing today emerged from two contrasting, but equally tainted, paths. In some parts of the U.S., police forces were established to control minorities, at first to “protect” white citizens from Native Americans, as was the case in St. Louis, Missouri. In the Northeast, during the period of burgeoning industrial growth, there was also a need to safeguard goods at dockyards and warehouses. Policemen were hired directly by (or financed by) shipping companies, and answered mainly to corporate interests, not the public. This connection between police and their employers continued well into the 20th century, and political leaders would often bribe police officials to treat their friends and family favorably. Worse, they used their financial connections and control over the police to bully and harass political opponents.

After Prohibition took effect in 1920, the level of deceit increased substantially, with police turning a blind eye toward illegal drinking, gambling, and prostitution in return for large sums of money. Importantly, this era led in 1930 to President Hoover appointing the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (the so-called “Wickersham Commission”), which ultimately identified the ineffectiveness and corruption of law enforcement nationwide in its 14-volume report. It recommended remedial measures, such as independent, government-funded police departments, with those departments staffed by trained police professionals who adhered to national or state standards.

Below the Mason Dixon line, policing was more predictable but even more lacking in integrity. In 1704, the colony of Carolina established the first slave patrol, a group focused on maintaining the south’s vital access to free labor. Over the next 150 years, these officially sanctioned law enforcement agencies became the mainstay of enforcing the racist social and economic order. They protected white, slave-holding interests by suppressing slave revolts and capturing runaway slaves. Policing remained enmeshed in discrimination even after the Civil War. In fact, many sheriffs functioned in ways that were largely analogous to the earlier slave patrols, either by actively contributing to the segregation and disenfranchisement of minority groups, or by turning a blind eye to the lynchings perpetrated by white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. When considering the criticism police face for their conduct towards minority groups today, it is interesting to consider the background and traditions that current practices have been built upon.

Policing today in the United States is radically different from the policing that prevailed from the Colonial era through the 1950s, and differs significantly from policing in Great Britain and most of Europe. However, while 21st century American police officers face increased unpredictability when approaching criminals, including facing technologically advanced weapons, many of the issues affecting policing today grow out of patterns and practices from the past. First, police cultures retain too much of the “us versus them” mentality that was typical of the Northern, corporativist police of the 19th century and the southern slave patrols. Second, it is clear that the discrimination and racism endemic to policing in the past has never fully disappeared, with minority groups bearing the brunt of police profiling and unequal treatment today. Finally, the notion that some police engage in corrupt acts and too often place solidarity with their brethren above duty to their community, remains strong, tarnishing the image of police. Even in communities that have instituted citizen police review boards, there is sometimes a feeling that they are constituted in a way to favor police officials, and maintain existing power structures, not seek solutions or new ways forward. As the unique history of American policing indicates, the past in many ways is prologue for today’s structures and issues.  

The Organization/Structure of Policing in the United States

The way in which policing has been organized in the United States emerged from the history described above and clearly has had an impact on police behavior and outcomes. The decentralized American approach contrasts strongly with European models, where national or “state” police bureaus create policies, mandate minimum education requirements to become a police officer, and require specific kinds of training in order to inculcate key policies. While it is unrealistic to think that the U.S. will ever implement a single, national police force, there is a critical need to have more standardization in U.S. policies, officer recruitment, and training in order to overcome historical shortcomings and introduce modern police techniques.

Like American government, American policing is largely decentralized, and early on was organized into small, geographically-based, police units that mirrored the local government units that established them. While local organization and control has its appeal, particularly when officers are drawn from the community they are policing, decentralization has resulted in massive disparities in standards, resources, and training among American police departments. Many of the highest profile issues of police use of force have occurred in larger urban centers — Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore — but police use of deadly force is actually a bigger problem in smaller, more rural communities, where the qualifications required to become an officer and the training received may be lacking.

The crazy quilt “organization” of American policing almost defies description and features substantial duplication and warring jurisdictions. In addition, laws differ from state-to-state and how those laws are enforced by local and state police also differs. Policing takes place at the following levels and by the following organizations:

  • Local police forces. Organized by villages, towns, boroughs, cities. There are approximately 15,000 local police forces. More than 800 police forces have only one employee and 87% have fewer than 25 officers. The New York City Police Department has 53,000 officers.
  • Sheriffs departments and county law enforcement agencies. There are 3100 sheriffs in the U.S., most of whom are elected to their positions. Sheriffs often run jails and protect courthouses.
  • State police forces and investigatory agencies. State structures and functions vary widely, although every state has either a state police or highway patrol unit. More than 30 of the states have additional policing or investigatory agencies, such as the Alcohol Beverage Control, Department of Motor Vehicles, the State Bureau of Investigation, or the Department of Criminal Investigation.
  • Federal law enforcement agencies. While the federal government has jurisdiction over a limited number of crimes, this number has increased over time, leading to a significant enlargement of federal policing. There are 60 different federal police agencies, 13 intelligence agencies that engage in law enforcement activities, and military police. To put things in perspective, the FBI employs 35,000 people, including 14,000 agents, while the Navajo Nation Police force employs 330 officers, 45 investigators, and 279 civilians. Most universities now have police forces who have exclusive or shared jurisdiction over university property and the immediate surrounding areas.

The decentralized nature of the American “system” grows out of the history of policing and the common view that a centralized police function poses a danger to democratic institutions — Americans have feared the concentration of police power dating back to colonial times.

Decentralization necessarily results in very different levels of policing capability and widely varying approaches to modern policing challenges — the five-person, small-town police department trains differently, has different resources, and delivers different levels of police service than the 53,000-person NYC behemoth. Problems emerge when issues arise with which local forces are ill-equipped to deal. Also, federal attempts to “assist” local policing, a feature of Democratic and Republican administrations alike, can go awry. This was well documented during the protests that followed the shooting of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Images from Ferguson of the local police conducting riot control and “stop and search” procedures featured the 50-person Ferguson force dressed in what appeared to be military garb using vehicles and weapons received from the U.S. military. The militarization of local police forces is a consistent and growing issue in American policing as it creates further distance between the police and local citizens and, it seems, inevitably inflames already tense situations.

The best way to establish how a more centralized system could benefit American policing is to take a look at other countries, many of which combine a strong, federal (or central) police body with a limited number of regional police organizations. While no police force is without its critics or shortcomings, the United Kingdom (UK) approach is generally lauded for combining the best aspects of localized and nationalized structures. While there are 43 separate police forces across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, each with a significant degree of local jurisdiction, there is also a strong central, organizing police function, which establishes national policies, demands accountability from the local forces, organizes training, vets all incoming police chiefs, and standardizes the allotment of equipment. The national “College of Policing” acts as a standards-setting body, establishing ethical and training norms for the entire country, including all 43 police organizations. There is a single, nationwide approach to use of force and a national Independent Police Complaints Division, which centralizes the collection and review of citizen complaints and insures that any officer fired for disciplinary reasons cannot be hired in any police jurisdiction.

Cambridge Criminology professor Lawrence Sherman says, “The vast US-UK difference in deadly force by and against police was not due to a lack of confrontations in which police had legal powers to kill. In London alone in 2012, police sent authorized firearms officers to 2,451 incidents, including 634 direct threats to life, and seized 416 firearms. The reason police killed no one in these events is the result of an infrastructure of institutions and policies that is completely lacking in US policing.” Sherman presents alarming statistics that indicate that in the United States over 1000 people were killed by police in 2013 and that 27 police officers lost heir lives in the line of duty, while in England and Wales no one was killed by police officers and only a single officer lost his life. Canada and South Africa have followed the UK’s move toward centralization.

While history and philosophy militate against a move toward centralization, there are positive elements of a more centralized police system that the U.S. could adopt. This would take a strong national commitment for change and an acceptance of the federal government taking an activist role to encourage promulgation of policies, best practices, and leadership policies. One area of critical importance is training. The small police units cannot provide adequate training on their own and lose the opportunity to create a unified, positive police bureau culture if they have to send off their police officers to someone else’s police academy. In addition, in some areas of the country, the only options for training may lack attention to critical modern policing concepts, like de-escalation. Instead of providing local police with military equipment, the federal government should assist the general improvement of training across the country by creating and disseminating curricula that focus on pressing police issues, such as use of force training. Under-resourced police departments should be incentivized and subsidized to attend training sessions on such topics staged by larger departments in their region. Up to this point, such federal intervention has typically only occurred in circumstances where the police department/city is subject to a Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree. The DOJ has an Office of Innovation that creates and attempts to disseminate such creative approaches, though their success varies according to what administration is in power. (Interview with Daniel Yi, Department of Justice Department of Innovation (December 14, 2018))

Structural changes at the federal, state, and local level could also have an impact. Even in the U.S. system, the federal government could encourage “centralization.” It could create a National Policing College like the one successfully established in the UK that would create a core curriculum for police chiefs and other police executives. This would ensure the spread of key concepts across the leadership of local and state police organizations. Local police agencies could receive financial incentives for adopting certain federally-identified best practices. Finally, the President could issue an executive order on deadly force and de-escalation.

Basic Education and Training Requirements

Another key difference between policing in the United States and other nations relates to the expectations for education and training for police officers. In recent years, American police departments, shaken by criticism and unable to raise salaries due to budget cutbacks, have lowered educational requirements in order to attract more applicants. A 90% drop in applicants caused Seattle to lower its requirements for new officers, part of a national trend that has resulted in only one percent of local police departments requiring a four-year college degree and only 15% requiring a two-year degree. The impact of reducing educational standards is far from benign. One study of Florida policing indicates that officers with only a high school education accounted for 75 percent of all disciplinary actions while officers with four-year degrees accounted for only 11 percent of such actions.

In the U.S., most police training typically lasts only 17-25 weeks, which most experts say is inadequate and contributes to American policing crisis state. A CNN study of police training indicated that while states required between 360 hours of training (Louisiana) and 900 hours of training (Massachusetts), these numbers were dwarfed by the training required for other professions, such as barbers in North Carolina (1528 hours), cosmetologists in California (1600 hours), and refrigeration technicians in Massachusetts (1000 hours). The academies for parks departments and transportation authorities had the longest officer training, around 1100 hours, while the training conducted by county sheriff’s’ offices was typically the shortest, 700 hours (17 weeks).

The short timeframe for training requires training officials to choose what topics to emphasize. Standard training provides 168 hours to firearms training, 38 hours on emergency vehicle operations, 25 hours on report writing, and 10 hours on the topic of mental illness (clearly inadequate in jurisdictions with a large homeless population). The time devoted to non-technical topics, such as sensitivity training, bias training, or information about hate crimes, is often severely limited. Seven states have no training in hate crimes at all, three other states limit the training to a single 30-minute session, and only 12 states have mandatory hate crimes training.

In contrast, European police departments have managed to expand the educational requirements for prospective police officers and lengthen academy-based training without impacting the number of applicants. The more expansive educational and training requirements allow training to be more in depth and to cover a wider range of subject matters. In Iceland, for example, the parliament increased the educational demands on prospective police officers by closing the national police academy and adding a police studies curriculum to the university. This guaranteed a higher level educational attainment by new officers and changed policing from a “vocation” to a “profession” in Iceland. Similarly, Norwegian police officers now must complete a three-year undergraduate university degree, with specific courses in government and law, before joining the police. In Germany, where students choose either a vocational career track or a professional track at age 12, prospective police officers are expected to complete 10 years of schooling and two and a half years of police academy training before they can begin work as an officer (for a two-year probationary period).

As noted above, the expanded requirements have not dampened enthusiasm for positions as a police officer. In Norway, over 5,000 applicants recently competed for one of the 700 spots available in the national police academy. In one German region, Rhine-Westphalia, 8,000 candidates competed for 1,640 open slots.

The extra time available for training in countries in which university study (three or four years) is a standard requirement for joining the police force, the range and depth of the subject matters that make up the police training can be far wider than in a 17-week American program. In addition to the standard topics involving the day-to-day needs of an officer, there is greater scope for instruction in management, sociology, and other topics of more general interest. Graduates of such programs are more “well-rounded” and have a greater sense of perspective on the role of policing in society.

The shortcomings in the educational requirements and the training offered to prospective American police officers could be addressed efficiently if in-service training was standard among U.S. police departments. Regrettably, less than half of the American police departments implement in-service training programs. Interestingly, many of the police departments that require officers to re-qualify twice a year in order to carry their firearms do nothing to provide those same officers with updated insights on policing philosophies or techniques.

The Content and Emphasis of Training

When looking deeper into the differences between training, it is easy to become obsessed by overly specific distinctions. For example, focusing on how one police department teaches firearm draws versus another department. Yet, this approach may fail to consider what is most important — the outcomes of these training modules. Similarly, police officials have developed consensus in recent years that what really influences the outcomes of police training are the amount/length of training (as discussed in the previous section), the presence of certain components (i.e. Crisis Intervention Team/CIT training), and the way in which trainers (and, by design, training captains) organize these components to compliment one another’s training. As indicated in the prior section, there are some departments that simply don’t cover a certain aspect of training and there are others that teach these principles but place them at obscure and imperfect times. America’s diverse and highly fragmented approach to training results in vastly different training outcomes and many shortcomings in comparison to foreign police agencies.

To understand what American police training is lacking, it is useful to consider what components it highlights. For the last 100 years, American policing has retained the same main training components (with some concession to technological changes). At the police academy level, officers are taught how to use various levels of force to mitigate threats and they spend hundreds of hours on strength training and firearm drills. Non-lethal training usually follows in emphasis and contains lessons on deploying Tasers, CS spray, and the extendable baton. Close contact control is taught simultaneously and includes a multitude of handcuffing and detainment techniques. Depending on the state, there is a range of additional modules that train officers in responding to every sort of level of force or disturbance, including incidents involving cars, bikes and other vehicles. This process, on its own, is considered analogous in many ways to military style training,

“Most police academies are modeled on military training programs which instill a high regard for physical conditioning and performance.  Active police officers must be prepared for anything, from pursuing fleeing suspects on foot and physically restraining unruly individuals, to pursuit driving and discharging their sidearm. The rigors of the intense police training programs are highly demanding and require candidates at peak physical, psychological and mental condition.”

Law Enforcement EDU

Most academies instill a sense of vigilance and urgency in each recruit. Trainers, often former officers themselves, tell horror stories about officers killed or gravely injured for the slightest misstep. This has the troubling effect, especially among young recruits, of producing officers high on adrenaline and anticipating calamitous occurrences at every moment of their career. Depending on the size of the bureau, most officers then receive training on a local level (whether at their own department or a nearby regional agency). This training focuses on actual bureau-wide policies and conduct, with training departments presumably providing updates to this training when the associated policies are changed by the Chief or policing board.

Missing throughout this narrative is a regard for interpersonal skills — officers spend weeks in the police academy being systematically hyped up for armed conflict, and there is little coverage of de-escalation techniques. Research studies acutely illustrate this trend. On average, officers spend 58 hours shooting guns for every eight hours of learning concerning use-of-force policy. Moreover, a national study completed on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice found that only about 44 percent of police agencies have any training centered on communication with those experiencing a mental health crises. Every state police academy has de-escalation discussions — in theory at least — but this type of training is the first to be cut down in length and content when funding and time constraints pressure police departments. That budget-conscious approach necessarily sacrifices time spent on, “discussing the importance of de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention strategies for dealing with mentally ill persons, homeless persons, and other challenging situations.” The kind of training matters. As the National Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) discovered through a 2015 national survey of leading officials, scenario-based education best explores the potential circumstances within which police find themselves.

We also need fewer lecture-based training sessions, and more “scenario based” training, in which officers are put through realistic role-playing exercises in which they must make choices about how to respond to the types of incidents they may face—such as a mentally ill person on a street corner, waving a knife. We owe it to our officers to give them a wider range of options. We owe it to our officers to give them a wider range of options. ‘Shoot/don’t shoot’ training does not provide the full range of issues that officers need to consider.

Police Executive Research Forum

When looking at the most effective versions of de-escalation training, it is not hard to imagine why they are continually left off the training docket. These training modules are more expensive and logistically difficult to administer, and may not be an option for smaller, rural departments.

Looking abroad at places with similar demographic diversity and levels of violence as the United States, police training uses more holistic forms of training, including routine exposure to use-of-force scenarios. This training addresses use-of-force in two key ways that are superior to the U.S. approach. First, there is simply more time spent on understanding and working through the potential dangerous situations that officers fear encountering. Scotland has introduced an innovative policy that has since been expanded to all of Great Britain. Under the policy, officers must consider secondary reaction options other than use of a handgun or taser. Moving out of the classroom, this training places officers in close proximity to “individuals with bladed instruments, who run at them.” What distinguishes this program from others is that it forces officers to truly think outside the box, demonstrating positive reinforcement to the idea that they can control their presumed assailant in non-violent or less-violent ways.

Constable Michael Koch of the Danish National Police (Rigspolitet) explains that they instill confidence in police by dedicating ample time to real-life situations,

The recruits spend approximately 50 hours of shooting when in school, and 16 hours when in a police district. They spend more or less all of the other hours when in school on learning de-escalation communication strategies, law-studies, socio-economic theories, psychology and about society and certain marginalized groups.

Email from Michael Koch, Politiassistent, Roskilde Politi (received December 14, 2018)

Constable Koch’s statement demonstrates clearly how the content of the European training differs dramatically from that of their US counterparts. Not only does American policing skimp on or devalue the efficacy of use-of-force modules, it often leaves out key discussions on ethics, criminology and relevant case law. As discussed above, European police academies encompass multiple additional months (or years) more than their American counterparts, with that difference largely focused on how officers can be “legally correct” in all of their operations and interactions with the public.

This approach not only provides better customer service to community members, it also protects the officer and the police agency from unwanted and unpleasant attention. In the United States, if it is unrealistic to mandate such training in police academies, then much of this training could be migrated to in-service-training, the annual or biannual training that individual police bureaus use to hone existing officers’ skills. Andrew Wilson of the Scottish Police College stresses this point, “Operational Safety Training is recertified on an annual basis during the officers’ police service (In-service equivalent). This includes the use of tactical communication to de-escalate situations and minimise the amount of force used.” (Email from Andrew Wilson, Sergeant/Training Development, Scottish Police College (email received December 13, 2018).

Too often in America, however, departments aren’t able to sacrifice critical training time on educational lessons that seem dry and unnecessary. Danish Constable Koch confirmed this notion, pointing out the significant amount of time needed to adequately teach recruits the principles of criminology and ethics, “To really master these skills completely, it usually takes 2-3 years.” (Email from Michael Koch) That is why the mandatory, two-year associate degrees and four-year bachelor degrees that are required before attendance at many police academies in Europe are so important for laying the groundwork for more cohesive policing down the line.

The next difference between conventional American and European approaches to training is the interplay between “use-of-force” training and “actual force” training. As mentioned above, almost every academy has de-escalation training in one form or another, but issues arise when this training is sequestered from the portions of training that dictate firearm or taser use. This leads to officers compartmentalizing the different approaches in the field, thinking about force and communication (or other de-escalation techniques) as opposing choices intended for different situations. As a Washington Post inquiry indicated, “Too often, de-escalation training is presented in silos: Officers attend a class on how to recognize someone in a mental health crisis, then, weeks later, they learn communications skills and tactics in separate courses.”

According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and Richmond, California Police Chief, Chris Magnus, this process is widespread and is exacerbated by the primary bodies that regulate police training, Public Safety Boards (POST),

Unfortunately, even our state POST encourages the idea that there is a list of training that everybody needs, which in practice becomes a very compartmentalized approach to teaching a lot of different skills. The idea of putting the skills together, and teaching decision-making about which skills to use, isn’t emphasized.

Chief Magnus – Police Executive Research Forum

PERF’s research has further indicated that when agencies train solely with firearms or use-of-force tactics for a substantial amount of time, it can lead to officers forgetting they are even interacting with fellow humans worthy of respect, something discussed by Maria Haberfield, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice,

The majority of police officers are overwhelmingly trained with a focus on the technical part of use of force, and are not trained enough in the emotional, psychological, physiological aspects of use of force. And of course, the social aspects of use of force: how this all plays later on within the community, how it impacts police-community relations…..So the use of force is not something that should stand alone. [emphasis added]

Maria Haberfield – John Jay College of Criminal Justice

There are, however, some examples of training platforms re-integrating the idea of community into the use-of-force discussion. In fact, Scott Thompson, who heads up the Camden Police Department that showcased its training skills in disarming the knife-wielding man, has made this notion a centerpiece of his approach, “We can have the strongest worded use-of-force policies, but if we’re not addressing this from the front end of our daily interactions, we’ll lose the trust of the people who need us the most.”

Seattle Police Training Captain, Michael Teeter, has proposed a similar idea that combines crisis intervention, de-escalation, and tactics training. This means that all applicable sections of force training involve a corresponding aspect of de-escalation training. At the center of the training is the idea that all officers should begin any encounter by assessing the mental state of the person they are encountering. This is with the understanding that constructive problem solving begins when the initial call is made and evidence is gathered, and continues up until action is taken by the responding officer. Teeter’s approach should be viable for other police departments, as the interwoven training has now been given successfully to close to 100 percent of Seattle’s officers. If departments truly seek safety for both themselves and the community, they must find similar ways to develop commonality between different aspects of training in order to better “serve and protect” their communities.

Two additional parameters of training that necessitate review and change deal directly with how officers approach knife, gun, or other weapon-wielding subjects. This is the crux of disarmament and use-of-force training (how an individual officer quells active resistance from armed individuals). A police department can dedicate years of training to de-escalation, communication, and Crisis Intervention Training, but no officer can talk her or his way out of every situation. In these cases, it is critical how officers follow through with their final action steps. To address these situations, there are, once again, two starkly different realities. In the United States, officers subscribe to the century-old concept of the “force continuum,” while in the UK, officers assess each situation in accordance with a 2012 “National Decision Model” (NDM) that was forged from thousands of hours of analysis.

The NDM was created in 2012 after a series of officer-involved shootings and abuses of power. Unlike in the United States, many of these incidents led to convictions and jail time for the officers involved. Similar to the U.S., these incidents adversely affected the approval rating of British police, which fell to an all-time low of 45 percent. After a national task force (much like President Obama’s Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing) reviewed training procedures, they realized that training focused too much on situational extremes. Chief Inspector Pell of the Manchester Police reflected on this finding at a policing conference in Washington, DC in 2015,

We thought we were training our officers with the right tactics to deal with the threats that were out there. But the reality was that our officers were getting themselves into situations where on a danger scale of 1 to 10, they were turning up at incidents that were 1 or 2, but were jumping straight to 8 or 9 in their use of force, with no middle ground.

Chief Inspector Pell – Police Executive Research Forum

The National Decision Model was established as a practical tool for officers that could address various types of situations and problems. The reason why the NDM appeals to training professionals is that it takes into account the entirety of the situation and turns this information into a useful tool for dealing with similar situations in the future. In fact, many UK police departments train on actionable lessons that arise from officers who followed the NDM protocol. Under the NDM model, officers are pushed to consider the nature of the threat they are facing, the level of threat they are facing, the power and legal justification they hold in order to act, the manifestations of that power, and options for acting, and then a review of how their actions played out. The model is considered a complete and unending loop, so that the process can be re-started from any point and at any time if the threat re-emerges.

If police officials are looking for a comprehensive methodology for dealing with crisis situations, the NDM represents a high potential option. While it is true that certain aspects of policing are more complicated in the United States (the ubiquity of firearms) and the existence of 18,000 autonomous police departments creates challenges less prevalent across the UK’s more manageable 43 jurisdictions, the underlying principles of introspection and restraint are still valid. In England, the NDM policy was welcomed and public support returned to record highs (around 95 percent) in only three years.

According to Sandra Flemming of the Scottish Police College, they emphasize the use of the NDM, “This role . . . bears responsibility for making autonomous decisions in accordance with the National Decision Model and Code of Ethics.” (Email from Sandra Flemming, Sergeant, Scottish Police College (received December 13, 2018) More specifically, Scottish police have found the most effective portion of the NDM to be its ability to slow things down and react to new information as it comes in. The speed of initial and prolonged contact is something that can dictate how police officers use tactical options available to them, especially backup from fellow officers. Officers too often dive into situations without sufficient background context and before fully vetting their options. This can lead to forced confrontations over otherwise minor issues. As the United States DOJ found in its 2010 force outcomes study, “Overall, the empirical evidence suggests that getting close to suspects in order to use hands-on tactics increases the likelihood of officers sustaining injuries.”  This is why a period of mediation is one new progressive policy that has gained substantial interest and trial.

Chief Constable Higgins of the Manchester Police told PERF that the “theme” of their approach is, “What’s the hurry? Don’t feel you have to resolve every situation in a minute. By rushing it and escalating it, you’re creating a situation where you are increasing the risk to the subject . . . community, and . . . the police officers involved.” This level of care has been especially targeted at interactions involving mentally ill individuals. The extra time allows for conversation and for trained professionals to arrive in time to be of help. With many American cities being under the jurisdiction of U.S. DOJ consent decrees, it is critical that they adopt measures like the UK uses, whether in the form of the NDM or in some other form that allows officers to think through their response to armed subjects in advance and to avoid close proximity with the individual in order to facilitate de-escalation.

As noted above, most American police agencies currently operate under the provisions of “the use of force continuum.” In this protocol, various levels of resistance of a subject are paired with specific tactics and weapons of the officer’s selection or choice. This is a strategy initiated during the war on drugs era of the 1960s and 1970s and initial phase of the militarization of police. It essentially allowed officers the ability to pre-prepare responses in almost all situations (and thus surprise for the subject). More recently, however, it has become clear this mechanical approach cannot adequately measure and provide a reasonable response to force. Instead, it leads to police using the extremes of the force spectrum. Even though it’s called a continuum, it can force officers to jump to one level of force, without considering possible workarounds. Many American police agencies have professed their desire to move away from the use of this traditionally linear continuum, but only around 15 percent have done so.

One aspect of the continuum protocol that is in stark opposition to what the British NDM recommends is that of the “21-foot rule.” This notion was perpetuated from a quasi-false report in the 1980’s said that if an armed attacker was within 21-feet of an officer, he/she could reach the officers before they would be able to draw and fire their weapon. This approach, while meant to protect officers, has increased the potential for injury on both sides. Instead of simply finding the space to de-escalate, officers often use this “guideline” as a license to kill. The NDM would suggest backing up and re-assessing, something that Manchester Chief Pell stressed in his report to the PERF board, “We’ve actually made reference to the 21-foot rule for quite some time. But we look at it differently. We retreat to maintain that distance.” If American policing agencies are going to adequately fix how they respond to armed assailants or those individuals presumed to be armed, it is going to take a rethinking of even the most ingrained policies, such as the force continuum and 21-foot rule.

Centralization, National Standards, and Additional Training Are Needed

After looking at the history of policing, analyzing different approaches to police education and training, reviewing varying models of policing, and speaking with training experts and representatives from around the world, it is not surprising that America’s policing model produces such consistently violent outcomes. American policing begins with the challenges presented by its historical and endemic racist culture and does little to mitigate those tendencies in the way it recruits or educates its police officers. Over the past 20 years, American policing has improved, shocked by the excesses of the Rodney King era and assisted by the general view that there is a need for change in key areas. These areas include a recognition of the value of  community policing, use-of-force training, crisis intervention awareness (and training), and the need to address various smaller but important systematic biases, such as patrolling patterns (which target minority neighborhoods). However, if there is going to be substantive change that over the next two decades will result in continued improvement, there need to be shifts in structure, mindset, and culture. These changes will only result from federal pressure and oversight but must begin at the police academy level under close supervision of the states. To effect this explicit change, police departments must seek the following outcomes: (1) Centralization, whether actual combination of existing smaller police units or via sharing resources; (2) A more diverse and well-educated applicant pool, representative of a wider spectrum of American society; (3) Additional community engagement efforts that are not only ominsprescent and widely accessible to all members of the public (especially those who historically have lacked access) but that also speak to lived experience; and (4) A revamped culture for 21st century policing that focuses on the sanctity of life and the tools (such as de-escalation) to honor that association.

The first step toward reducing the extreme stratification of American policing is centralization of existing police organizations, the one need uniformly emphasized in the 2015 PERF report that followed the spate of controversial police shootings in 2013-2015. As the head of a medium-sized police force working in a city of 77,000 people, Chief Thomson of Camden, New Jersey speaks to this reality. He stressed the fact that policing by smaller police units is most challenged by the training resources available to them. The most effective police academy training not only trains officers in key use-of-force policies (with an emphasis combining levels of force training with de-escalation options), but that training is conducted in an environment in which recruits can be imbued with a sense of common police agency culture, a combination not common in the training of officers working in small local police departments. In contrast, the New York Police Department (NYPD) training undertaken in New York following the strangulation of Eric Garner exemplified the importance of local academies. With recent research showing that scenario-based training is most effective for retention of key talking points and key narratives, the NYPD developed new scenario-based learning modules, complete with recreated city streets featuring realistic elements such as apartments, mock police stations, gas stations, among other features. The Portland Police Bureau has a similar “village” that they use during in-service training. These mock settings are critical to helping officers learn to control the anticipation and adrenaline that arise in unexpected confrontations. In these circumstances, the individual the police officer encounters is almost always going to be agitated, and if the officer is similarly anxious, the situation is sure to be escalated. As NYPD Matthew Pontillo observed,  “Unnecessary use of force is often tied to an officer’s adrenaline or anger, so you have to know how to control that.” Effective local academies are only possible in medium to large cities. This is why there must be efforts made by regional and state governments to consolidate police forces, combining resources, knowledge and approaches to use-of-force policy.  

While centralization is a conduit to improving training conditions as a whole, the body of recruits who experience and absorb this training are an equally important cohort as they are the objects of the training and those who will actually employ it. Given the decline in respect for law enforcement in the wake of the well-publicized incidents between the police and young people, particularly in communities of color, and a failure for police pay to keep pace with other jobs, the number of police recruits has dropped dramatically in the United States. This is in stark contrast  to almost every other Western country, where policing is seen as an honorable “profession” and in which officers are compensated accordingly. These two parallel realities have also led to two different approaches to recruiting. In the United Kingdom, and in many other countries in Europe applicants are only accepted into the relevant police academy after completing a two or four-year university degree, often in criminal justice.

An enhanced level of education provides the grounding for police academies to then build upon, introducing concepts that go beyond the topics of physical restraint or use of weaponry. The modern science of policing offers meaningful insights as to how to diffuse challenging situations before they escalate. Research already indicates that the better educated the officer, the less likely they are to deviate from official policies. A more enlightened set of policies, better training in those policies, and a more educated and receptive group of police recruits would result in a reduction in the use of force. Such a change may actually improve the recruitment and training efforts of the next generation of officers as Constable Koch indicates,

I think it is interesting, that the Danish Police in an annual survey always score high on trustworthiness and credibility. When we try to “make a recruit into an officer”, the primary goal is to give the recruit an understanding of the society that he is a part of. This creates very empathic and trusted employees, that the “customers” and ordinary citizens are willing to accept as an authority. [emphasis added]

Email from Michael Koch, Politiassistent, Roskilde Politi (received December 14, 2018)

Part of developing a deeper applicant pool is changing our perception of law enforcement. When it is appropriate, we should call out the police on all important shortcomings. However, it is improper and simply imprudent to fault police either for things they haven’t done or to hold every officer accountable for the actions of a few. Yet, as in most cases of victimization, this reconciliation should not be placed with the public. Every police department, bureau, and constabulary in the United States must take it upon themselves to find ways to be advocates for community input. Part of what has been lost in the militarization of the police is any sense that police are community activists, entrusted to protect community sentiment and interest. For example, when police departments, like the Portland Police Bureau, create community advisory boards, this gives the community a recognized platform on which to voice concerns and oversee the training policies. What is needed is not minimal change, like the formation of a single police board, but a comprehensive approach to community engagement. Getting officers to attend community events for example, some that don’t even apply to policing or police issues, is a great way to get officers out into the streets and into community spaces in non-threatening ways.

Investigating this topic inevitably leads to the conclusion that police culture is important. Those with the largest influence and experience with policing (chiefs of police, training captains, and criminal justice experts) stress that it is the culture in which officers are bred that ultimately leads to the issues that cause much of the division with the public. Most police departments still operate under the values of the war on drugs era in which officers’ actions were validated when they used force. Officers are more likely to be commended for jumping out of a moving car and shooting an armed robber than de-escalating a similar situation. Police still attend training academies that enforce the idea that they are “warriors.” This narrative perpetuates the idea that officers can’t back down, that they might even be ridiculed by other officers if they do so.

The correct mindset must be that officers are guardians, solving the problems of the community, not for the community, but with the community. Police chiefs should reward restraint, celebrating officers who use communication to break down barriers, not battering rams. This will also counteract what many criminal justice experts describe as the “passive bystander,” those police officers who sit idly by while their colleagues abuse their powers, no matter what the scale. This involves convincing patrol officers that informing the police hierarchy of injustices is not “ratting” on your fellow officer but rather stopping things from getting out of hand before they escalate further.

When we think of the guardian versus warrior narrative, it is easy to see how this connects directly to police training. A key part of the UK National Decision Model is restraint and heightened contemplation at the start of every incident. A shift in culture would make the adoption of such a policy in the U.S. more likely. Luckily, there are efforts already underway in both the U.S. and UK that could impact police culture in a positive way. First, acknowledging that semantics matter is critical. In Scotland, there has been a simple but effective effort made to focus on communication in the first instance, “The first point of resolution is to speak to the person and ask them to put the knife down, please. And we do use words like please and thank you.” Second, growing awareness and concern for the sanctity of human life must occur, especially during in-service training. In Las Vegas, the LVMPD are bringing in officers who have been involved in shootings, especially “suicide by cop” incidents, to speak to their experiences and what it’s actually like to take a life. Finally, conscious efforts must be taken to prevent officer misconduct before it happens. In New Orleans, for example, a professor who worked with the LAPD after the Rodney King incident has now developed the EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous) program. This program trains police personnel “to spot a fellow officer who may be on the brink of using excessive force.” One of the first “peer intervention programs,” it aims to prevent misconduct by confronting the infamous “blue wall” of policing and establish that such intervention is actually loyalty to the higher calling of police integrity, not to the lowest common denominator. If police departments are to see measurable progress from their programmatic training changes, they must seek to cleanse the culture that allowed the previous pernicious policies to persist. Using the above steps as starting points will be an efficient way to effect this change.

At the end of the day, adopting new individual training parameters or policies, such as the British National Decision Model, are important transitory steps in the overall process of improving police behavior. However, any initiatives are colored by the context or environment into which they fit. The current U.S. administration’s stated policy of refusing to implement Obama-era consent decrees makes it unlikely it will issue an executive order on use-of-force or that the U.S. DOJ will promulgate national initiatives or put pressure on local, state, or federal authorities to consolidate activities. Until there is a change in federal philosophies, local organizations should continue to trial these methods, spreading the working protocols across widely disseminated platforms, such as that of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Progress is and will continue to be slow with police reform. While that represents a deflating acknowledgement for both police and the community, there is hope. Given that every police organization accepts that training (and to some extent, yearly retraining) is a requirement for new officers, it is clear where efforts to introduce a new set of police philosophies and practices, and a concomitant new police culture, must be focused. If training is effective, reform in American police behavior and public perception is possible, ending the pernicious negative cycle of police action and public distrust. As Constable Koch of the Danish National Police observes,

If this communication [with the public] is not progressive and constructive, you cannot achieve respect nor legitimacy. And then force is needed. And this is not a goal to aspire to, since force is always met by counter-force. This will always over time result in a negative escalation of a conflict.

(Email from Michael Koch, Politiassistent, Roskilde Politi (received December 14, 2018))

Policies and programs that recognize this dynamic can and must be implemented to interrupt and reverse the endless proliferation of force that characterizes American policing.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

There are 2 comments

    1. Britt Masback

      Thank you for reading! It’s certainly imperative that we as the public take account of these issues (and advocate for change when appropriate). I appreciate the awareness and support! – Britt

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