Improvements in Policing: It’s Not Only What We Train, but How We Train

Teresina G. Robbins University of New Haven

Though concerns about police use of force did not begin with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, this event seems to have been the catalyst for 6 years of increasing calls for justice for the deaths of unarmed men, particularly Black men, at the hands of police. Advocates of the Black community have called for defunding or abolition of the police establishment. Others have argued that there is a need for a dramatic overhaul of police training – particularly with regard to racial bias and the use of force. The House of Representatives addressed the call for changes in policing training and passed H.R. 1280. The bill aims to reduce religious and racial profiling through various means, including police training. This policy brief reviews the research on these issues and offers several policy suggestions. I argue that moving from a paramilitary structure to a more conducive learning environment and applying a learner-centered approach to aspects of law enforcement training is a justified starting point for re-establishing police legitimacy and a reduction in misuse of force. This brief is intended for those in charge of decision-making for law enforcement training.

Background

On April 20, 2021, a jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. While arresting Floyd for an allegedly fraudulent twenty-dollar bill, Chauvin put Floyd in a prone position on the ground, and then put his knee on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. Chief Arradondo said Chauvin “should have stopped” as soon as Floyd stopped resisting, and “certainly when he was in distress…” (Griffith, 2021). The verdict culminated a historic series of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. These protests were not just for Floyd, but for what supporters argue is embedded racism in law enforcement and a lack of accountability. George Floyd was not the first unarmed Black person to die at the hands of the police. Still, his death and Chauvin’s conviction seem to have opened the floodgates for open acknowledgment of the problems plaguing policing in the United States.

Calls for change range from improved training to abolishing police altogether, with the defunding movement falling somewhere in the middle. In an Op-ed for Cosmopolitan, American Civil Liberties Union Policing Policy Advisor Paige Fernandez (2021) argued that government officials should divert funding from law enforcement budgets and invest in programs like job training and violence reduction. On the other hand, abolitionists say these are merely steps to dismantle and rebuild what society thinks is policing, in part because simple reform allows for appeasement without demonstrable change in underlying issues (McDowell & Fernandez, 2018). Expectedly, however, there is a great deal of pushback on these critical stances. Nationally, Congressional bill 1280, also known as the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act 2020,” focuses on reform through transparency and accountability, and requires de-escalation and implicit bias training. This paper focuses on just one section of H.R. 1280, Title III: Improving Police Training and Policies, cited as the “End Racial and Religious Profiling Act 2021 (ERRPA)”.

The plans outlined in the bill are well-intentioned, though vague and superficial. The suggestions to train law enforcement personnel on data collection, racial profiling issues, and profiling prevention do have merit, but also feel like political theater. At best, progressive agencies will continue to use evidence-informed best practices, and at worst, agencies will do nothing. Therefore, this brief intends to aid police departments in making a meaningful bridge between policy and practice. I do this first by addressing the current state of police training. Specifically, I will discuss the current state of law enforcement training in the United States. Second, I summarize the research on three types of training: implicit bias, procedural justice, and de-escalation. The summary is followed by a discussion of the different approaches to teaching recruits. I then provide three policy options addressing the advantages and disadvantages for each. Empirical research is used to support recommendations for law enforcement agencies.

 

Current State of Police Training

There has been a great deal of recent discussion about what we should train cops, but little on how we should prepare them. This section begins with an overview of current police training in the United States. Then I summarize the research on three types of training: implicit bias, procedural justice, and de-escalation. Finally, I discuss the theory of andragogy and its focus on a learner-centered approach, before introducing policy options.

 

Police Training Today

In this section, I focus on the models under which recruits learn and the time spent on use of force training. About 81% of police recruits train under a stress model embedded in the curriculum (Reaves, 2016). Stress models are similar to military training, where the focus is on performing under periods of stress, including strict rules, exercise as punishment, and insults  (Chappell & Lanza-Kaduce, 2010). When it comes to the use of force, recruits spent about 71 hours on firearms training, but 21 hours on the use of force. It is essential to point out that those 21 hours may include policies, de-escalation tactics, and crisis intervention strategies.

 

What We Know: Training 

Recently, the Council on Criminal Justice’s (CCJ) Task Force on Policing (2021a; 2021b; 2021c) compiled a set of reports analyzing the most critical and rigorous research on training commonly cited as necessary to decreasing use of force and racial biases in police officers and departments. The following sections summarize the findings and policy implications of implicit bias, procedural justice, and de-escalation training based on the CCJ reports and other research.

 

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias affects how someone acts or makes decisions, often based on stereotypes, and is different from blatant racism in that it is an unconscious reaction. Given the topic of this brief, it is useful to illustrate an example with race. Implicit bias affects how an officer reacts to a Black male and a White male in the same situation. The goal of implicit bias training is to help officers slow down and acknowledge these potential biases before acting. However, researchers question the efficacy of implicit bias training (Spencer et al., 2016), particularly for long-term gains (Lai et al., 2014, 2016). Others argue that it can do more harm than good (Bagenstos, 2018). Ultimately, the CCJ suggests that procedural justice and de-escalation training might be a more effective way to reduce force, given the minimal evidence of the effectiveness of implicit bias training (CCJ: Task Force on Policing, 2021b)

 

Procedural Justice

Procedural justice involves fairness, transparency, impartiality, and room for individuals to have a voice (COPS Office, n.d.), a reasonable request for police-community interactions. In general, the goal of procedural justice is for anyone with contact with police, from victims to suspects, to feel that police treated them fairly and provided the opportunity to explain their side of the story. Equity in treatment is significant given the current issues with police legitimacy in Black and Brown communities.

There is little evidence that procedural justice improves problems with racial disparity, but there is growing evidence that it increases trust, thereby increasing police legitimacy (CCJ, 2021c). The CCJ further argues that agencies should combine external procedural justice with internal procedural justice to be effective and partnered with increased de-escalation training to see improvements in misuse of force.

 

De-escalation

In an earlier policy brief, Geyer (2020) recommended three solutions for officer-involved shootings, with her research supporting a recommendation that agencies significantly increase de-escalation training. The CCJ (2021a) review supports Geyer’s (2020) arguments and suggests combining training with department policy reinforces the importance of reducing use of force incidents – both in number and severity. However, in a recent systematic review of de-escalation training evaluations, Engel and colleagues (2020) argue that most available research suffers from a lack of quality. Therefore, they are cautious in saying that de-escalation training works. They call for academics, practitioners, and funders to prioritize rigorously designed de-escalation studies and other training that can affect the use of force.

 

Summary of Training Types

Overall, procedural justice and de-escalation training are the most promising avenues for future police training and legitimacy improvements. What stands out when considering why implicit bias training has not been shown to be effective, while procedural justice and de-escalation training are more promising, are their delivery methods. Implicit bias training was primarily handled in a classroom setting, while procedural justice and de-escalation training involved more hands-on practical training (CCJ: Task Force on Policing, 2021a, 2021c, 2021b). These student-centered methods are more akin to the adult learning theory of andragogy.

 

Andragogy and Learner-Centered Approaches

Traditionally, instructors taught police recruits through behavioral and cognitive approaches to learning. The behavioral approach assumes that repetition is the key to understanding. The cognitive approach is akin to a lecture style where the instructor imparts their wisdom to their (hopefully) attentive students. While this may be excellent for learning the basics, it does not allow for the advancement of critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Birzer & Tannehill, 2001).

Much of the discussion on learner-centered approaches focus on community policing (Birzer & Tannehill, 2001; Chappell & Lanza-Kaduce, 2010), likely because student-centered approaches can improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for community policing (Belur et al., 2019). The concepts are still relevant outside the community policing paradigm, such as mundane encounters with community members and for use in de-escalation. The behavioral and cognitive learning approaches used in many academies are appropriate for learning mechanical tasks like conducting a traffic stop, investigation, or writing a report (Birzer, 2003). They are also perfectly valid for firearms training. However, police spend most of their time on non-violent service calls where mechanical skills are unnecessary, but communication and problem-solving important (Asher & Horwitz, 2020).

 

Policy Options

The section above provided an overview of the current state of law enforcement training and a summary of the research on the efficacy of various training to reduce misuse of force and improve police legitimacy. I also introduced the theory of andragogy and how it can apply to policing. Given the evidence base available on effective and promising training options, and how andragogy is applied to policing, there are three policy options. Each option includes policy options on structure, learning approach, and time spent on de-escalation and procedural justice training.

 

Policy Option 1

  • Structure: retain the paramilitary structure
  • Learning approach: behavioral/cognitive only
  • Curriculum: retain current curriculum

 

Policy Option 2

  • Structure: retain the paramilitary structure
  • Learning approach: behavioral/cognitive for mechanical; student-centered for critical thinking and problem solving
  • Curriculum: retain current curriculum

 

Policy Option 3

  • Structure: Reduce paramilitary structure
  • Learning approach: behavioral/cognitive for mechanical; student-centered for critical thinking and problem solving
  • Curriculum: increase time spent on procedural justice and de-escalation

 

Considerations

Policy Option 1 

Policy option one retains the paramilitary structure and behavioral learning approach, but with renewed curriculum, including increased procedural justice and de-escalation hours.

Advantages

Disadvantages

·       Less for department and personnel to “buy into”

·       Business as usual, but with additional training

·       Limited cost

·       Unsupportive environment to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills

·       Improved police legitimacy

·       Adding hours to de-escalation when the research has not settled on its effectiveness

·       Potential for reduced use/misuse of force

 

 

Policy Option 2

Policy option two retains the paramilitary structure and behavioral learning approach for mechanical tasks, but uses a student-centered approach for critical thinking and problem-solving. This option also calls for a change in the curriculum by increasing hours in procedural justice and de-escalation.

Advantages

Disadvantages

·       Allows for recruits to take an active role in learning

·       Somewhat unsupportive environment to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills

·       Potential for improvements in critical thinking and problem-solving

·       Adding hours to de-escalation when the research has not settled on its effectiveness

·       More supportive environment than policy option one

·       Potential buy-in issues

·       Improved police legitimacy

·       Trainers need training in learner-centered approaches

·       Potential for reduced use/misuse of force

 

 

Policy Option 3

Policy option three reduces the paramilitary structure by creating an environment that is more conducive to learning, but retains a behavioral learning approach for mechanical tasks. This option also calls for a shift to a student-centered approach for critical thinking and problem solving and a change in the curriculum by increasing procedural justice and de-escalation hours. 

Advantages

Disadvantages

·       Allows for recruits to take an active role in learning

·       Added costs (training, consultation for curriculum development)

·       Improvements in critical thinking and problem-solving

·       Buy-in

·       A supportive environment conducive to developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills

·       Must develop curriculum

·       Improved police legitimacy

·       Trainers need training in learner-centered approaches

·       Potential for reduced use/misuse of force

 

 

Recommendation

The policy recommendations in this brief are merely a starting point for improving the state of police training and regaining legitimacy from the communities they serve. Tensions are high, and opinions are emotionally charged. The situation is systemic and more complex than presented in this brief. Still, there cannot be progress without forward momentum. Such improvement should be evidence-informed and planned. Therefore, after reviewing the current state of available literature and the potential for actual change, I recommend agencies adopt policy option three. Policy option three includes the following changes: (1) reduce the paramilitary and stress-based structure of police academies in favor of a more conducive learning environment, (2) embed andragogy and student-centered learning for critical thinking and problem-solving skill development, and (3) increase the time spent on procedural justice and de-escalation training.

 

Why Reduce the Paramilitary Model?

Overall the paramilitary model does not provide an opportunity for self-directed or empowered learning (Birzer, 2003). The use of the paramilitary model is counterintuitive given the discretion afforded to police officers who are entirely self-directed in the field. The strict obedience required in the academy is also counterintuitive to developing skills that translate to improved community relationships (Chappell & Lanza-Kaduce, 2010). Learning under such stress helps teach recruits how to perform in stressful situations, but not at the expense of developing other essential skills.

 

Why Balance Behavioral, Cognitive, and Student-Centered Approaches?

It is important to remember that these learning types are not dichotomous, nor is one necessarily better than the other (Dwyer & Laufersweiler-Dwyer, 2004). As mentioned in the background section, behavioral and cognitive approaches to learning are perfectly acceptable for mechanical tasks. At the same time, andragogy is better suited to developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Further, this may encourage recruits to take an active role in their learning (Birzer & Tannehill, 2001). Ultimately, I suggest keeping the behavioral and cognitive approach where it applies best and using student-centered learning when there is a need for critical thinking or problem-solving.

 

Advantages and Challenges

There will be implementation challenges. One must consider that curriculum needs to be developed, and instructors must be adequately trained (see Shipton, 2011). While the paramilitary structure is also not conducive for critical thinking, police academies have a long tradition of using this method, so resistance is expected. Finally, agencies may also be concerned with costs. Already facing economic issues coupled with calls for defunding, departments may be reluctant to invest money into making such sweeping changes. 

Despite these challenges, the advantages outweigh the costs. With proper implementation of an environment that supports effective learning (Birzer, 2003), departments can expect improved critical thinking and problem-solving(Belur et al., 2019). Properly incorporating procedural justice can help improve community relationships and police legitimacy – provided agencies also embrace internal procedural justice (CCJ, 2021c). And finally, though more research is needed, de-escalation, coupled with that procedural justice, may reduce the use and misuse of force (CCJ: Task Force on Policing, 2021a; Engel et al., 2020; Geyer, 2020).

On a final note, this policy brief is not an exhaustive discussion of the changes needed to ensure successful training of police recruits, improve police legitimacy, or reduce misuse of force. This brief focused on structure, types of training, and how we train. I do not address the necessary cultural shifts and other necessary policy changes here, which are also relevant. Instead, I chose to limit focus as a starting point. There is much more work to do.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Asher, J., & Horwitz, B. (2020, June 19). How do the police actually spend their time? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html

The article addresses the time police spend on various calls for service. Using publicly available data, the authors found that police spend more time responding to noncriminal complaints and traffic incidents than violent crime. While the authors only used data from ten agencies, the information demonstrates the importance of considering what types of activities police spend their time on when debated the best way to handle current shortcomings.

Bagenstos, S. R. (2018). Implicit bias’s failure. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, 39(1), 37–52. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3015031

Bagenstos argues that the rise of implicit bias may have made addressing discrimination more complex from a political perspective. He further asserts that implicit bias triggers a similar defensive response as accusations of blatant racism, making it challenging to address discrimination. The article is an excellent read for anyone interested in an opposing perspective of implicit bias.

Belur, J., Agnew-Pauley, W., McGinley, B., & Tompson, L. (2019). A systematic review of police recruit training programmes. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice. https://doi.org/10.1093/police/paz022

In a systematic review of the global literature on police recruit training programs, the authors suggest that student-centered learning approaches help recruits develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This review is an excellent summary of the training research and is valuable for academics and practitioners alike.

Birzer, M. L. (2003). The theory of andragogy applied to police training. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 26(1), 29–42. https://doi.org/10.1108/13639510310460288

The author explores the theory of andragogy applied to police training and argues that a student-centered approach is best suited for aspects of policing that require critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It is a must-read for those interested in making improvements in policing training.

Birzer, M. L., & Tannehill, R. (2001). A more effective training approach for contemporary policing. Police Quarterly, 4(2), 233–252. https://doi.org/10.1177/109861101129197815

Birzer and Tannehill focus on what police trainers can do to improve learning outcomes for recruits. They suggest student-centered learning through andragogy fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills by keeping officers engaged in the learning process. I highly recommend this article for policing instructors in academia and the police academy.

Council on Criminal Justice: Task Force on Policing. (2021a). De-escalation policies and training. [Policy Assessment]. Council on Criminal Justice. https://assets.foleon.com/eu-west-2/uploads-7e3kk3/41697/de-escalation_training.9f4b662e97c2.pdf

This policy assessment summarizes relevant literature on de-escalation training and evaluates its effectiveness in two areas relevant to this paper's topic: police misuse of force and strengthening community trust. The authors found that de-escalation training combined with de-escalation policies can reduce misuse of force. They further argue that a reduction in misuse in force may lead to improved community trust. The assessment is especially relevant for practitioners who do not have time to review a mountain of research or cannot access academic journals.

Council on Criminal Justice: Task Force on Policing. (2021b). Implicit bias training. [Policy Assessment]. Council on Criminal Justice. https://assets.foleon.com/eu-west-2/uploads-7e3kk3/41697/implicit_bias.9681943c82c2.pdf

The policy assessment referenced summarizes the empirical literature on implicit bias training. The authors found that there is limited evidence that implicit bias training reduces misuse of force and does not strengthen community trust on its own. However, they acknowledge that pairing implicit bias with reconciliation conversations may lead to improved community trust. The assessment is especially relevant for practitioners who do not have time to review a mountain of research or cannot access academic journals.

Council on Criminal Justice: Task Force on Policing. (2021c). Procedural justice training. [Policy Assessment]. Council on Criminal Justice. https://assets.foleon.com/eu-west-2/uploads-7e3kk3/41697/procedural_justice_training.234ca94dfcf5.pdf

In summarizing the empirical literature on procedural justice training, the authors found some support that procedural justice, coupled with de-escalation tactics, reduces misuse of force. They also note that the evidence suggests a strong association between community perceptions of police interactions. Given the goals of procedural justice, it would not be surprising to see improved relationships. However, they note perceptions go beyond individual encounters with police. The assessment is especially relevant for practitioners who do not have time to review a mountain of research or cannot access academic journals.

Chappell, A. T., & Lanza-Kaduce, L. (2010). Police academy socialization: Understanding the lessons learned in a paramilitary-bureaucratic organization. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 39(2), 187–214. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891241609342230

This observational study focused on the socialization of police officers in one academy that introduced a new community policing and problem-solving curriculum. The relevant findings for this brief are that the paramilitary structure of the police academy is not conducive to critical thinking and problem-solving.

Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Procedural justice, COPS Office. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://cops.usdoj.gov/prodceduraljustice

The procedural justice section on the COPS Office website offers resources on procedural justice and its connections to community policing and police legitimacy. The website is a good starting point for anyone with an interest in learning more about this topic.

Dwyer, R. G., & Laufersweiler-Dwyer, D. (2004). The need for change: A call for action in community oriented police training perspective. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 73(11), 18–24.

The authors explore pedagogy and andragogy applied to police training - mainly community-oriented police training. They argue that an integrated model is preferable, given officers must learn mechanical and critical thinking skills. This article provides an excellent argument for integrated teaching methods in police training.

Engel, R. S., McManus, H. D., & Herold, T. D. (2020). Does de-escalation training work? Criminology & Public Policy, 19(3), 721–759. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12467

In a systematic review of de-escalation training, Engel and colleagues found no adverse effects of de-escalation training. They note that many of the studies reviewed had low-quality designs, making it difficult to evaluate the training's effectiveness. This article is timely and brings to light the importance of rigorous research in policymaking.

Fernandez, P. (2021, April 13). Defunding the police isn’t radical. It’s logical. Cosmopolitan. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a32757152/defund-police-black-lives-matter/

This opinion editorial takes the perspective of critical criminology to argue the logic behind defunding police and reallocating the money to other public services. The author posits that such a broken institution cannot be improved but must be dismantled and rebuilt. I recommend reading this article regardless of where your opinion falls on this topic.

Geyer, P. (2020). Traveling at 1000 feet per second with unalterable consequences: How to decrease police officer-involved shootings. EBP Quarterly, 5(2). https://www.ebpsociety.org/blog/quarterly/440-ebp-quarterly-2020-volume-5-number-2

In this policy brief, Geyer addresses potential policies to decreases office-involved shootings. She ultimately argues for a dramatic increase in de-escalation training. This piece would be most beneficial for law enforcement decision-makers interested in making changes to their training curriculum.

Griffith, J. (2021, April 13). Former officer testifies Derek Chauvin was “justified” in pinning down George Floyd. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/prosecutors-rest-their-case-derek-chauvin-trial-n1263916

This NBC News article summarizes events from the trial of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. It highlights the contradictory testimony between department personnel and expert witnesses. While the title is provocative, the article provided a good summary of the testimony of interest.

Lai, C. K., Marini, M., Lehr, S. A., Cerruti, C., Shin, J.-E. L., Joy-Gaba, J. A., Ho, A. K., Teachman, B. A., Wojcik, S. P., Koleva, S. P., Frazier, R. S., Heiphetz, L., Chen, E. E., Turner, R. N., Haidt, J., Kesebir, S., Hawkins, C. B., Schaefer, H. S., Rubichi, S., … Nosek, B. A. (2014). Reducing implicit racial preferences: A comparative investigation of 17 interventions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(4), 1765–1785. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036260

The authors sought to determine which methods were effective in reducing implicit bias. Eight of seventeen interventions reduced implicit bias, while the remaining nine did not. Most important for this paper, however, is the remaining question of long-term gains. This article could benefit those trying to design implicit bias interventions in police training.

Lai, C. K., Skinner, A. L., Cooley, E., Murrar, S., Brauer, M., Devos, T., Calanchini, J., Xiao, Y. J., Pedram, C., Marshburn, C. K., Simon, S., Blanchar, J. C., Joy-Gaba, J. A., Conway, J., Redford, L., Klein, R. A., Roussos, G., Schellhaas, F. M. H., Burns, M., … Nosek, B. A. (2016). Reducing implicit racial preferences: II Intervention effectiveness across time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(8), 1001–1016. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000179

Researchers assessed the interventions' success at sustained reductions in bias due to earlier implicit bias intervention work. Their findings suggest there remain concerns about long-term change. As with Lai et al.'s previous work, this article would benefit those working on designing implicit bias interventions for police training.

McDowell, M. G., & Fernandez, L. A. (2018). ‘Disband, disempower, and disarm’: Amplifying the theory and practice of police abolition. Critical Criminology, 26(3), 373–391. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-018-9400-4

The authors discuss the police abolitionist movement from a critical criminology perspective. McDowell and Fernandez make a powerful argument that aims directly at dismantling police as an institution allows for movement toward meaningful change. While antagonistically worded for traditional criminologists, I recommend all policing scholars read their work.

Reaves, B. A. (2016). State and local law enforcement training academies, 2013, summary. Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/slleta13.pdf

The above is a statistical report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that highlights various aspects of state and local law enforcement training academies. I used the information on stress versus non-stress academy models and the number of hours spent on training types to support the policy recommendations in this brief. The report is beneficial for academics, practitioners, and community members to understand the most recent snapshot of the average police training academy.

Shipton, B. (2011). Expanding police educators’ understanding of teaching, are they as learner-centered as they think? Journal of Learning Design, 4(2), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.5204/jld.v4i2.71

In this study, the researcher sought to determine whether police educators favored learner-centered or teacher-centered approaches. Due to contradictory findings, Shipton argues that police educators need more development courses that allow them to reflect on their actual practices regarding their desire teaching approach. I recommend this piece for anyone involved in instructor development for police academies.

Spencer, K. B., Charbonneau, A. K., & Glaser, J. (2016). Implicit bias and policing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(1), 50–63. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12210

The authors address the difficulty in reducing the effects of implicit bias. They argue that there are no known interventions with any efficacy. I suggest policing scholars read this article and reflect on the several promising avenues for future research to reduce implicit bias.

Photo by Sam Clarke on Unsplash

 

 

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