American Police Are Inadequately Trained

Officers in the United States don’t get as much instruction as police in other rich countries.

A triptych of portraits of police officers in uniform. The first looks away from the camera; the second and the third look down.
Christopher Anderson / Magnum

In response to the high rate at which American police kill civilians, many on the left have taken up the call for defunding the police, or abolishing the police entirely. But some policing experts are instead emphasizing a different approach that they say could reduce police killings: training officers better, longer, and on different subjects. “We have one of the worst police-training academies in comparison to other democratic countries,” Maria Haberfeld, a police-science professor at John Jay College, told me.

Police in the United States receive less initial training than their counterparts in other rich countries—about five months in a classroom and another three or so months in the field, on average. Many European nations, meanwhile, have something more akin to police universities, which can take three or four years to complete. European countries also have national standards for various elements of a police officer’s job—such as how to search a car and when to use a baton. The U.S. does not.

The 18,000 police departments in the U.S. each have their own rules and requirements. But although police reform is a contentious subject, the inadequacy of the current training provides a rare point of relative consensus: “Police officers, police chiefs, and everyone agree that we do not get enough training in a myriad of fields,” Dennis Slocumb, the legislative director of the International Union of Police Associations, told me.

Small police departments are already straining to provide officer training for just a few months, and might struggle to extend that initial training period, much less provide the ongoing education and refreshers that some experts recommend. Additional training would require devoting more funding to policing, at a moment when activists are calling to defund the police.

The mix of instruction given in police academies speaks volumes about their priorities. The median police recruit receives eight hours of de-escalation training, compared with 58 hours of training in firearms, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank for police executives. But despite the initial focus on firearms, American police don’t receive much ongoing weapons training, either. Slocumb said that when he was an officer in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, pistol requalification went from happening once every 30 days to four times a year, and then to three times a year. “That’s not because the sheriff or anyone else wants us to become less proficient,” he said. “It’s just a financial consideration.”

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, trained as a reserve police officer in Washington, D.C, while writing a book. After the first few weeks of firearms training in the academy, Brooks said, “twice a year you have to requalify, and you get some little refresher training, which usually consists of a bored instructor going through some PowerPoint slides. And he’s like, ‘Okay, you guys know this stuff. Okay? Good.’”

American police training resembles military training—“polish your boots, do push-ups, speak when you’re spoken to,” Brooks told me. In an article for The Atlantic last year, she described practicing drills and standing at attention when senior officers entered the room. “I don’t think I’ve been yelled at as much since high-school gym class more than three decades ago,” she wrote. Reformers worry that this type of training teaches recruits that the world runs on strict power hierarchies, and that anything short of perfect compliance should be met with force and anger.

Though he generally agrees with the push toward less militaristic police academies, Slocumb thinks the stress of military-style drills can be a useful proving ground for new officers. “You don’t want the first time that you have to make a decision while people are screaming in your face to be out in someone’s living room,” he told me. “It needs to be something you’ve been accustomed to during training.”

Many policing experts recommend that officers be trained to slow down when they are able to do so, giving themselves time to decide the best course of action. “Police are taught in the academy [that] police always have to win,” says Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. But sometimes it’s okay not to win, particularly if it means saving a life.

“So many of these bad cases are a result of an officer incorrectly perceiving a threat,” says Sue Rahr, the former sheriff of King County, Washington, who now serves as an adviser to police-reform organizations. Rahr has developed a method to train recruits to be courteous, show empathy, explain their actions, and preserve everyone’s dignity. Police should be trained “to be sympathetic, to be guardians, rather than warriors,” Wexler says.

That might mean adding new subjects to the curriculum. Few American officers receive much education about the history of policing or the role of police in a democratic society. “The officer coming out of one of the European training programs, he’s much more likely to have a much broader perspective on what the job is, what your role is, what your society is like, how do you fit into it,” says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “Those things are just not really part of what’s going on in most American police-training programs.”

American police academies are also light on training in “soft skills,” such as how to communicate or use emotional intelligence to see a situation clearly. “We didn’t talk about any of what you might call the big issues in policing: race and policing, policing and excessive force, what is good policing?” Brooks said. (The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s curriculum has been updated since Brooks’s 2016 training and “now includes these areas,” according to a police spokesperson.)

American cops are poorly prepared for trauma on the job, too: They get just six hours of training in stress management, compared with 25 hours in report-writing, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

And after officers graduate from police academies, such deficits in their training are difficult to make up. “Once a person is out, and picks up habits and gets acculturated, it becomes harder to change directions,” Harris says. “How do you shift their worldview and their way of doing the job that they’ve been in already?”

New officers are often paired with field-training officers, but many of those officers learned the wrong techniques themselves, and are passing them along to their trainees. Derek Chauvin, who was convicted on Tuesday of murder, was acting as a field-training officer when he killed George Floyd. Kim Potter, who shouted “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before fatally shooting Daunte Wright with her pistol last week, was also acting as a field-training officer at the time.

The Marshall Project recently looked at 10 big-city police departments and found that most allow officers who have faced allegations of aggressive behavior to become trainers; one academic study found that officers whose trainers had a history of citizen complaints were more likely to draw complaints themselves in their first two years on the job.

Better training alone can’t solve every problem with American policing. But because officers are licensed to use force against their fellow citizens, they should at least be equipped to use it wisely.