“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.