5 Ways Police Should Rethink Their Training

Better-educated, community-focused and healthier cops would make smarter and safer decisions in times of stress.

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Law-enforcement officers on duty during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 18, 2014

Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Through all the nonstop rage, misery and obliterating hate consuming that infamous strip of West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., it never stops circling back to a common question: What the hell is up with the police?

Something’s going on with America’s cops, and it’s not looking good as slain black men pile up nationwide alongside the countless names of those wrongly beaten or harassed. If it’s not Michael Brown in Missouri, it’s an almost forgotten John Crawford in Ohio or Ezell Ford in California. Clearly, we’ve come a long way from Andy Griffith’s cool sway over Mayberry or Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane’s reign of idiocy over Hazzard County. This is neo-policing, Judge Dredd-style.

We’re all seeing nuclear levels of police animus and tension augmented by a steady pre-Brown increase in SWAT tactics. For the most part, we ignored that until it all came spilling down like milk on tear gas-burned eyes. But maybe it’s not too late for a robust re-examination of how they train and whether that’s bearing any nonbrutal fruit. Here are five strategies that might or might not be working the way we need them to:

No More Diversity Training
You think? We hope that folks joining the force don’t just see it as an easy career track. It’s tough, patience-of-Job work where you meet people who look and act different—especially since you get to walk (oh, sorry, drive) around with guns. But is sensitivity training enough? We’re seeing some data showing that it’s probably not, especially since 9/11, but the government doesn’t like to track police brutality. And experts, like Harvard’s Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev and Erin Kelly, have concluded (pdf) that after millions wasted on sleek videos, workshops and hotel rooms, diversity training has “no positive effects in the average workplace.”

Etiquette in Blue 
Ferguson is not the only place where cops are dropping f-bombs or bullying people to move from one spot to the next. Look, a lot of us get it: Policing is stressful, high-intensity work. But as Grandmom says: “If you can’t stand the heat, don’t stay in the kitchen.” Understood, dealing with tense situations requires a certain level of firmness. But routine traffic stops and everyday patrolling shouldn’t be an opportunity to vent frustration in a manner unbecoming of law-enforcement professionals.

Make Friends With Community Policing 
It’s not like the Department of Justice didn’t tell you so. It’s been pushing community-policing standards and guidelines (pdf) for years, and some cities are listening ... a little. It’s one reason, noted U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) when he talked to The Root, the Big Apple hasn’t blown up like Ferguson since the choking death of Eric Garner by New York City Police Department officers. It could also be why the Los Angeles Police Department is only getting an earful of music from angry residents rather than a street full of rocks and bottles. Both cities, in recent years, have taken up community policing as a standard. But with SWAT-team invasions on the rise, don’t look to it as a panacea.

More College Degrees 
Only 16 percent of police departments (pdf) nationwide require “some type” of college education for hiring (not even the full degree). We’re guessing that Ferguson and St. Louis County don’t. Because if they did, we wouldn’t be seeing tactics that even military experts are calling “dumb.” Maybe if police agencies would stop hiring most cops straight out of high school, we’d see a marked decrease in police bullies. And as a matter of fact, two researchers (pdf) found that this approach works, citing reduced brutality in the 1 percent of police departments that do mandate college requirements. College-level training not only might save wasted money on empty diversity workshops but also might give cops and agencies the expertise they need to understand social, political and economic dynamics in the neighborhoods they patrol.

Pump Up the Exercise
Sounds trivial? It’s not. Studies have found that cop fitness levels are below normal, thereby impacting job performance and attitude. And some policymakers, such as former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff in a conversation with The Root, have suggested that it’s time officers patrol “less from their cars and more on their feet so they can interact with people.” A Temple University study (pdf) also indicates that foot patrols are what’s needed. In Philadelphia, crime dropped more than 20 percent in some hot spots after police Chief Charles Ramsey required all newly graduated recruits to walk their beats.

While these are small steps, they could make a dramatic turn in the right direction.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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