We train police to be warriors — and then send them out to be social workers

“Police do fight crime, to be sure — but they are mainly called upon to be social workers, conflict mediators, traffic directors, mental health counselors, detailed report writers, neighborhood patrollers, and low-level law enforcers, sometimes all in the span of a single shift. In fact, the overwhelming majority of officers spend only a small fraction of their time responding to violent crime.

However, the institution of policing in America does not reflect that reality. We prepare police officers for ajob we imagine them to have rather than the role they actually perform. Police are hired disproportionately from the military, trained in military-style academies that focus largely on the deployment of force and law, and equipped with lethal weapons at all times, and they operate within a culture that takes pride in warriorship, combat, and violence.

This mismatch can have troubling—evenfatal — consequences.”

““When I was an officer, I got calls about dead animals, ungovernable children who refused to go to school, people who hadn’t gotten their welfare checks, adults who hadn’t heard from their elderly relatives, families who needed to be informed of a death, broken-down cars, you name it,” says Seth Stoughton, a legal scholar at the University of South Carolina and former Tallahassee police officer. “Everything that isn’t dealt with by some other institution automatically defaults to the police to take care of.””

A 2016 national study of the training of 135,000 recruits across 664 local police academies found that, on average, officers each received 168 hours of training in firearm skills, self-defense, and use of force out of 840 total hours. Another 42 hours were spent on criminal investigations, 38 on operating an emergency vehicle, 86 on legal education aimed primarily at force amendment law, and hundreds more on basic operations and self-improvement. Topics like domestic violence (13 hours), mental illness (10 hours), and mediation and conflict management (9 hours) received a fraction of trainee time. Others, like homelessness and substance abuse, were so rare they didn’t make the data set.

Those averages mask an even more worrying reality. Almost half of American police academies utilize what is called the “military model” of instruction — a high-stress, physically and psychologically excruciating approach traditionally used to train soldiers for battle. Another third use a hybrid approach that draws heavily on the military model.” 

“Despite the fact that American police deal with a vast array of different situations, they are equipped with the exact same tools for each one: handcuffs and a firearm. Increasingly, that tool basket also includes assault rifles, camouflage, and armored vehicles, even for routine tasks.

The structure of police agencies, too, reflects a commitment to force. Glance at the organization chart of any major police department and you’ll see specialized departments like SWAT, bomb squad, narcotics, vice, street crimes, gang unit, criminal intelligence, and counterterrorism. What you won’t see, with a handful of exceptions, are departments focused on conflict mediation or social work.” 

“Crime fighting and deployment of force are also culturally valorized. Take the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s “Police Officer of the Year” award, which “symbolizes the highest level of achievement among police officers,” and selects those who can stand as models for the profession — it’s a big deal in the policing world. In the 30-year period from 1986 to 2015, 25 recipients of the award were honored for actions they took in combat conditions while under attack.

Or just look up any police department recruitment video, where you’re likely to see police officers battering down doors, firing assault rifles, engaging in high-speed freeway chases, and running after suspects through alleyways — sometimes with a few brief shots of community outreach sprinkled in.

As for in-person recruiting efforts, police agencies concentrate primarily on military bases and, to a lesser degree, sports facilities and private security companies. The result is that military veterans — who are more likely to generate excessive force complaints and be involved in unjustified police shootings than non-military cops — represent almost 20 percent of police officers despite being just six percent of the US population. Men more generally make up almost 90 percent of all police officers; they are considerably more likely to use force and aggressive tactics than female officers.”

“Police officers are functionally generalists responsible for dealing with a vast array of our society’s most sensitive situations; yet we’ve recruited, hired, trained, equipped, and deployed them to be specialists in force. And we’ve done it all using an often disproportionately white police force with a well-documented racial bias problem entering Black and brown communities that historically distrust the police.

Would it surprise anyone if this occasionally resulted in unnecessary violence?” 

“Police killings of unarmed civilians in the United States are magnitudes higher than those in peer countries. Using 2015 data, Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley criminologist and author of When Police Killcalculates that the chance of an unarmed civilian being killed by police in the US is three times higher than the chance of any civilian, armed or unarmed, being killed by police in Germany and more than 10 times higher than in the UK (and that’s using a very conservative estimate ofunarmed shootings in the US).” 

“When it comes to addressing the mismatch between the nature of our police forces and the roles we ask them to perform, there are two broad paths that stand out.

The first is to transform our police forces — to change how officers are recruited, hired, trained, and equipped to meet the actual demands of their role.”

“second approach: to transform how we addresspublic safety such that police play a smaller, more targeted role altogether. This would involve communities designating a certain subset of current police duties that don’t require armed police response, delegating those responsibilities — along with requisite funding — to an institution that could better handle the issue, and designing systems for service delivery (like a 911 call diversion program) and coordination (like a silent alert system that unarmed first responders could use to quickly summon police backup).

Models for this approach have been implemented successfully in some places in the US and across the globe. In the UK, certain traffic functions have been designated to unarmed, non-police public servants. In cities across the US, “violence interruption” programs run by community nonprofits have been largely successful in mediating conflict and reducing violence. The much-applauded Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon, sends a team of unarmed crisis specialists to address many non-criminal 911 calls without having to involve police.” 

““There is no single, definitive answer to what will work in a given place,” Megan Quattlebaum, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, tells me. “Anything we do is going to be in the space of experimentation with different models.””


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