National standards for police training could help reduce biases

Protests across the country about ending police brutality faced by African Americans have erupted in response to the Memorial Day officer killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis. While some have called for defunding or even abolishing US police forces, others have called for other approaches to reform, like changing the way US law enforcement officers are trained.Experts who spoke to Insider said the lack of uniformity in police education presents challenges that could be rectified by instituting national standards. “They are so different from one another,” Dr. Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institute told Insider about local police trainings around the country. “Honestly, it’s not even like apples to oranges, it’s more like fruit to vegetables.”Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On May 25, four officers of the Minneapolis, Minnesota Police Department were involved in the caught-on-video killing of 46-year-old George Floyd. Floyd, a black man, told the white officer kneeling on his neck that he couldn’t breathe. Officer Derek Chauvin continued kneeling despite these pleas and despite Floyd’s loss of consciousness. Floyd’s death — captured on video and widely spread across social media — set off weeks-long national and global unrest over police brutality and racism. But the protests have also escalated calls for major policing reform in the US. While many activists have called for an entire reimagining of US law enforcement, including the defunding — or even the abolition of US police agencies — others who likewise decry the deaths of Black Americans in police custody have urged for more pragmatic, piecemeal reforms to the criminal justice system such as officer trainings in de-escalation and implicit bias.For example, former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has even called for an increase in funding to police departments amid ongoing civil unrest. And House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn on CNN’s “State of the Union” said, “Nobody is going to defund the police. We can restructure the police forces.”

The divide on police reform has marked a point of contention between Americans, who largely agree the anger behind ongoing protests against police brutality is justified, but don’t support “defunding police.” One approach reform advocates have called for include the introduction of a national system of standards. On June 5, Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat and leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, put forth legislation to make federal funding for local law enforcement agencies contingent upon their meeting of national standards for training on de-escalation practices, use of force, and bias. A civilian commission would be created to determine such standards, The Hill reported.Law enforcement experts who spoke to Insider said they believed that improvements to and uniformity among the way local US police forces train their officers are not the entire solution — but it could be a step in the right direction.

There’s no cohesive training program for US cops.From Los Angeles to New York City to Minneapolis, some of the country’s largest police forces have different approaches to their training programs. Los Angeles Police Department officers receive 960 hours of training in the academy, which includes scenario-based training, a spokesperson for the department told Insider. The LAPD academy training has included specific training on de-escalation techniques since 2017, the spokesperson said.Officers are also given four hours of implicit bias training, though the LAPD spokesperson said: “implicit bias training is also integrated into the 16 LAPD basic training modules.””Officers and Department personnel are provided in-service training and perishable skills training consistently over the course of their entire career,” the spokesperson said. “When large scale or sweeping policy changes are made, the entire Department will undergo training.”

Training officers about their potential implicit biases is an example of such training, he said. Officers at the New York Police Department are trained in de-escalation tactics during their “scenario-based training unit,” according to the department’s website on officers’ training, which a spokesperson referred to Insider. The site does not specify the length of such training and did not mention whether officers receive any training related to implicit racial or other biases. According to The New York Times, however, the city of New York began to provide its officers with implicit bias training in 2018 as part of a two-year $4.5 million contract with a Florida company called Fair and Impartial Policing. Police officers in the state must undergo at least 700 hours in total of training before becoming law enforcement officers, according to the state of New York.A website for the Minneapolis Police Academy says officers are trained in nine areas that include “defensive tactics,” “ethics,” “firearms,” and “report writing”  during a 14-16 week program. The website does not mention any training in de-escalation tactics or how or if officers are trained about implicit biases. 

There is almost no uniformity in police training programs, particularly when it comes to their focus on their training in implicit biases, Dr. Rashawn Ray, a fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution and executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research (LASSR) at the University of Maryland told Insider. “What these look like on a local level are like apples to oranges,” Ray said. “They are so different from one another. Honestly, it’s not even like apples to oranges — it’s more like fruit to vegetables. That’s just how different they are. That is something that definitely needs to change.”Experts said an increased uniformity among training could help combat systemic issues on police forces.Ray, who offers police agencies training in implicit biases as part of his work with LASSR, said the differences in the ways officers are trained in implicit biases alone prevents large-scale changes with in the US law enforcement system.Some agencies request a two-hour training for officers to learn about potential implicit biases, Ray told Insider. Other agencies can request days-long training that includes the use of virtual reality technology employed by the University of Maryland researchers. There’s little consistency among agencies, he said. 

“We don’t see huge payoffs because of the huge variations across the board,” Ray told Insider. “Two hours of an implicit bias training is not going to change someone’s biases they might have,” Ray said.Chris Burbank, Vice President of Law Enforcement Strategy at the Center for Policing Equality, told Insider he did not support the nationalization of law enforcement —  the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, wouldn’t be effective in policing local communities, he said. “I believe policing is best done locally by people who are invested in the community, live in the community, participate in the community, and understand it,” Burbank, who served for nine years as chief of the Salt Lake City, Utah, police department, added. “But there should be national standards set.” Beyond standardizing training procedures for US cops, Burbank said there should be national standards required for becoming a law enforcement officer. All potential police officers, for example, should have a four-year education prior to becoming a law enforcement officer, he said.

Ray said that national standards for police officer training could help reduce officers’ biases.”I think that’s something that the public desires,” Ray said of uniform law enforcement training practices. “That is something that law enforcement does not desire.” He said police agencies would likely reject having training nationalized, partially over fears they would lose funding dedicated to training their officers. Still, Ray said that national standards could be employed while still allowing local instructors to educate new and existing officers.LASSR even offers courses to provide training to the people who train law enforcement officers, he added as an example.

Training will not solve the entire problem — greater reforms are needed.”You always want the best-trained police officers,” Burbank told Insider. “You want them to have the most information, and you want them to have the most practical information you can always give them. However, we have viewed training especially around bias, and de-escalation, as the end-all.”He added: “The idea has been if you just trained the racist cops, they wouldn’t be racist anymore and you wouldn’t have these problems. What we have found is that the policies, the practice, and the procedures in your police department contribute much more to the disparity or the potential outcome of bias in policing than the individual racism or bias of the officers.” As Insider previously reported, studies have suggested that implicit bias training as it currently is executed has not been effective alone in reducing the bias of police officers.Burbank suggested the elimination of consent searches — the practice where police officers ask individuals if they can search their property without a warrant — was an example of a policy change that could be implemented nationally to lead to fewer instances of implicit biases. He said these types of searches disproportionately target African Americans despite them having a low rate of success.

Burbank also pointed toward the use of a chokehold and other carotid restraints as policies police forces could eliminate nationally to reduce instances of implicit bias. Police agencies across the country, including in Minneapolis where Floyd was killed, have announced bans on chokehold and similar neck restraints. “What we want to do is start to identify the polices — what are the practices, that the officers are using that are introducing bias,” Burbank said.Ray also suggested the wider deployment of new technologies may help encourage officers to act against their biases. As part of his work training officers with LASSR, Ray said he’s found more success when using a virtual reality lab to place officers in hands-on situations that help trigger their potential biases.”It’s not just about implicit bias — everyone has implicit biases — it’s the fact that biases are more likely to come out when people are stressed, when people are scared, and when people’s adrenalin is running. That’s an equation that happens to police officers almost every day.”

Training is not just about telling law enforcement what implicit biases are, he added. It’s about pointing them out and training officers about ways they can overcome them. “It’s about improving police officers in situations where biases where they’re more likely to exist and then training the officers to reduce those biases. That is the most important thing about implicit bias training. It’s not simply to education on the definition of it,” he said.Read more: A Black man was shot and killed by Atlanta police officers after they were called on him for sleeping in a parked car at a Wendy’s drive thru and a scuffle ensued

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