After a year in which killings of unarmed suspects by the police have become a major national issue, activists, law enforcement experts, and politicians have stressed the importance of introducing more and better training for officers, says Mother Jones magazine. Police departments have begun to re-evaluate how they teach cops to use physical force, defuse tension with suspects, approach the mentally ill, and check their own unconscious biases. What do we really know about police training as a solution? A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that the majority of an officer’s training on use of force consisted of firearms and defensive tactics. “We spend much less time discussing the importance of deescalation techniques and crisis intervention strategies,” said PERF’s Chuck Wexler. Some departments that have introduced training reforms, such as those in Las Vegas and Maryland’s Montgomery County, say the changes have lowered problematic use-of-force incidents.
Researchers have little data on potential impacts with regard to use of force, mental-health crisis intervention, and building community trust. “We know virtually nothing about the short- or long-term effects associated with police training of any type,” Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan wrote last year in the Journal of Experimental Criminology. It’s hard to know whether an officer’s behavior in any given scenario was directly affected by training. Criminologist Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida says it’s been “incredibly challenging” to come up with effective approaches to dealing with racial bias in policing. She plans to conduct a controlled study on the effects of the training to determine how an officer’s attitude and skills may have changed as a result. The study won’t be able to show how the training affected an officer’s behavior on the streets, she explains, because measuring bias in that setting would require pinpointing the motive behind an officer’s actions in any given situation.