If practice really does make perfect, can the right kind of officer training make police shootings and excessive force less common?
Some advocacy groups and politicians believe it can. Reforming training, particularly with the addition of de-escalation or implicit bias programs, is a popular proposal in the ongoing national conversations about police use of force.
Appropriate force is especially pertinent in Alabama right now. The ACLU has reported that there were 13 officer shootings in the state as of June 30, 2020, an increase of more than 60% from the 2015-2019 average of 8.2 shootings in the same months.
The national campaign 8 Can’t Wait’s eight police reform policies includes requirements for officers to de-escalate situations when possible and to try all alternative actions before using deadly force. President Donald Trump’s “Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities” in June included “scenario-driven de-escalation techniques” among its proposed federal programs for improving policing.
The Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which sets the standards for police training statewide, is also planning to add a new implicit bias course to its police academy curriculum, according to Law Enforcement Academy-Tuscaloosa Director Randy Vaughn.
On paper, de-escalation, implicit bias and similar training programs reduce violent encounters between civilians and police by giving officers tools to change internal prejudices and resolve situations peacefully.
But there is little uniformity among police departments on what this training includes and how it is implemented. Groups such as the ACLU of Alabama also say that, at the end of the day, a training seminar is not likely to change mindsets enough to make a real difference in the use of force.
“Those (types of training) are not what is going to fundamentally shift the culture of policing and interacting in our communities,” ACLU of Alabama policy analyst Dillon Nettles said.
Transparency in Training
Police training looks different from state to state and even department to department, so there is little standardization in how training topics are addressed or even whether they’re covered at all. A July 2020 ABC News article estimated 15% to 17% of police departments practice some sort of crisis training that includes de-escalation training, and implicit bias training has spread across the country in recent years.
Those training courses may be developed by state commissions such as APOSTC, individual departments or outside hired firms. Nettles said that makes it hard to know how topics such as de-escalation and implicit bias are being handled, what techniques are being taught and how the officers are expected to apply what they learn.
“There’s really no uniformity in these trainings, and we don’t know what these departments are doing or not doing,” he said.
After the police shooting of Emantic “E.J.” Bradford at Riverchase Galleria in November 2018, Nettles said, the ACLU requested records and data from the Hoover Police Department, including on officer training.
“We were denied access to that information,” he said.
APOSTC does not have a specific course on de-escalation in its 520-hour Law Enforcement Academy, and its new implicit bias course has not yet been added to the syllabus. However, Vaughn said these techniques and discussions do come up as part of courses on interpersonal communications and handling potentially violent situations.
“As we’re teaching them about patrol techniques, we’re also as part of that teaching them de-escalation,” Vaughn said.
Alabama’s Police Standards
The APOSTC Law Enforcement Academies are intended to be an “entry-level” introduction for new officers before they start their first day on the job, Vaughn said.
He said de-escalation and bias are among the topics covered during a four-hour Law Enforcement Ethics and Professionalism course, an eight-hour Mental Health Awareness course, a four-hour Receiving and Handling Complaints course and a two-hour Officer/Violator Contact course.
This can include classroom discussions and role-playing exercises for officers to learn how their words, tone and behavior when they arrive on a scene can influence the responses they receive.
The training also includes recognizing the signs of a person with a mental health issue or disorder and modifying the officer’s behavior to react to that.
“A de-escalation technique that may work on this person over here may not work on this person over there, depending on their mental state,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said bias also comes up in discussing how officers should interact with the public. Sometimes this is about race, but not always. In one recent academy role-playing scenario, actors pretended to fire weapons and then threw the guns out of their vehicle windows. After “pulling over” the vehicle, the officer in training chose to handcuff all the male actors but left the female actor uncuffed. Vaughn said this was an opportunity to point out how the officer’s own preconceptions changed how they assessed each person as a threat.
“It can become very tricky when an officer may not realize he has a bias,” he said.
Pointing out those biases when they arise can make the “lightbulb go off” for some trainees, he said.
There isn’t enough time in the academy to role-play every possible scenario, but Vaughn said the goal is to give each officer tools to make unbiased decisions and threat assessments while on patrol and, when possible, use words instead of a weapon to resolve a situation.
After leaving the Law Enforcement Academy, officers must get at least 12 hours of continuing education credits and their firearms qualification each year.
Birmingham Police Department requires at least 60 training hours per year, according to an accountability report the department released in June. BPD spokesman Sgt. Rodarius Mauldin declined a further interview on the department’s training practices.
Vaughn said APOST sometimes will mandate a particular topic be covered by all departments, but most handle their own training courses. APOST can audit these courses to make sure they meet educational requirements and that officers are passing the exams.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Joni Money said via email that use of force and racial bias are regular topics for continuing education courses. She also added that most sheriff’s deputies get more than 12 education hours per year.
“They may not have the same title, but interpersonal communications is huge on how you communicate with people – all people. It covers body language, kinesics, proxemics, etc. It also covers how you can set the tone for an encounter,” she said.
APOSTC’s upcoming changes to the Law Enforcement Academy curriculum will increase training to 560 hours. The new curriculum will include four hours of implicit bias training and additional time spent on mental health awareness, legal issues and use of force laws.
A Sept. 22 executive order from President Trump prohibited federal contractors and grantees from implementing certain kinds of diversity and implicit bias training. Vaughn said this will not affect APOSTC’s planned curriculum because the executive order is aimed at “more adversarial” implicit bias programs.
“Our training is directed toward making officers more aware of differences and to judge each person on their own merits, not based on race or sex or other differing characteristics. The implicit bias training we will be holding is one that explains to students what implicit bias actually is and how to not assign characteristics based on any biases that one may hold,” Vaughn said via email.
APOST makes its curriculum decisions based on state and federal court rulings and best practices from around the country, he said. Some of these curriculum changes already were in the works before this summer’s protests and conversations about use of force.
“Even though we were already doing some of that, once we start looking at arguments that are being made, … that strengthens the opinion that maybe more emphasis is needed,” Vaughn said.
Time spent on de-escalation and recognizing bias is typically outweighed by training in use of firearms and physical defense.
Alabama’s Law Enforcement Academies spend 55 hours on firearms handling and 109 hours on offensive and defensive skills. A 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found similar results: U.S. police academies spend an average of 58 hours in firearms training, 49 hours on defensive tactics and only about eight hours each on de-escalation, crisis intervention, use of force and use of non-lethal weapons like stun guns.
Many police departments are also outfitted with surplus military equipment such as armored vehicles, SWAT team gear and assault rifles, and departments with that type of equipment have a higher rate of violent encounters with citizens.
“It’s really concerning that we have police officers on our streets that are that heavily armed,” Nettles said. “… What is the expectation but for them (those weapons) to be used?”
When officers encounter an armed, aggressive or erratic person, they’re expected to make threat assessments and decide how to act based on their training, often in a matter of seconds. Pausing to try a de-escalation technique or assess their own preconceptions might seem to heighten the threat, both to the officers and bystanders, rather than a chance to peacefully end it.
Vaughn said officers are not taught to kill but to use their weapons “as a last resort.” However, they also aren’t taught to put themselves in danger for the sake of attempting de-escalation if the threat seems too immediate. APOST curriculum also does not encourage attempts to disarm someone.
“I want that officer to be able to go home,” Vaughn said.
Encouraging officers to keep their weapons holstered “would be a hard sell just mainly because you’re talking about the immediacy of a second. It only takes a second for a person to go from no action to shooting the officer,” Vaughn said.
Even if the suspect had a knife rather than a gun, he said “it would not change my response” on whether the officer should draw his own weapon, because of how quickly the person could attack.
Perceptions of disrespect or harm to their reputation can also cause officers to choose escalating behaviors, according to Arizona State University criminology professor William Terrill, who has studied police behavior for 20 years. In an August Arizona State interview, Terrill said a previous research project had shown officers were likely to use escalating words or behaviors even when a suspect was compliant.
“De-escalation assumes that police are going into an escalated situation already, and that does occur. But just as often, police go into a situation that’s relatively calm and it escalates from there,” Terrill said.
If a person shows disrespect or noncompliance, Terrill said officers can perceive that as a threat.
“Police officers don’t like it when they’re feeling disrespected or feel that the public doesn’t honor the badge … Is the noncompliance of not showing hands a form of disrespect or is it posing a physical danger that requires escalation? More times than not, it’s not a public safety threat, but the officer interprets it as such because it’s disrespectful and disrespect can prompt escalation,” he said.
Satura Dudley, who has organized the police protests in Hoover since this summer, has been arrested at those protests 13 times. She said she has been treated aggressively by officers regardless of her own level of compliance, even when she willingly put her hands behind her back to be handcuffed.
“They honestly need to go through anger management training,” she said.
Dudley described police training as “completely inadequate and in so many different forms.”
“There has to be some sort of training or process to humanize Black people in their lives. … It’s as simple as that. They’re afraid of Black people and I don’t know what kind of training (fixes that),” she said.
When Training Is Not Enough
It’s hard to study the efficacy of these types of training programs because of all the variables that can’t be controlled in an active police department. However, the research that has been done on de-escalation and implicit bias training is mixed, at best.
A study of the New York Police Department’s implicit bias training showed officers expressed new attitudes after the training, but there was little change in their actions while on patrol. A January study published by the American Society of Criminology found “slight to moderate” improvements in officers and departments after de-escalation training.
Police officers involved in some of the high-profile fatal police encounters of this summer, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, had completed similar training programs before those incidents occurred.
Nettles said he has seen “strong evidence that implicit bias techniques or measures are not necessarily negative; however, they don’t translate into explicit changes in police behavior.”
This has led many groups to advocate for new training as a part of larger, comprehensive reforms, rather than a stand-alone solution.
Body-worn cameras are one additional accountability measure that police forces have increasingly adopted. Some research has shown a connection between implementing body cameras and a reduction in use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints, but there is not consensus on that point.
Vaughn said he is in favor of body cameras being more widely used, saying that when “you put a body cam on them, it becomes a lot easier to kind of curtail that officer’s behavior.”
Nettles said the ACLU also supports body cameras, and the footage can increase public awareness of police violence incidents, though he added that strict guidelines are needed to make sure the footage doesn’t endanger the safety or privacy of bystanders or victims who are recorded.
“The ACLU definitely supports accountability measures for police and understands that body cameras are a mechanism that supports that, but there are important limitations for people to understand,” he said.
Birmingham advocacy groups voiced similar concerns when the Birmingham City Council’s public safety committee discussed a new software that would rely in part on body camera footage.
Both Vaughn and Nettles said body cameras are limited and cannot capture the full context of a situation. Nettles added that, even when police violence is caught on camera, the footage doesn’t always change the outcome.
“We haven’t seen what some might consider justice in those issues,” he said.
For the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, de-escalation is only one of the eight reform policies it promotes as a way to reduce police violence, including bans on chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, a requirement for officers to intervene when they see use of excessive force, and clear use-of-force policies.
The Birmingham Police Department’s accountability report in June included the department’s responses to those policies: three are enacted — a ban on chokeholds, a policy that states the duty to intervene and a use-of-force continuum — while the other policies are recommended under certain circumstances but not required in all scenarios.
Nettles said the ACLU used to be much more in favor of de-escalation training, but the organization has rethought that position and no longer believes training is enough to drive change in police behavior.
“These are not going to be a strategy for fundamental reform, and our goal at the ACLU is to ensure that we do not live in a reality that police are threatening our communities, particularly Black and brown communities, and that people do not feel a sense (of fear)” when interacting with police, Nettles said.
He said the ACLU supports reallocating certain police services and funding, particularly dollars that go to purchasing militarized equipment, to “worthwhile investments”: mental health and social work programs, education and other initiatives to decrease crime and handle emergency situations nonviolently.
“Policing is reactive, policing does not, unfortunately, stop a lot of these instances that people are fearful of when they think of a different role of police in their community,” Nettles said.
Dudley also supported reallocation of resources and said that some entity other than the police should be responding to situations involving the homeless, mentally ill and scenarios that require specialized knowledge.
“They’re not equipped for that,” she said.
Waiting for practice to make perfect when it comes to police violence could mean waiting a long time.
“Those have not been solutions to this ever-growing problem,” Nettles said.
This is the third piece in a package on policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks.
Previously in the The Legacy of Race: Policing