Is Training the Problem?

imagesThe following article recently appeared in The Atlantic. It is a piece that every police leader needs to read. It is about how training could be the culprit that has led to where police find themselves today — being criticized for the taking of lives.

What the writer, a former police officer and now police researcher, suggests is that the curriculum and culture that drives police weapons training and shoot/don’t shoot situations may be creating a rise in police shootings.

This is something I have mentioned before; that police must re-evaluate their use of deadly force in situations involving standoffs with suspects who are carrying edged weapons and do not comply with police orders. 


How Police Training Contributes to Avoidable Deaths: 

To save lives, cops must be taught to think beyond the gun belt.

By Seth Stoughton, Dec. 12, 2014, in The Atlantic.

“There have been too many lives lost to police killings. Too many phone calls telling families that their loved ones, particularly young black men, won’t be coming home. But in most cases, it isn’t because individual police officers are consciously racist or think black lives don’t matter. It is because officers perform the way they are trained to perform.

“Having served as an officer at a large municipal police department, and now as a scholar who researches policing, I am intimately familiar with police training. I’m not just relying on my own experience, though. I’ve had long conversations with officers and former officers, including firearms trainers and use-of-force instructors, at law enforcement agencies across the country, and they’ve all led to one conclusion: American police officers are among the best-trained in the world, but what they’re trained to do is part of the problem.

“Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance. Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the ‘first rule of law enforcement’: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. But cops live in a hostile world. They learn that every encounter, every individual is a potential threat. They always have to be on their guard because, as cops often say, ‘complacency kills.’

“Officers aren’t just told about the risks they face. They are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance. And as they listen to the fallen officer’s last, desperate radio calls for help, every cop in the room is thinking exactly the same thing: ‘I won’t ever let that happen to me.’ That’s the point of the training.

“More pointed lessons come in the form of hands-on exercises. One common scenario teaches officers that a suspect leaning into a car can pull out a gun and shoot at officers before they can react. Another teaches that even when an officer are pointing a gun at a suspect whose back is turned, the suspect can spin around and fire first. Yet another teaches that a knife-carrying suspect standing 20 feet away can run up to an officer and start stabbing before the officer can get their gun out of the holster. There are countless variations, but the lessons are the same: Hesitation can be fatal. So officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute because the last minute may be too late.

“But what about the consequences of a mistake? After all, that dark object in the suspect’s hands could be a wallet, not a gun. The occasional training scenario may even make that point. But officers are taught that the risks of mistake are less—far less—than the risks of hesitation. A common phrase among cops pretty much sums it up: ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.’

“In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it. Not only do officers hear it in formal training, they also hear it informally from supervisors and older officers. They talk about it with their peers. They see it on police forums and law enforcement publications…

“Officers’ actions are grounded in their expectations, and they are taught to expect the worst. The officers who shot John Crawford may have honestly believed that he was raising his rifle to a shooting position even though security camera footage shows him on the phone, casually swinging the BB gun back and forth. The same may be true of the Phoenix officer who shot an unarmed man because he thought, mistakenly, that the suspect had a gun in his waistband. The officers saw what they were afraid of. They saw what they were trained to see. And they did what they had been taught to do. That’s the problem.

Police training needs to go beyond emphasizing the severity of the risks that officers face by taking into account the likelihood of those risks materializing. Policing has risks—serious ones—that we cannot casually dismiss. Over the last ten years, an annual average of 51 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty according to data collected by the FBI. In the same time period, an average of 57,000 officers were assaulted every year (though only about 25 percent of those assaults result in any physical injuries). But for all of its risks, policing is safer now than it has ever been… Officers should be trained to keep that perspective in mind as they go about their jobs.

“Training also needs to compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to perceive a greater threat from black men than from others. Officers are not unique in that regard; implicit racial animus is depressingly common in society. But it is of special concern in the context of policing. Because officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat, unconscious bias can lead officers to react more aggressively when confronting black men than they would when confronting others in otherwise identical situations…

“Use-of-force training should also emphasize de-escalation and flexible tactics in a way that minimizes the need to rely on force, particularly lethal force… Instead of rushing in to confront someone, officers need to be taught that it is often preferable to take an oblique approach that protects them as they gather information or make contact from a safe distance. Relatedly, as I’ve written elsewhere, a temporary retreat—what officers call a ‘tactical withdrawal’—can, in the right circumstances, maintain safety while offering alternatives to deadly force.

“Officers must also be trained to think beyond the gun-belt. The pepper spray, baton, Taser, and gun that are so easily accessible to officers are meant to be tools of last resort, to be used when non-violent tactics fail or aren’t an option. By changing officer training, agencies could start to shift the culture of policing away from the ‘frontal assault’ mindset and toward an approach that emphasizes preserving the lives that officers are charged with protecting…

“Police reform requires more than changes to training, of course. The policing mission needs to be focused on keeping communities safe and free from fear—including from fear of officers themselves. There are deep racial tensions in law enforcement that will only be healed through a long-term, sustained commitment to cooperative policing and community engagement. We need to rethink the many legal, structural, and social impediments to investigating officer-involved violence and the institutional reluctance to accept independent oversight, particularly civilian review. The path to real and lasting change is daunting, and it will involve many years and many steps. One of those steps must be changing the way police officers are trained.”

CLICK HERE to read the entire article.

What do YOU think?



  1. Hi Chief,
    Couple of thoughts on this…
    I’ve mentioned previously that we (the police) accept the responsibility for more than we should (allowing widows and orphans to sleep in police stations in some places at the turn of the century). At the agency I work for, we teach our officers to “solve the problem” and I’ve argued that we should be saying (barring a true emergency) “is this OUR problem to solve”… Secondarily to this, we spend too much time doing “other than police functions”. This, I believe leads to our “training” actually being an “exposure” to a skill set (empty hand control/firearms/driving) with little to no time to practice/update skills, which can drive an officer to the “nuclear option” (firearms) too early. Also be nice to put some accountability on Hollywood for their depictions of the police (you don’t see “hit” movies with officers counseling wayward teens…). Last, has anyone ever noticed that the most budget money is spent on things other than assisting citizens/police training (I’ll say it: helicopters, dive teams, SWAT)?
    Happy Holidays!


    1. Absolutely, John, that’s been a bugaboo of mine for a hundred years (well, at least 50) that we are not training our officers enough in “empty hand” techniques nor in negotiation skills… I think we may see a major shift into less-than-deadly measures in the near future.


  2. “Also be nice to put some accountability on Hollywood for their depictions of the police (you don’t see “hit” movies with officers counseling wayward teens…)”

    What about the TV shows Dragnet and the FBI? By and large, there were plenty of shootings in those shows to drive home the point of how police work is dangerous. When was the last time, you saw “hit:” movies with the police working with striking workers, civil right protesters, and left wing, progressive, socialist groups? BTW, those police shows were closely supervise by Chief Parker and Director Hoover to show those organizations in a good light. There was hardly anything about those two organizations on those TV shows violating people’s rights on a large scale, stealth way that was occurring for decades.

    If Hollywood had TV shows or movies about police corruption like the 2008 movie Changeling, the police would not like it since police corruption and brutality play a large part in the development of this country particularly since the police were used to maintain the slave system, the sharecropper system plus use to destroy the labor movement in this country. It is this part of police culture that the police are always in denial and/or trying to cover it up. What ever happen to the Biblical phrase “the truth will set you free” considering the fact that police officers attend Mass just like the rest of society and police chiefs like LAPD James Edgar Davis who was complaining about moral decay of America but was no saint himself and more was like doing the devil’s work?


  3. Thanks, this is one of the better articles about the contributing problems to police violence, along with your previous post about “Bullying and Hazing in the Police Academy.” In all fairness going “home at the end of their shift” is a perfectly reasonable objective but there have been too many reports about some over-eager police doing extreme things like responding to relatively mild crimes like shoplifting by punching a windshield or conducting a chase that leads to crashes and deaths that indicate that some police aren’t so good at using reasonable discretion.

    As I said before your post about Hazing is among the best which I have cited several times before including once previously where I took the liberty of including an excerpt when responding to Lt. Frank Borelli (ret) who seems to have a much more divisive view than you. After looking into a lot of research about the escalation of violence I have found that hazing and bullying is almost certainly a major part of the root causes for it but it often starts even earlier with child abuse that starts before this.

    Other major problems need to be addressed before it escalates and politicians that routinely ignore the best research are a major reason why police and protestors wind up on opposing sides. If you’re interested in my somewhat extensive response to Mr. Borelli citing your article it is here:

    Thanks again will try to find more time to catch up on your other stuff.


  4. I just remember that it was the TV show Adam-12 that some shootings in its episodes to drive home the point of police work being dangerous not Dragnet; however, like Dragnet, it was closely supervise by Chief Parker to put the LAPD in a good light. I do remember an episode from Dragnet where Sgt. Friday was lecturing the parents regarding their relationship with their son.


  5. I am doing a research on police training in Kenya with a view to review the curriculum. Can I adopt this your article to drive the point home on the effect of improper indoctrination of police recruits in regard to their own safety?. The trainers overdo it to a point of making trainees paranoids.


  6. Brilliant article… touches on so many key points, but particularly that force is a very last resort, and that police need to assess the probabilities of problems in any given situation and respond proportionally and with perspective, not just with worst-case-scenario thinking. “Police training needs to go beyond emphasizing the severity of the risks that officers face by taking into account the likelihood of those risks materializing. ” Perfect.


  7. “The path to real and lasting change is daunting, and it will involve many years and many steps. One of those steps must be changing the way police officers are trained.” Agreed. What are the major efforts most likely to succeed that are in progress, and how does one get involved?


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