Educating Police and Its Problems

“The first rule of law enforcement is to go home at the end of your shift. The key principle is officer survival… but it ends up endangering civilians rather than protecting them…”

“[Police education programs] taught disproportionately by retired cops, is designed to promote this. But it ends up endangering civilians rather than protecting them.”

A curious approach to recruitment

“It starts with high-school career fairs and police recruitment videos that show the ‘sexy’ side of the law enforcement — officers dressed in hard body armor crashing through doors at dawn, fast-roping from helicopters, taming riots, and shooting their way out of trouble. This is especially curious given most officers go their entire careers without firing their weapons. But the image attracts a particular type of candidate. PPOE (Professional Police Officer Education) schools then further entrench this by teaching officers to be afraid; telling them that policing is an incredibly dangerous profession.

“The fact is policing is not especially dangerous, compared to say, work in logging or construction, or driving a taxi, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the 2000s, crime has declined and with it the risk of line of duty deaths. Indeed, police officers are many times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by a criminal. But instructors teach what they know (or were themselves taught), perpetuating the 1990s ‘warrior’ culture of policing that paints police officers as soldiers at ‘war’ with crime, drugs, and criminal gangs. This, in turn, contributes to implicit biases that associate danger with young black men and reinforce the myth of the ‘righteous kill,’ thus shootings that were most likely avoidable.

“Officers are conditioned to view every encounter as a potential deadly force incident. Admittedly, it’s a reasonable expectation in a conceal carry state like Minnesota. Not every Minnesotan is armed, but potentially they are. Likewise, not every Minnesotan is dangerous, but because they’re potentially armed, or, in the tragic case of Philando Castile, definitely armed, it’s better to be safe than sorry. In this context, treating everyone with fairness and respect (what criminologists call ‘procedural justice’) comes second to putting hands in pockets or pulling the trigger. PPOE students complete about 50 hours of firearms training on average but only five hours of de-escalation conflict resolution training, most of which is classroom-based and focuses on the ‘letter of the law,’ not the nuances of mental illness and other concerns…

“It’s time to rethink our system of police education and training. You would think that after 40 years, if our one-of-a-kind system was so good, other states might have adopted it. But no, Minnesota is alone in this experiment. The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Minnesota law enforcement and the continued deaths of black men in police custody suggest the experiment has failed.”

 James Densley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and author of “Minnesota’s Criminal Justice System” (Carolina Academic Press, 2016). He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Oxford.



  1. Great piece. One of the key pillars to better police is indeed getting the right people. You can’t achieve changes in thinking and culture without that. Agree that training is another key piece. The training manuals and academies need input from people other than police, another key part of cultural change. Along with that is independent oversight outside of the police force, which will reinforce a change in culture. Self policing has failed everywhere it has been used. Transparency (body cams and access to footage) and accountability (clear and accessible channels for recourse) are critical. To take it back around, the other key to getting good people is good pay. We need many fewer, better trained, and better paid officers and dispatchers. You’re told to call 911 for virtually everything these days–police need to understand that they are not just LE and be prepared for the variety of incidents they will face, as well as how to interface with other resources to get people help, not imprisonment.


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