Police power: are abuses a personal failure or a systemic one?
© Getty Images

The police have the power to deprive citizens of both liberty (via arrest) and life (via deadly force). We, the people, give them this enormous power, but do we do enough to ensure that such power is properly used? Not only in terms of holding officers accountable after a questionable arrest or shooting, but in providing them adequate training, education, policy guidance, and supervisory oversight before being permitted to patrol the streets in the first place?

On average, a new police officer receives five or six months of pre-service academy training and then a week or so of yearly in-service training. Digest that for a moment. We allow someone with no more than half a year of training to immediately be in the position to potentially deprive us of both our liberty and life. Now, add to this equation the fact that less than one in four (23%) police departments across the country require new recruits to have a 2-year college degree, and only 1% require a 4-year college degree. 


Beyond limited training and education, at least when measured within the context of a “professional” occupation (e.g., medicine, and law, engineering, etc.), also consider that most U.S. agencies frequently assign new recruits right out of the training academy to police the highest crime areas during the most crime prone times. This is akin to asking a newly minted medical doctor to jump right into performing brain surgery out of medical school. 

In short, we take officers with limited training, little to no education, and the least amount of experience, and then place them in the most challenging environment to police. Such a state of affairs boggled my mind 30 years ago as a 19-year old Military Policeman who was given such power; and it boggles my mind today as a police researcher and university professor. Hence, when a police shooting goes bad is it a failure on the part of individual officers purposely abusing their discretionary powers or a systems failure?

After two more high-profile police shootings over the last few days, there will no doubt be renewed calls for “justice” from many in terms of terminating the employment of the involved officers and criminally prosecuting. The problem, though, is that we the people have failed to demand higher standards for an occupation that carries with it the power to arrest and kill citizens. 

As such, while holding individual officers accountable is important, we also need to hold ourselves accountable, and subsequently government officials, by demanding more attention and funding be allocated to the issue of training, education, policy guidance, and supervisory oversight. Despite a federal report issued last year offering many recommendations on improving police practice, a mere 6.5 million dollars has been allocated to support “Research and Evaluation in Support of the Recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”

While other federal initiatives are underway with additional funding streams (e.g., purchasing police Body-Worn Cameras), 6.5 million dollars, when placed within the context of the entire federal budget of roughly 4 trillion dollars, does not signal a substantial investment. The old idiom “putting a band-aid on a bullet wound” certainly comes to mind.

Police officers themselves would also be best served if they came to understand police power not only in relation to the fact that they can use it on the public, but also police power from the perspective that they can use it to influence fellow officers. Although understandable why officers often go on the defensive in support of another officer after a questionable police use of force incident comes to light (e.g., blue wall of silence, danger concerns, etc.), adhering to such a code continues to alienate communities, especially those of color, and taints ones’ own credibility and the police occupation as a whole.

Hence, the most direct route to substantial change perhaps lies in the hands of the police themselves, with those who decide that part of being a good officer is not only about how many arrests he or she makes but in refusing to tolerate the abuse of power by fellow officers.

William Terrill is a Professor in the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Arizona State University who studies  police use of force and police culture.