It's time for national minimum standards for police training and certification

It's time for national minimum standards for police training and certification
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Galvanized by Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd, the nation appears ready at last to move toward meaningful reforms of policing in America. Key among them is setting a national standard for officer training for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies spanning the country.

Those agencies range from tiny Mayberry-sized outfits to the sprawling NYPD — but all need common standards that ensure officers are exposed to the same critical fundamentals.

Currently, most police training in the United States is too short, misfocused, uses ineffective teaching methods, and is out of alignment with both community priorities and research about what works to minimize bias and use of force, according to a recent analysis by the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing.

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We’re members of that task force, and, as a former mayor and the mother of a young man killed by a police officer, we don’t see eye to eye on everything. But we strongly agree on this: Police training needs a serious overhaul.

Key training reforms are embodied in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by the House in March and awaits action by the Senate. The act would direct the U.S. Department of Justice to create uniform accreditation standards for law enforcement and require officers to complete training on racial profiling, implicit bias, and the duty to intervene when another officer uses excessive force.

Congressional power in this arena is limited by the 10th Amendment, which stipulates that the states make and enforce laws for the protection of the public. The reforms in the George Floyd Act would only apply to federal law enforcement officers, but the federal government has another way to get state and local agencies to comply: money. Agencies that fail to require their peace officers to complete the federal training program could forfeit federal grant funding.

National standards would ensure that all officers, regardless of their agency’s size or location, are exposed to key concepts, skills and tactics. This would create not just consistency, but better outcomes for police and community members. That said, local jurisdictions should retain some discretion to configure training in accordance with their own needs and resources. 

What’s wrong with American police training now? Among other problems laid out in our Task Force findings, the preparation most officers receive is too short compared with other countries. American officers receive an average of only six months of basic training, far less than comparable democracies require (in Germany, for example, it’s up to 30 months). The U.S. average masks wide differences among states, ranging from 404 hours in Georgia to more than 1,000 hours in Hawaii.

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The content of police training is another problem. It places a heavy emphasis on physical and technical skills, such as the use of firearms, while shortchanging instruction on communication and critical thinking skills, de-escalation tactics, principles of procedural justice, and the handling of scenarios that officers most commonly encounter. One survey of police agencies found that academies spend an average of 80 hours on weapons training — and just eight hours on violence de-escalation.

De-escalation training is an essential component of any national training standard. It shows officers how to defuse situations before force becomes necessary and equips them with tools to evaluate and respond to volatile circumstances in real time. One field experiment found that officers who completed de-escalation training were less likely to use force, be the target of public complaints, and become injured compared with those who received no training.

Beyond improving basic training for recruits, we must also require mandatory, periodic recertification of officers. These refresher courses should go well beyond time at the firing range to tackle such core topics as communication skills and de-escalation tactics.

As with training, there are no national certification standards specifying the minimum requirements an individual must meet to become a sworn officer — and these rules vary widely among states. Some mandate background checks, a minimum education level, and a psychological evaluation, but others have far less rigorous requirements.

To remedy this inconsistency, we need a set of minimum standards for state certification programs. Incentivizing states to adopt such requirements would create consistency in officer hiring and help agencies attract officers more likely to comply with department policies, engage respectfully and equitably with residents and prevent the escalation of volatile incidents.

As it stands, the scattershot approach to police training and certification has been driven more by the latest trends than by what we’ve learned from the evidence.

Let’s do better and enact national standards to ensure that all officers, whether policing a community of 4,000 or 4 million, receive the best preparation possible to provide just and effective public safety service — and fulfill their mandate to respect the constitutional rights of those they serve.

Collette Flanagan is the founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality. Michael Nutter is the former mayor of Philadelphia. Both serve on the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing.