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Looking At How Police Are Trained


There's been a lot of speculation this week about whether officers involved in deadly altercations could have done anything better or differently and what kind of training they get. So we reached out to Seth Stoughton. He teaches law and studies police issues at the University of South Carolina, and he was a police officer himself for five years in Tallahassee, Fla. And I began by asking him whether there are any national standards for police training.

SETH STOUGHTON: The short answer is no. There is no federal standard. Different states set different minimum requirements for officers. And then at the agency level, different agencies can adopt minimum training requirements as well.

MARTIN: As a police officer, what do you think you are mainly trained to do?

STOUGHTON: We know that the single largest block of training relates to use of force - an average of just over 120 hours. You can compare that to an average of eight hours of de-escalation and conflict avoidance training in police academies.

Officer safety or officer survival training often starts on the first day of the police academy where police cadets see very gripping and horrifying videos of other officers being severely beaten or killed. The lessons that start that early on in the police academy really revolve around one basic principle - policing is dangerous, and if you get complacent, you will die.

MARTIN: Has the emphasis in training, in your view, changed in recent years?

STOUGHTON: Yes. In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, officers began to receive training on how to intervene when they saw another officer using excessive force or coming close to that line. Similarly, we saw a change after Columbine, a very deep change in tactics and equipment relating to active shooter situations. And we saw another change in the aftermath of 9/11 where officers went from being street-level officers in their community to really being on the front lines in the war on terror.

MARTIN: You know, in recent years, when this has become truly a national conversation - it's been elevated, you know, to the point where the White House is involved and many people across the country are talking about it even if they don't feel that they're directly affected by it. Is that affecting police departments in the way they think about interacting with the public?

STOUGHTON: I think it's affecting the way that some of them train their officers. We have some good examples of police departments from around the country who have been very responsive to community concerns and change their training to ensure that officers are doing what the public expects them to do and that includes avoiding force when it's possible to do so.

But we've also seen examples of agencies that have gone the other way, that write off community concerns as uninformed or politically motivated, rather than valid criticisms of a public service institution and profession. I think some number of agencies are making superficial changes without trying to make the deeper changes to training and culture that are going to prove essential.

MARTIN: So now we've had this terrible situation in Dallas. Do you anticipate consequences in training as a result of that, as opposed to as a result of the deaths of these civilians?

STOUGHTON: Yes, I do. And unfortunately, what I think will happen is the training that will come out of this will focus on responding to sudden ambushes rather than building the type of long-term positive community relationships that avoid violence against officers in the first place.

MARTIN: Seth Stoughton is a former police officer. He now teaches criminal law and procedure at the University of South Carolina. The subject of his scholarship is police regulation and police training. And he was kind of to join us from South Carolina Public Radio in Columbia, S.C. Professor Stoughton, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STOUGHTON: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.