Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Scaredy Cops: Fear-based training of police officers makes them more likely to shoot

Amber Guyger and Aaron Dean, the cops who shot and killed Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, respectively, had something in common: Both shot an innocent person for no good reason because they were scared.

Maybe that's because they were trained to be.

Guyger testified that she killed Botham Jean because she feared for her life. And clearly Dean, who had snuck into Jefferson's backyard instead of announcing himself at the open front door, considered himself in grave danger just from seeing a woman's silhouette in the window. But neither faced an actual threat. The greater threat in both cases stemmed from their own fear.

Cop culture brims with fearful rhetoric about the dangers they face, even though most cops never fire their service weapon over the course of their careers. A former Baltimore cop writing in Medium last year worried that "police are trained to fear." "Cops are supposed to be heroes and first responders and run toward danger," he wrote, "but it sure seemed like our training was teaching us to be afraid of everyone."

The most important thing for a police officer is to be sure they "go home at the end of the day," they tell themselves repeatedly, including in police trainings on use of force. "It's better to be judged by twelve than carried by six," is a common refrain every police officer has heard repeatedly throughout their careers. Officers and their union representatives have said it to me dozens of times over the years.

In reality, though, the people who pick up your garbage are significantly more likely to die on the job than police officers. That doesn't mean police don't have difficult jobs, that they aren't subject to lesser assaults, or that they are never justified in using force. But in terms of going home to their families at night, construction workers, truck drivers, farmers, and fishermen all have more dangerous occupations.

Much of this exaggerated fear stems from how officers are trained. Amber Guyger had received deescalation training as mandated under Texas' "Sandra Bland Act," but she said she never considered following it over the course of her encounter with Botham Jean. And Dean had just completed 40 hours of CIT training aimed at dealing with people with mental illness; in essence, CIT courses are a version of deescalation training.

However, deescalation tactics are not typically included in the general use-of-force curriculum officers take at the academy. They're treated as an extra, an add-on, not as a fundamental philosophy that should infuse every encounter where force is used. In addition, there is a sizable cottage industry of fear mongering cop trainers teaching officers to adopt a "warrior" mentality.

In Minneapolis, anti-police-brutality advocates have pushed back against such "fear-based training" and the Mayor earlier this year pledged to get rid of it, declaring, “Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing. When you’re conditioned to believe that every person encountered poses a threat to your existence, you simply cannot be expected to build meaningful relationships with those same people.”

Police officers who shoot people have other things in common. They are more likely to be white, much more likely to be male (even controlling for job assignments), and more likely to have NRA-friendly views on gun rights, found a Pew Research Center survey in 2017.

But those effects are relatively small compared to the impact of repeated trainings which teach police to value their own safety above all else. That notion has become deeply embedded in police officer culture and underlies many of the incidents that most inflame the public.

None of this is intended to diminish real-life tragedies like that which befell Harris County Sheriff's Deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal - who recently was shot to death by a mentally ill parolee at a traffic stop - only to put the relative risks in context. Such incidents are far more rare than most people believe. (Pew found that three in ten Americans estimate police fire their weapons several times per year, whereas in fact most never fire them.)

There are more than three-quarters of a million police officers in the United States, but the number who are feloniously killed in the line of duty typically never exceeds double digits (with the terrorist attacks of 9-11 being an important, notable exception). This chart, compiled from FBI data, depicts the number of officers who die each year including both accidents and felonious deaths

By contrast, police shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people per year across America.

Grits believes it will take a generation to change police culture surrounding use of force and end the "warrior cop" mentality that's become de jure in modern law enforcement. But it will take longer than that if officer trainings continue the scaredy-cop approach.

Deescalation can't just be tacked on in addition to use-of-force training - it must BECOME the use-of-force training. And it needs to happen soon.


Les Smith said...

Well written and accurate. Thank you Scott.
Les Smith, Texas Peace Officer (Ret)

Steven Michael Seys said...

All of police training needs to be reevaluated. Police are taught that every interaction with a civilian is potentially deadly to themselves. They're taught to investigate by instinct, "go with your gut." They're taught that all civilians are criminals. And worse, they're taught that other officers who commit felonies are worthy of defending no matter what they did to offend the law. All of this is basically wrong.

Anonymous said...

Scott...I agree with you, but lol, you are going to be in for one hell of a tongue lashing from bark over this. How dare you criticize the almighty boys in blue! Lol

Anonymous said...

I agree with this article. I think police officers should require at a minimum, an associates degree, however bachelors degree would be better.

paprgl said...

This was a thought that struck me during last session's mental health debate. Training for additional duties is often shoved into the law, rather than baked into the greater landscape. Not sure what the solution is. In the education world, it usually leads to a teacher saying, "Another thing I have to learn, do, add? Don't I have enough to do?"

Anonymous said...

In something other than "criminal justice," the only BS degree less empirical than Psychology.

Oil Lease said...

When you're dressed up for war, you gotta have an enemy. I am involved in dangerous work, one of the top ten, truck driving. We really don't know if we'll make it home again. Sometimes it's because of cops that are so involved in running down a speeder they'll pull out right in front of you. Of course if I ever kill one, I'll be the one at fault.

Anonymous said...

With cops murdering so many people, and the authorities complicit in covering up the facts, I'm now in fear of the police....


Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

While I agree, in part, with most posters, I would offer an addendum: I would suggest that because Texas peace officers are classified and and are public officers, as such, similar to the our military armed forces and other state and federal public officers, they are not entitled to civil service or union protection.

Texas Legislators, in 1947, exceeded their authority with its enacting provisions of 1269m that gave local governments, with voter approval, authority to approve civil service protection to Texas peace officers and firemen within their agencies.

Texas state constitution further limits peace officers terms in office to two years, requiring reappointment at the completion of their appointment. I would further suggest that those in office should be limited to eight years (four two year terms) to those that has not obtained the rank of sergeant and must be prohibited from reappointment in any similar position in Texas for a two year period.

Gadfly said...

Within the public safety world, even, firefighters are more likely to die than cops.

Oh, a reminder of former chief Joel Fitzgerald's lawsuit against Cowtown. https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/when-did-fort-worth-get-religion-on-cops-just-now-11781150

Anonymous said...

You can also help yourself:

In the 1970's, the Houston Boys in Blue tossed a young hispanic male into Buffalo Bayou; he promptly drowned. A couple of weeks later members of an HPD community basketball team revealed their Buffalo Bayou Swim team T-shirts under their jerseys. Needless to say, not a high point in HPD PR history.

Since then, I realized how little value my life as a hispanic male means to law enforcement. So I react proactively in the event I get stopped by ANY law enforcement officer.

In the first place, I try hard not to get stopped, but if I do get pulled over:

If at night, I turn on all my inside lights and lower all my windows [year round, they come down], with my hands on the steering wheels.

If in daylight, I lower my windows and have my hands on the wheels

I have my TDL and Ins Cards on the seat next to me.

If I am a passenger in a stopped vehicle , i make sure my hands are visible

I am now retired, but even so, even a young cop is SIR.

I have not been ticketed in over 20 years although I have received 2-3 warnings.

Best of all, I haven't been shot.

Back on topic, a neighbor reported hearing shots in a house across the street 2 weeks back and I have called San Antonio PD to respond to mental health issues for my 20+ son with developmental disabilities. They must have read a different training manual, because the responding officers have never come out with drawn weapons ready to shoot first. Kudos to SAPD. Before going onto the property, they had the neighbors call the homeowners, then they knocked at the front door.

At least in our neighborhood, i feel safe calling SAPD

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@12:02, how would any of what you described have helped Atatiana Jefferson?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Very similar dynamic, I agree.

Anonymous said...

@ Grits 1233

This poor woman did not stand a chance going up against a police officer apparently ill trained and determined to shoot first and ask questions later.

I would hunker in a defensive place with my firearm and wait for any intruder to come to me than blast away. In the meantime, I would call 911 saying there were unknown persons outside my home, or entering my home.

Hopefully, in the interim, the FWPD officer would have announced he was a Police Officer or the dispatcher could/would figure she was reacting to cops. Then perhaps, this could have had a different outcome.

When I visited Colombia years ago, home robberies were an epidemic, but no ever got hurt because everyone knew the drill. Go to an inside room and don't come out until the robbers were gone. And don't come out with your pistola against someone better armed that is likely to shoot first. You can always replace stuff.

Lastly, while I believe in the 2nd Amendment, I prefer not to exercise my right to own a gun. The stats say one stands a much greater chance of being hurt by an intruder if one has access to a weapon. Sadly, in this case, this did occur.

A firearm in hand, gives one a false sense of security and power, but does not make you invincible.

RIP Atatliana Jefferson

jimbo26 said...

When I joined Her Majestys Royal Air Force (50 years ago) , we were taught how to salute . We were also told " If you are not sure , salute anyway " .
In these cases it`s shoot to kill anyway .

Anonymous said...

Steven, I can't speak for all departments, just the largest in the state of Texas, but:
1) I agree that all training needs to be reevaluated.
2) I agree that we are taught every encounter is potentially dangerous.
3) We are not taught to investigate by instinct but we are taught that we shouldn't ignore our instincts that are based on our experiences.
4) We are not taught that all civilians are criminals, just the opposite in fact as we are drilled that most people are NOT criminals even if statistics show certain groups are more likely to engage in crime.
5) We are not taught to look the other way or to give a pass to fellow officers, the opposite being true in that we are constantly reminded that we can be held accountable if we see something and don't speak up.
6) I can't agree with your last sentence because you were not wrong in everything you said, just most of it.

Anon 7:20: There are good reasons to have a college degree in the field but it doesn't make an officer less prone to shoot when distressed. I sort of agree with Pap in that several local criminal justice programs pander too much to actively employed officers, especially higher ranking officers, too many of the instructors seem starstruck to grade honestly.

Oil, still spewing hatred I see. Your profession is dangerous because too many of your peers think the rules don't apply to them, especially rules tied to how many hours they can be on the road at a time or how they drive aggressively.

Gunny, still misapplying the law.

Anon 12:02, while it is reassuring that you have to go back over 40 years to find proof the mean old officers of the community view Latinos as worthless, if more people of all races applied your strategy when stopped, fewer people would be hurt. It is worth noting that every police agency trains differently, has different hiring standards, and reacts differently. The quality of their dispatchers varies a great deal too and that can lead to all sorts of problems since good information is key to a positive outcome.

Scott, there are about a million police officers in the country and each has a lot of contact with people, officially and unofficially, every day. Given the sheer numbers of contacts, the nature of the role they are expected to play, and the imperfections of mankind, zero deaths is a fine goal but not realistic. I think we'd both agree that there are too many in the field that should be otherwise employed and there should be a better process for weeding the undesirables out other than just in the hiring and training process. Still, most times an officer kills someone, the officer's actions are legally justifiable. I'd like to see the bar raised higher than that but acting as though a case such as Atatiana Jefferson is common is nonsense.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@12:06, I'd like to see the "legally justifiable" category narrowed. At least we agree that "there are too many in the field that should be otherwise employed and there should be a better process for weeding the undesirables out other than just in the hiring and training process."

Not sure whether you agree that deescalation should become the norm, not an add on to traditional use of force training.

As for your final comment, there is too long a list of names of innocent victims to dismiss them all as a one-off, and smart police agencies understand that it's counterproductive to do so. Anyway, police officers aren't the ones with the most to fear in this dynamic. Regardless, you misstate the claim in this post. I wasn't saying every shooting is just like Atatiana Jefferson's. I said that training y'all to be scaredy cops thinking every person you encounter might try to kill you gets in the way of your agency having a productive relationship with the communities they serve and results in officers shooting when they shouldn't.

Anonymous said...

Grits, Anon 12:06 here. I completely agree that deescalation training needs to be a major component for all levels of police and in every department. HPD greatly increased such training a long time ago, in addition to their crisis training that every cadet spent a week learning and the multiple days existing officers were required to take. I'd throw in that we should loudly sing the praises of those who stop a tragedy via the process rather than focus on the times officers "saved the day" using violence of one sort or another too.

My goal in the last comment was not to belittle such tragedies so much as place them in context. The context is that such cases are incredibly rare given the sheer number of police contacts there are each year but yes, using whatever means we can to reduce them further makes sense for all concerned. But the idea that police resort to force, especially deadly force, as often as most of the above seem to champion, is just not accurate, nor is the belief that awareness training is so corrupting that most officers then use such force as a regular occurrence. I strongly suspect that better vetting of potential cadets would reduce the tragedies more than after the fact training, then mid career evaluations at appropriate levels of service might help put those whose judgement becomes weaker over time into department positions more suited to their skills. If most officers took what you call "scaredy" training to heart, there would be far, far more tragedies than there are now but yes, reducing shootings is a good goal. The more officers interact with people of the community when not in a critical situation, the less likely they are to consider deadly force. So in all, I think we are largely in agreement even if we're coming at it from different perspectives.