Monday, December 14, 2020

Beyond the Bait and Switch: What we really need from police training reform

Grits has often been critical when reform demands aimed at police are rebuffed by calls for additional training. In the political arena, new training is often proposed (usually by the police unions) as a substitute for policy changes that would actually transform IRL practices. So, for example, advocates called for eliminating arrests for Class C misdemeanors following Sandra Bland's death, and instead got implicit-bias trainings that don't work. I get frustrated, admittedly, with the bait and switch.

But that doesn't mean training is unimportant. Any honest assessment of American policing would conclude that its problems begin with what cops are taught in the academy about what the job is, what they should expect, and how they should behave. Police are trained poorly, often by amateurs, and for too short a time. 

We've discussed how, in Texas, the Commission on Law Enforcement has insufficient staff or expertise to exercise meaningful oversight over police training and curriculum. And even if training were excellent, there's too little of it. Cosmetologists must undergo more basic training in Texas than police officers. By contrast, in Germany police officers train 2.5 years before being deployed in the field.

Austin's police academy had become so dysfunctional that, a year ago this month, the City Council ordered Chief Brian Manley to conduct an audit of its curriculum, setting a deadline of June. They were reacting in part to complaints by a group of cadets who sued the department alleging abusive behavior and incompetence by trainers. The chief and city manager were told at the time that the audit must be finished and improvements to the training program completed before new cadet classes could resume. If they had done that work when they were instructed, only one cadet class would have been delayed.

But in June, City Manager Spencer Cronk returned to the City Council to say they had never begun the audit because of COVID but would like to hold more cadet classes anyway. By that time, though, George Floyd and Mike Ramos were dead and the nation and city had erupted in protest. Council stuck to their guns and unanimously replied, "No audit, no cadet class." Then in the FY 2021 budget which began in October, they called the City Manager's bluff, omitting new cadet classes pending the outcome of the audit process. The Council pledged to revisit the budget in six months, halfway through the fiscal year, at which time changes could be considered. As of this writing, however, the audit still hasn't been completed, much less have needed alterations to the curriculum been identified nor alternative approaches been considered. Instead, the police department and its allies are again pushing to restart the academy before that work has been done.

It's in this context that Grits this morning read a feature in Time magazine regarding police academy training. Texas wasn't mentioned, but the the complications caused by low-quality training and a lack of state oversight struck this writer as a highly relevant, cautionary tale. Every criticism made of training in these other states arises in Texas in spades, in part because we have a disproportionate number of agencies. Texas has about 1/11th of the US population but nearly 1/6th of the nation's law-enforcement agencies. If training at the larger agencies can be problematic, training for smaller agencies amounts to an unregulated hodge podge.

I was also glad the Time article pointed me to this Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of police recruiting and training, which I'd not seen before. The average length of US police academies is 21 weeks, according to BJS; in Texas, minimum training takes about 18 weeks (696 hours). The Houston Chronicle recently had an excellent report that highlighted some of these shortcomings:

The Sunset report found that Texas requires more time in basic training for cosmetologists (1,000 hours) than for cops (696 hours). Air conditioning and refrigeration contractors, meanwhile, have to put in 2,000 hours of training to get licensed. The Houston Police Department requires at least 48 semester hours of college credit for prospective officers but a high school diploma or GED is enough in other parts of the state.

The type of training officers receive is also out of whack with real world demands. Requiring 48 hours for firearms training and 40 hours for instruction in arrest, search and seizure is appropriate, but the regimen also includes four hours of work on interacting with canines while requiring only two hours on interacting with civilians.

The standard Basic Peace Officer Course includes only four hours for education on “Family Violence, Child Victims, and Related Assaultive Offenses” and no special training for dealing with rape victims.

In Austin, officers get slightly more training than cosmetologists, but less than air-conditioner repair people, before being handed a badge and gun and sent out into the streets.

The Time article emphasized the extent to which basic training has been outsourced to educational institutions, which almost certainly applies to entry-level training for most smaller Texas agencies. BJS reported that:

From 2011 to 2013, nearly half (47%) of the academies that provided basic training for new recruits were based at an educational institution such as a 2-year college (33%), 4-year college or university (7%), or technical school (7%) (table 1). Municipal police departments operated 20% of academies, sheriffs’ offices operated 10%, and state police or highway patrol agencies operated 6%. State Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies, which typically certify peace officers, operated 5% of academies.

That was a trend I hadn't considered, though I knew places like Sam Houston State are making bank off of police training. But I hadn't understood that half of all training happened at academic institutions, nor considered the implications arising from differences between that training and instruction by department-run academies. 

In Austin, cops are drafted from other duties to teach in the academy for short stints and given little if any pedagogical training or instructional support. Cadets complained that instructors over-used Power Point and appeared to have little understanding of basic pedagogical theory or adult education. One would at least anticipate that instructors at academic institutions might have greater access to teacher trainings and peer support on pedagogical questions. But that may be a false assumption; I have no idea what those academic curricula look like.

Another complaint about Austin's academy was instructors' over-aggressive methods. Turns out, subjecting cadets to a "stress-based" learning experience is a common approach. According to BJS:

Nearly 1 in 4 academies (23%) reported their training environment was all or mostly stress oriented (table 2). State police or highway patrol academies (61%) were the most likely to use this type of training model. For all other types of academies, no more than 32% used a predominantly stress-oriented training model.

These debates are going to surface repeatedly in the coming months, both locally regarding whether and when to resume Austin's academy and at the Legislature as TCOLE undergoes Sunset review. In both instances, more resources are needed to bring either officer training or state regulation up to snuff. 

Though some defund-the-police advocates may be offended, this is one area where Grits and many other reformers don't mind spending more money on law enforcement, particularly if officers are trained for longer and curriculum contents improve. Until the day we abolish police, we have to train them better. Cadets need to be taught under a more regulated, pedagogically sound curriculum, and God forbid, maybe for even as long as the refrigeration-repair guy. That's certainly true in Austin and, if the blue-ribbon panel suggested by the Sunset Commission is ever created, it's a safe bet they'll agree.

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