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Police Officers Do What They’re Trained to Do. Their Training Needs to Change.


Academy Sponsors Spring2017The topic of police brutality became a national issue after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. In the years following police brutality has been a pressing issue in our nation. Other high profile victims of police violence include Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Jordan Edwards and many others. We should address this issue by changing the way we train our police officers. This includes both teaching them how to de-escalate a situation and how to overcome bias against people of color. Pursuing this course of action can save lives.

Madison has experienced its own share of police brutality. Two years ago, Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old black male, was shot by police officer Matt Kenny. Robinson was on hallucinogenic mushrooms and, according to witnesses, acting aggressively. While attempting to arrest him, officer Kenny shot and killed Robinson. The shooting prompted a review of the Madison Police Department’s policy and procedures. In the fall of 2016 a committee of community leaders were in the process of choosing a firm to review this information. The process will take a year to complete. Further unrest came last year when 18-year-old Genele Laird was beaten while taken into police custody. A bystander captured the incident on video and posted it to social media, where it went viral. In response, former Madison police chief David Couper said, “we must demand alternative conflict and de-escalation techniques.” As a community we need to create a new training program and work to end police brutality. Furthermore, we must work to build trust between people of color and the police.  

Discussions have already begun across the nation about incorporating new training programs for police officers. These programs will train veterans and rookies alike how to handle and de-escalate different situations. The police department of Salt Lake City, Utah, has already enacted a program to retrain their officers. The training teaches the officers how to de-escalate a situation by  communicating with suspects, and only resorting to force when absolutely necessary. So far the program has yielded positive results and there has not been a fatal shooting since September of 2015. The program is new but so far it seems to be working. As a society we need to start somewhere; the police department of Salt Lake City has already taken action.  Other police departments around the country should follow their example by enacting this program and ending unnecessary violence and death.   

Across the country other police departments have started to rethink the way they approach training their police officers. Implicit bias training has become another popular solution.

Implicit bias is learned and can be unlearned. The media often portrays black men as criminals. This portrayal enforces bias towards black men and the result has proved deadly for many.  Everyone carries some bias in them. A police officer should learn about and acknowledge their bias and make an effort to overcome it.

The police department of Charlotte, North Carolina, has incorporated implicit bias training for their police officers. Implicit bias training is a new concept and it is not perfect. Already the Charlotte police department has been criticized after a fatal shooting involving Keith Lamont Scott. In regards to implicit training Bryan T. Marks, a psychology professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta Georgia notes “ for a long-term impact there needs to be an ongoing engagement.” This type of training is a work in progress but similar to the de-escalation strategy, it is a step in the right direction.      

Elsewhere, in cities like  Philadelphia and Columbus, police departments are utilizing new training strategies to reduce police brutality. In Philadelphia officers utilize reality-based training to learn how to de-escalate high tension situations. Columbus is doing something similar and has created new lethal force training to combat police brutality. This training also emphasizes not using force unless necessary. According to a PBS Newshour interview fatal shooting has fallen in Philadelphia after the past couple of years. This is a strategy that can work and these police departments are taking action. Other police departments need to enact these new training methods. By enacting and fine tuning these programs we can work to end police brutality.

Of course, some critics object to this strategy of addressing police brutality. In an article in the Washington Post, Chief Terry Cunningham, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police states “an officer can only de-escalate a situation if the person they’re dealing with is willing to de-escalate.” Cunningham also notes that “we don’t know if the number of police shootings is excessive.” We should acknowledge that there are certain situations where a police officer does need to use force, however this does not give them the right to shoot first without properly assessing the situation. Many black men have fallen victim to this, and it is excessive. Philando Castile was shot while he was reaching for his wallet, after informing the police officer about what he was doing. Jordan Edwards was driving away from a party when  a police officer opened fire at the vehicle he was in. Both of these situations could have been prevented. If the officers were trained  how to de-escalate a situation, both Philando Castile and Jordan Edwards might still be alive. There will be some situations where someone will be unwilling to de-escalate, every solution is not 100% guaranteed to work, however, taking action and finding solutions to prevent further police brutality is essential and re-training is the first step.

I firmly believe that retraining our police officers can save lives, especially the lives of people of color. I think this can be accomplished by training our officers about implicit bias and how to de-escalate tense situations. Police departments around the nation are already taking initiative to reinvent their training programs in an effort to decrease the use of lethal force and the fatal consequences that result. The Salt lake City Police Department in particular has seen positive results after retraining their police officers. As a society we need to be better. The deaths of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Jordan Edwards, and countless others could have been prevented. It is time for police departments across the nation to adapt new training methods and actively make an effort to prevent police brutality. It is time for Madison to commit to re-training our police officers and taking on the responsibility to police brutality.

This piece was produced by a student journalist in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more, and support our educational programs, visit madison365.org/academy.