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The State Of Police Training In The U.S.


As of yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating the police departments of Minneapolis and Louisville, looking at whether they have a pattern of engaging in unconstitutional practices. Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum - that's a nonprofit that studies policing - welcomed the announcement. But he says if he were advising the Biden administration, he'd focus on preventing the next fatal use-of-force incident.

CHUCK WEXLER: If you want to change American policing, you have to think big. You have to think, how do we get to these police officers in small, medium and large departments? How do we show them a different way? Because if you don't do that, don't expect different results.

CORNISH: In other words, he wants better police training, de-escalation, prioritizing sanctity of life for everyone, evidence-based methods. But Wexler says this won't be easy because there aren't any national standards of training.

WEXLER: There are 18,000 police departments in the country. You know, when you use that number, people are always astounded. They say, how can you have that many police departments? But that's what you have in America, 18,000, of which about 80% are 50 officers or less. The major departments like Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and so forth - they're actually in the minority. So there are no national standards. Because there are no national standards, there's no way for police officers to get trained outside of their departments. Sometimes, they go to these private companies. And there's a variation in what you can get from them. Many of them have taught things like survival training and officer safety and all of those kinds of things, which don't necessarily meet today's kind of standards.

CORNISH: What does that mean for evaluating police training - right? - even figuring out if the training that's out there achieves the goals, achieves the objectives, even intent that makes sense for today's policing?

WEXLER: You know, that's the challenge. When you look across the country and you look at large departments and rural departments and suburban departments, you do have states that attempt to have some way of regulating training, but there's no way to evaluate training overall. And if you said to folks, well, you know, your training is out of date, they'd probably question and say, what do you mean our training is out of date? We've been doing it this way for 20 years. And that's the problem. They've been doing it that way for 20 years. It's only been in this last five years when people have seen videotapes of officer-involved shootings, where people have said, really? Is that the best we can do? The obstacle is, sometimes, you have difficulty getting consensus.

CORNISH: Consensus on what?

WEXLER: On consensus what those standards should be. We face that ourselves. In 2016, we came out with national guidelines on use of force. We put together what we thought made sense. We looked at best practices. We brought hundreds of officers together. We looked all over the world. And we were criticized by the largest police union, the largest police chiefs organization. They said, you're going to get cops hurt. So this is both standards, and it's also culture, and it's also about fear, you know, fear of doing something that might get cops hurt.

CORNISH: There are a great many advocates who say at this point, you can't train away the problems that lead to misconduct. Training is not actually the way to solve or to reform police. What's your response to that?

WEXLER: Well, I think we have to distinguish between training, you know, people how to handle these situations differently, the ones where you have people in crisis, and you have use-of-force situations. Misconduct is what happened in the George Floyd situation. That is simply wrong, criminally wrong. I think if you can teach the officers the right thing to do, that's what our future is. But as far as the George Floyd kind of situation, that's where you need good investigation. That's where you need transparency. That's where you need accountability.

CORNISH: That's Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

Thank you for your time.

WEXLER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.