The typical police recruit spends 58 hours learning how to use his gun—and just 8 hours learning his department’s use of force policy, according to a new report from a major police research and policy group.
As a result of that lopsided training, many officers feel that slowing down a situation or deploying de-escalation techniques is “antithetical to a traditional police culture,” the report from the Police Executive Research Forum states.
The group’s board of directors includes prominent police chiefs from across the country. Its newest report, titled “Re-Engineering Training on Police Use of Force,” was based on a meeting in Washington last May that convened hundreds of local law-enforcement officials, representatives from federal agencies, attorneys, and scholars. Widely criticized recent cases like the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner loomed large over the meeting.
Of all the group’s findings, the most urgent is that that police place more emphasis on de-escalation of potentially volatile situations during their training regimens. Current training standards place an emphasis on use of force over de-escalation and communication, the group found.
A recent example of when these techniques could have been used was during the arrest of Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who died in a Texas jail cell last month. When video of the routine traffic stop that led to her arrest was publicly released, many called the officer’s conduct into question. “It was completely unnecessary” for the officer to ask Bland to exit the vehicle, and it “resulted in escalation” of the situation, rather than a de-escalation, Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney and co-author of “Say Her Name,” a recent report on black women’s experiences with state violence, told Fusion last month.
The Texas Department of Public Safety later said the officer “violated the department’s procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy” during the arrest.
“The conventional wisdom has been that officers frequently have to make split-second decisions that have life-or-death consequences,” the report reads. “While this is certainly the case in situations like active shooter incidents—when time is a critical factor—there are many other everyday situations where, after an initial assessment, it becomes clear that the more effective approach is to slow the situation down, maintain some distance between yourself and the subject to reduce the chance of a physical confrontation, and begin communicating with the person to seek a resolution.”
BREAKING THE 21-FOOT RULE
Another main issue tackled by the conference: specific circumstances where police have killed individuals who were brandishing sharp objects, or who were known to be suffering from mental-health issues.
Videos of several of these incidents from the past year (Fusion has reported on many of them) were shown to officers to kick off the meeting in May. In the report, police chiefs emphasized that what has come to be known as the “21 foot rule” of policing has been corrupted. The unofficial rule, which took hold in law enforcement circles after a magazine article on it was published in 1983, holds that an officer should keep a distance of 21 feet between himself and someone who brandishes a knife.
“Somehow that idea got corrupted, and at conferences I started hearing about a ‘kill zone,'” explained John Timoney, advisor to the Ministry of the Interior of Bahrain, and former police chief of Philadelphia and Miami (who has seen his fair share of controversy in his career, it’s worth noting). “The idea became that if you’re less than 21 feet away, you can shoot. How the hell did it become a kill zone? There’s something wrong with that. It should be a zone of safety, and you move to stay within your zone of safety.”
Others agreed with his assessment.
Many incidents that have ended with police shooting someone in Washington D.C. have begun with “people with mental-health issues armed with a knife, up on a porch, 30 feet away,” said Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier. But rather than taking cover and waiting, she followed, officers have simply moved towards the person, and shot and then said “we were justified in shooting; the person was within 21 feet and had an edged weapon.”
That’s the exact kind of situation that could be avoided with proper training, she concluded.
“The question is not that you can [use deadly force], it’s whether you absolutely had to,” she said. “And the decisions leading up to the moment when you fired a shot ultimately determine whether you had to or not.”