After a series of terrible incidents of police violence — think Botham Jean in Dallas, Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, and others — police are under a microscope. Why does it seem like some officers are on a hair trigger, ready to use deadly force with little provocation? Increasingly, critics of police point to what we call “the mindset”: people’s belief that police (despite low crime rates) think that American streets are a battlefield, that they are surrounded by potential enemies, and that every civilian encounter is a struggle to be won.
Not every police officer has the mindset; the best don’t. One of us is a former prosecutor, the other a former police officer who has studied policing for more than 20 years. We know that “the mindset” is real and the root cause of many of these tragedies. But it isn’t inevitable. Instead, police recruits are trained in that attitude and even incentivized to maintain such attitude. Can they be untrained, or trained differently? We think they can — and believe conservatives especially ought to support efforts to reform police training.
The mindset has roots in the drug war, where politicians of all stripes encouraged the militarization of police equipment, tactics, and attitudes. It starts in the police academies. Most use a “stress” model resembling military boot camps, emphasizing drills, intense physical demands, public discipline, and immediate reaction to infractions; substantively, academy training focuses on investigation skills, weapons training, and tactics. But there is little emphasis on the profession of policing, on how to relate to the public, or on developing emotional-intelligence skills. Meanwhile, the average recruit gets less than ten hours of training in de-escalation techniques; 34 states require no training in de-escalation.
But academy training is only part of the issue, since most officers are largely trained on the job. There, rookie police learn that the most prestigious, glamorous, and exciting assignment in policing is the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team. These paramilitary policing units began to form in the 1970s. By the late 1990s, nearly 90 percent (almost double the rate in the mid-1980s) of departments in cities with more than 50,000 people had them. Smaller jurisdictions are in on the action too: By 2007, 80 percent of agencies in towns with 25,000 to 50,000 people had SWAT teams, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.
As they have proliferated, SWAT teams are increasingly used in standard, on-duty policing activities. In a 2014 analysis, the ACLU, which has done excellent statistical work on this issue, found that 79 percent of the 50,000 annual SWAT callouts were for executing a search warrant, most commonly in drug investigations; only 7 percent were for hostage, barricade, or active-shooter scenarios. At least 60 percent of those operations featured the use of no-knock entries and/or (potentially deadly) flash-bang grenades. The Pentagon’s infamous 1033 Program — which distributes cast-off military equipment such as armored personnel carriers, weaponry, and helicopters to local police — has also helped to drive this phenomenon.
When you change an institution’s tactics, tools, and training, you will change its culture. The ACLU has noted that police-recruiting materials have become markedly more militaristic in recent decades, with insignia and mottos totally unsuited to civilian agencies. (Examples: “Hunter of men,” “We get up early, to BEAT the crowds,” “Baby Daddy Removal Team,” and “Narcotics: You huff and you puff and we’ll blow your door down.”) It doesn’t seem like a leap to suggest that the mindset that normalizes these sentiments is related to recent incidents of police violence.
Changes in weapons, tactics, and training birthed the mindset. Reforming all three could help to combat it. To start, the dispersion of cheap military weaponry to police departments must stop. Police ought to be put to the discipline of deciding whether their local situation really justifies the cost of armored personnel carriers.
Better training is also key. Police training should incorporate graduate school–type elements, with an emphasis on academic training, “scenario-based” role-playing, and developing mentor–mentee relationships between experienced officers and recruits and junior officers. However, better training will go only so far — we need to ensure that we select the best officers to be trained. Emphasis should be placed on selection criteria consistent with the hiring (and promotion) of officers who are in tune with de-escalation techniques, helpers, and calm personalities.
Finally, we need real, sustained de-escalation training in police academies and among active officers. Departments should accept that, within reason, the onus is on the officer to defuse potentially explosive incidents, slow the pace of police–civilian encounters, and take the time to resolve encounters before they turn violent.
Opponents of policing reform often counter: You can’t blame the police for their reactions in split-second, life-or-death moments. Sometimes, those decisions do have to be made. But that simply highlights the need for training that heads encounters off before they get to that point. We need training that gives police the tools needed to critically analyze situations and distinguish between those that truly are life-and-death and those that become life-and-death only because an officer overreacted.
Nothing can be more corrosive to the legitimacy of police in a democracy than the pervasive sense that they view the public as the enemy. We’re all safer with police that every law-abiding American can trust.
Arthur Rizer, the director of criminal-justice and civil-liberties policy at the R Street Institute, is a former federal prosecutor, military police officer, and police officer. Brett Tolman, the former U.S. Attorney for Utah and the former chief counsel for crime and terrorism in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, founded the Tolman Group and focuses on public policy and reforming government.