Learning or Training
The word “training” has gotten a bad rap over the past decade. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) dropped the word from its name in 2014 when it changed its name to the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Organizations all over the world changed the name of their training departments from Training and Development to Learning and Development. In fact, L&D has become the commonly-used shorthand for this industry. We have all but removed the word “training” from the training industry.
On many occasions when the word training was going out of fashion I heard multiple people parrot the refrain, “People like to learn. We train dogs.” Yes, we train dogs, but we also train pilots. And we train surgeons. People need to be trained to do their jobs, especially those who work in life-and-death situations. And that includes law enforcement officers. While I believe 99 percent of police officers are good people, there appears to be an opportunity to improve the training of law enforcement personnel.
What Forms of Police Reform Do Americans Favor?
A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll asked Americans what forms of police reform they favor. The leading response was Train Officers to De-Escalate and Avoid Force with a whopping 88 percent of respondents in favor. This contrasts with Cut Funding for Police, which ranked last with only 16 percent in favor. Regardless of where municipalities land on the defunding question, there will still be law enforcement in every jurisdiction and training on de-escalation and avoiding force should be part of each academy’s curriculum.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013 the average length of law enforcement training programs was 840 hours (21 weeks). The most time (200 hours) was spent on operations training. Second most at 168 hours was training on weapons, defensive tactics, the use of force, and nonlethal weapons. Of these 168 hours, only 21 were devoted to the use of force, “which may have included training on agency policies, de-escalation tactics, and crisis intervention strategies” (italics added). Tellingly, that is the only place in the report that the term “de-escalation” appears. The study also notes that 81 percent of recruits received training on how to identify the use of excessive force by other officers.
In addition to the 21 weeks of academy training, the report indicates that 97 percent of municipal police academies had a field training requirement. In the words of the report, “Field training provides recruits with the opportunity to work with a field training officer in order to learn the practical aspects of law enforcement and community service, and to assimilate into the professional culture of a particular agency.” Given the importance of training recruits on the practical aspects of law enforcement and assimilation into the culture of a police department, it would seem essential to select field training officers who are expert at the practical aspects while also being exemplars of the department’s culture.
Current Importance of Training
Never has this notion become more important than what we have learned about the former officers involved in the tragic death of George Floyd. It turns out that former officer J. Alexander Keung was still in training. And his training officer was Derek Chauvin, the former officer who has been charged with second-degree murder of Floyd.
According to CNN.com, Keung was a rookie police officer. He joined the Minneapolis Police Department in February of 2019 as a cadet and was hired as an officer in December of 2019, but on the date of Floyd’s death Keung was working only his third shift as a Minneapolis Police Department officer. He was working under the supervision of his training officer Derek Chauvin.
The fact that Chauvin was a training officer is very revealing. Police departments traditionally select training officers based on seniority. Chauvin had over 18 years of experience as a police officer. This sounds like he might be qualified to be selected as a training officer, except for the fact that he had 18 prior complaints during those 18 years. Does that sound like the kind of person we should be using to train our new police officers?
There are two underlying assumptions that lead police departments to select training officers based on seniority, but neither holds up to cursory scrutiny. The first assumption is that someone who has been on a job for a long time is good at that job. In this case, it appears that Chauvin might not have been good at his job. Looked at another way, when you select training officers based on seniority, you are taking the people who have been on the job the longest without ever receiving a promotion in rank and asking them to train the next generation. Remember, we are talking about former officer Chauvin, not former Sergeant Chauvin.
And even if the assumption of competence were true, the second assumption is that people who are good at their jobs will be good at training other people to do the job. People who are professional trainers can tell you that there are specific skills involved in being a successful trainer. The first that comes to mind is communication skills. And there are two parts to communicating: speaking and listening. Then we must add in some empathy and the ability to see things from the perspective of the trainee. As we have seen countless times in professional sports, Hall of Fame caliber athletes rarely become the best coaches (in fact many of the most successful coaches were just marginally successful professional athletes). It’s true in business as well: top performers are not necessarily the best managers or trainers. Professional trainers get their jobs because they have specific skills to enable them to succeed. Police departments should focus on selecting training officers who have the skills to do the job they are being asked to do. It now seems evident that Derek Chauvin was not a good choice to train rookie police officers.
The importance of training is also highlighted by what we know about another of the Minneapolis officers charged in the death of Floyd. Thomas Lane was a 37 year-old rookie police officer who had been a police officer for just four days on the day Floyd died. His attorney Earl Gray said Lane was “doing everything he thought he was supposed to do as a four-day police officer.”
Of course, a statement made by the attorney defending Lane must be considered in context, but this is a pretty outrageous statement. Lane had joined the Minneapolis police department as a cadet in February of 2019. Presumably he had undergone quite a bit of training between that time and May of 2020 before he was sent out on the street with a badge and a gun. If he thought he was doing what he was supposed to be doing as a police officer, then that training was a miserable failure. What I observed on the video was an assault. Police officers should be trained to stop assaults and to identify the use of excessive force by other officers. The video appeared to show Lane participating in the assault. Not only was he not doing what someone is supposed to do as a police officer, he was not doing what someone is supposed to do as a human being.
The attorney’s defense of Lane’s actions blames the training, but the video speaks for itself as we can see Lane’s actions during the eight plus minutes that Floyd was held down. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has said that the actions of Chauvin were not part of the training that Minneapolis police officers receive. According to CNN, Chief Arradondo says the officers’ lack of experience is no excuse for their actions (or inactions). “I don’t put policies that you should react or respond if you’re a two-year member or a five-year member or a 10-year member. If policies or subculture get in the way, then I expect and demand one’s humanity to rise above that.”
Field training is supposed to teach practical aspects of policing as well as assimilation into the department’s culture. While Chauvin was clearly not adept at teaching the how-tos of good police work, I wonder if he was, in fact, an exemplar of the Minneapolis Police Department’s culture, certainly with 18 years of bad conduct he reflects leadership failure.
We Need Good Training
At the top of this article is the title of a song from the musical South Pacific. While the title might sound like an endorsement of training, the lyrics tell us, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” and “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade.” 
In these unprecedented times our police officers are under situations of high stress. This is the time we need well-trained men and women across America handling a variety of significant events that put additional lives in danger. What we don’t want is to witness another video or more bad examples of police officers mishandling suspects.
I am confident that pilots are so well-trained that I can put my life in their hands every time I step onto an airplane. While I am convinced that the vast majority of our law enforcement officers are well-meaning and diligent, it has become evident that a significant portion of the population does not have a high level of confidence in our police officers. Isn’t it just as important that we have the same confidence in our police officers as we do in our pilots and surgeons? In order for us to get there, the first and most important solution is better training at both police academies and in the field.