Throughout the United States, there are nearly 18,000 police departments. They vary from regional departments in the most rural areas to the largest ones in the busiest cities.
The history of policing in the US has taken large swings from a law-and-order philosophy to the current state of engaging in the team approach of assisting those with distinct challenges (e.g., mental health issues, substance use disorders) that may lead to crises in all types of community settings.
De-Escalation Techniques and Training
All over the US, local police departments have been working for a number of years to team build within the local, state, and federal law enforcement communities. Whether it is for formal or informal training programs, consultation, or general policy and procedural assistance, there is ongoing communication with most agencies.
Some examples of consensus training include but are not limited to training and developing hostage negotiation, de-escalation techniques, and crisis intervention teams. While some of these methods of policing may not be entirely new, they are being relied upon and shared on a more frequent basis.
One of the most highly respected trainings throughout the US is Crisis Intervention Training (CIT). It is widely utilized as an accepted practice to assist individuals both who are incarcerated and in the community.
A formal training program was developed as a result of an incident that occurred in Memphis, Tennessee in September 1987. Police responded to a 911 call that involved a man with a history of mental illness who was cutting himself and threatening to commit suicide. Upon arrival, the police ordered the man to drop the knife. The man did not drop the knife and instead, he ran towards the Officers. The officers discharged their firearms, and the man was killed. Clearly, first responders who answer a call of a person in distress do not know the full situation until they arrive on the scene.
The situation can develop into a negative consequence unless those responding understand and follow de-escalation techniques.
Although this sad and tragic incident occurred many years ago, it prompted police agencies to look internally at what could help with these types of events. The CIT program was developed and implemented in Memphis (known as The Memphis Model) and is referred to today as the cornerstone of the current program having been adopted in approximately 2,700 communities nationwide.
Another and more current example that is similar to the Memphis case occurred in Philadelphia in October 2020. Police responded to a call of a man outside his house wielding a knife. Upon arrival, they found a 27-year-old black man, Walter Wallace walking towards them armed with a knife. Police shot and killed him in front of his family including his mother and some of his children. In the following days, the city of Philadelphia became highly volatile with protests throughout the city. Walter Wallace’s family issued a statement when they filed a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia citing many issues but specifically noted that police should have had the training to deal with people with a history of mental illness.
According to a publication issued in March 2021 by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) Task Force on Policing, de-escalation techniques are an important skill to utilize in the community when they are called for a person. The CCJ reported several valuable facts with regard to the use of de-escalation techniques.
- Research evidence supports policies that mandate de-escalation as an important component of the academy and in-service training. When implemented with fidelity and complemented with strong supervisory and accountability mechanisms, such training can yield reductions in the use of force, public complaints, and injuries to officers and members of the public.
- De-escalation training should be a key component of police training, afforded equal weight to use-of-force training and fully integrated into all aspects of the training curriculum.
- Critical components of de-escalation training include teaching officers how to remain calm, use verbal communication strategies, create physical distance between themselves and community members, and employ critical thinking skills to pivot to other tactics in response to changing dynamics.
- De-escalation policies work best when supervisors routinely conduct use-of-force incident reviews to identify officer behaviors that, if altered, could have prevented force and accompanying injuries.
- Recognizing and commending officers who successfully de-escalate situations can reinforce agency-wide compliance with de-escalation practices
In addition to de-escalation techniques, CIT is a 40-hour training class and if the leadership of a police department decides to build their own program, a team approach that provides the foundation necessary to promote community and statewide solutions to assist individuals with mental illness history and/or co-occurring disorder. The CIT Model reduces both stigma and hopefully the need for further involvement with the criminal justice system.
One of the biggest challenges facing police departments is relatively a new one and that is recruitment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of full-time sworn officers in U.S. law enforcement agencies declined by more than 3 percent between 2013 and 2016. The number of officers per capita is down 10 percent since 1997.
Over the last decade, it has become even more difficult to recruit bilingual, females, and minority officers to the law enforcement community. This data was received by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) as a result of a survey that was sent to its membership in 2018. Additional results from the survey included.
- Fewer people are applying to become police officers. Sixty-three percent of the reporting departments reported that the number of applicants decreased either 36% or 27% over the previous five years.
- More police officers are leaving the police profession much earlier than their retirement age. While the leading cause of voluntary resignation was to move to another law enforcement agency, a close second was to pursue an entirely new career outside of policing. Also, the majority of these resignations were within the first five years of employment as a police officer
- The number of police officers reaching retirement age is growing. The PERF survey found that between 2018 – 2023, 24% of the current law enforcement community would reach retirement age. Many of these officers began their careers as a result of federally funded programs of the 1990s.
- The PEFR survey concluded that the US is facing a triple threat; fewer applicants, more resignations, and a retirement bubble with police departments already facing staff shortages. It is being referred to as a “workforce crisis” in the law enforcement community.
Police departments have been struggling to fill positions from traditional sources like the military, or legacy officers and the numbers continue to decrease. Police training and recruitment often suffers in rural communities because people choose to take higher-paying jobs in other career paths or at more urban police departments. Another noted cultural issue that has been occurring with the lack of recruits for police academies is that applicants do not look like the citizens they serve.
George Floyd Case
In the George Floyd case, it is a consistent theme that all of the officers who responded to the call that he had passed a $20 counterfeit bill were white. The local community where this case occurred were people of color. Top police administrators continuously refer to the fact that they need officers who reside in the local area and not one’s who end their shift and drive 30 minutes to get home. It is the belief that those officers have no investment in what happens when they are off-shift.
Many departments are in desperate need of recruits with the technological skills to solve modern crimes like sex trafficking and cybercrimes. Some departments are seeking guidance by retaining recruiters to provide assistance on hiring practices and increasing the interest level of new less traditional potential officers. In an effort to attract recruits many departments are streamlining the application process, and relaxing hiring standards. Some are reducing hiring standards and allowing facial hair and/or tattoos.
In addition, they are focusing on what it means in today’s world to be a police officer with less concentration on the militaristic side of the profession. Stressing on the necessary skills they will need to police 21st-century crimes. However, and simply stated, we are not there yet.
Police Under Scrutiny
Police have come under scrutiny for the past decade and especially the last year due to the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd cases. Following the death of George Floyd, more than 200 retirement applications have been submitted, representing 20% of the entire Minneapolis police department.
People have protested loud and often, some peacefully and some not. In any case, citizens of the US have called out for police reform whether it comes from the Black Lives Matter movement or right-wing groups. No matter which side of the issue people are on, it is clear that the country demanding that elected officials respond to the need for addressing the inequities of the manner in which minority groups are treated in the criminal justice system.
According to The Urban Institute, of the calls made to local police, 65% are made by white, 16% are from Hispanic people and 12% are from black people. Anecdotally, it is believed by people of color that if they contact the police, they may be arrested rather than offered assistance for the issue for which they made the phone call.
It is this distrust coupled with the tragic circumstances of the most publicized deaths that have resulted in protests throughout the nation.
Public Trust is Rattled
Public trust of the law enforcement community has been rattled to its core and the answers are not clear.
Many police departments are shifting their role in the community at the behest of the local elected officials. Terms such as ‘defund the police’ and ‘back the blue’ demonstrate the strong differences of opinion in the current state of the US.
Defund The Police and Back The Blue
Many cities and states have responded to their constituents by filing bills and in some cases promulgated new laws. Here are a few examples.
- California – effective September 30, 2020, a ban on the use of chokeholds and allows the state Department of Justice to investigate police shootings.
- Minnesota – package of police accountability measures went into effect on Sept. 8, 2020, after Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed a ban on neck restraints and chokeholds into law on July 23.
- Iowa passed a reform bill on June 11, 2020, specifying that chokeholds are only acceptable “when a person cannot be captured any other way” or if the officer “reasonably believes the person would use deadly force.”
- Connecticut’s Lamont issued an executive order requiring that troopers wear body cameras.
- Georgia – Governor Kemp signed a bill on June 23, 2020, requiring police officers to document when someone is subjected to a hate crime on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religion, or national origin.
The most effective law enforcement agencies of the future will be those that develop their recruiting practices, department policies, and formal training for the incoming generations of officers. The consistent application of these facets will assist in changing the cultural issues that are and have been plaguing the US.