I have been pointing out that something has to be done about American police training in practically every post I’ve ever written about the police. America is finally catching on. Increasingly, there are calls for changes in police training after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City.
This is the first post in a series of suggestions for police training. You’re welcome, America.
In 1984, I applied for a job as librarian at one of the Netherlands’ five police training schools. At the time I felt like I was selling out; it felt almost equal to working for Shell. (I boycotted Shell with a vengeance at the time because of their role in Apartheid South Africa. It was an easy boycott, since I didn’t drive a car.)
However, I soon realized that this was a job I could be proud of and I worked at De Boskamp police training school until 1992.
The police training in the Netherlands was undergoing a drastic change at the time. Society no longer per definition accepted the authority of the uniform and the police was deemed out of touch in the way they carried out their job. The explanation that they were “just following orders” or “just enforcing the law” was no longer considered sufficient.
It was a time in which society no longer cared so much if something was against the law, but rather questioned who was hurt by an action. But the police was still enforcing the law, because the law is the law.
The consensus was that the police had to be more in touch with Holland’s changing society. They had to do more than just follow orders; they had to use their discretion–choose their battles, if you will–and they needed better social skills.
It was also the time when gedogen was accepted as a policy to deal with the fact that the law often lags behind the changes in society. Gedogen means ‘to tolerate’, or to look the other way. It was first used in connection to soft drugs. Society pretty much agreed that using soft drugs and buying soft drugs for personal use shouldn’t be a criminal offense, but the process of changing the laws would take much longer. So it became police policy to ‘look the other way’.
In New York, Eric Garner was selling individual cigarettes on the street. He had also just broken up a fight between two other guys. Who was he hurting, selling those cigarettes? Doesn’t the NYPD have better things to worry about? And Michael Brown was walking in the middle of the street. There must not have been much traffic, if any; the police officer who ended up shooting reported that he backed up to talk to Michael and his friend. Two teenagers walking in the middle of the street when there is no traffic isn’t a major offense. Who was he hurting? Why did the police officer overreact?
It seems to me that America is now at the same stage as the Netherlands in the 1980s.
So in the Netherlands there was a shift to community policing: neighborhood cops who had long-term beats, more foot patrols and thus more contact with the people they were supposed to serve. The idea was that the public and the police officers got to know and trust one another and that there would be more understanding on both sides.
For the training this meant that police recruits had to be more independent, since they wouldn’t just be following orders anymore. They had to be independent thinkers who knew how to use their discretionary powers and how to interact with the public in an acceptable and effective way.
In 1984 the basic police training was doubled from nine months to eighteen months. During the first nine months the recruits no longer just sat in a classroom, being spoon-fed laws by their teachers. They were more responsible for their own education; they had to do research, both in the new library, out on the street and in their police departments.
The police schools built role playing areas–a street with a store and a home where the recruits learned specific police social skills by interacting with professional actors. The emphasis in these classes was on prevention and de-escalation of crisis situations.
After nine months the recruits had the knowledge and skills to go out into their police departments, but it didn’t end there. They had a six-month internship at their future police force, where they put their knowledge and skills to work. They wrote a report on their experience.
After the six-month internship, the recruits came back to school for an additional three months, where they shared their experiences and delved deeper into issues such as police ethics, the role of women in the police, the pressures of the police subculture, police violence and discretionary powers.
Then and only then did they graduate and enter their respective police forces.
Some recruits were fired during their training period. Eighteen months is enough time to bring to the surface any rabid racism, any tendencies toward sexual assault of female colleagues and any reckless misuse of firearms.
(Unfortunately police training is always subject, to a degree, to politics, and after a decade or so the demand for more uniforms on the street led to shortcut paths to the police force. By now, what with the state of the economy, it wouldn’t surprise me if the eighteen-month training no longer exists. But it was good while it lasted, and in a later post I’ll argue why it would still make economic sense for American police and their training to undergo a drastic overhaul. )
So who were teaching these recruits and who determined what they were taught? In the next post I will discuss the place that police training had within the larger police organization and why I think American police training is structurally flawed.