It is clear that in the United States we have a problem with the way law enforcement is being conducted. The recent media spot-light placed on police departments comes after the highly publicized police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Cedrick Chatman. These killings involve some of the largest police departments in the country including New York, Baltimore and Chicago, these departments are supposed to be the cream of the crop when it comes to law enforcement, yet they are responsible for some of the most atrocious police brutality in recent history. Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that in 2015 there were 900 Americans shot and killed by the police, that is more than double the numbers from any previous year.

[1] Out of the 900 individuals killed, 93 were unarmed, while 34 were found with a toy weapon.[2]

Police Training Is The Issue

An article titled “From Warriors to Guardians: Recommitting American Police Culture to Democratic Ideals” was published through Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2015. The author, who worked with police departments across the country, points out that police academies all across the U.S focus their training “on physical control tactics and weapons, with less attention given to communication and de-escalation skills”.[3] Basically police are given military-like training which prepares them to be soldiers, not community oriented protectors.

The militarization of the American police force began largely with the “War on Drugs” and was fueled by the increase in federal funding for police agencies following 9/11.[4] In fact a Congressional subcommittee found that in the last two decades there has been a 1,500 percent increase in the use of SWAT (which stands for specialized weapons and tactics) throughout the country.[5] As a result, police have been increasingly sent into economically stressed neighborhoods, with military grade weapons, with the directive that they are “fighting drugs” or “fighting terror”.

It is not just the police departments of New York City, Chicago, and Baltimore that have adopted aggressive military style training and equipment; it is most police departments across the country, big and small. For example, the city of Syracuse, in Central New York, with a population of less than 300,000, trains its police recruits with a rigorous “boot-camp”. During training, instructors act like drill sergeants and as a result, recruits are shouted at, berated, and pushed to their limits. In addition, in 2015 Syracuse was given a state grant valued at $100,000 in order to purchase military equipment for its police department.[6] This included assault equipment and battering rams.[7]

After taking a closer look at how the police are trained in the U.S, it begins to make sense why there have been so many Americans shot and killed by law enforcement in recent years. Using soldiers to police neighborhoods is expressly forbidden by Federal Law, and was a major concern of the founding fathers, yet that is exactly what has happened. As a result of being trained as soldiers, police officers have begun to look at the population as “the enemy”. This mentality fosters the lack of restraint, increase in anxiety, and heightened fear that plague police during their patrols. Meaning, police are quicker to pull the trigger because in their minds they are in a warzone, and in a warzone if you hesitate, you die.

Implementing a Solution

At least one state, Washington, has endeavored to change things by recognizing the connection between police brutality and military style training. Now, under new regulations, every police recruit in Washington must attend the “Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission” where the goal is to “establish high standards and exceptional training to ensure that criminal justice professionals in Washington State have the knowledge and skills to safely and effectively protect the life, liberty, and property of the people they serve”.[8] The state of Washington says it is training “Guardians of Democracy” instead of warrior cops.[9]

According to the programs executive director Sue Rahr (who also co-authored the Harvard Kennedy School article mentioned above) “If your overarching identity is ‘I’m a warrior,’ then you will approach every situation like you must conquer and win. You may have a conflict where it is necessary for an officer to puff up and quickly take control. But in most situations, it’s better if officers know how to de-escalate, calm things down, slow down the action.”[10]

The Washington State training program teaches its recruits that they are protecting a community, that they must exercise emotional control over all situations, and to treat individuals with dignity. The desired result being that when an officer is placed in a situation that could be wrongfully escalated by excessive force, that officer takes a step back, analyzes the situation, and resolves it as peacefully as possible. The new program still takes into account that there will inevitably be situations where officers are forced to use force, even their firearms.[11] But this is not taught as a first resort, and recruits are trained in drills designed to promote accuracy under pressure, reducing the possibility of bystander casualties.

Unfortunately, the militaristic police culture will not disappear over-night. It will take the country as a whole to recognize the problem and to realize that the role of police in our society is not to be soldiers, but to be defenders of the law, and the protectors of ordinary citizens.

The exclusive purpose of this article is educational and it is not intended as either legal advice or a general solution to any specific legal problem. Corporate offices for Nave Law Firm are located at 432 N. Franklin Street, Suite 80, Syracuse, NY 13204; Telephone No.: 1-866-792-7800. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Attorney Advertising.

[5] Id.
[7] Id.
[10] Id.