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What the Police Academy Gets Wrong About Training Future Officers

7 minute read
Sponsler is a veteran of the United States Air Force and a former Protection Ranger with the National Park Service. She now lives in Virginia with her partner and two children, where she advocates for the issues that she hopes will make the world a little better for them

Kris Eggle and Margaret Anderson.

They are names that U.S. Park Rangers know well. For many Rangers, they were friends and coworkers. Rangers are a small cohort, and our paths cross frequently. For others, like me, their names are known specifically because we train to avoid their fate: being shot and killed in the line of duty.

On Jan. 29 2023, I did something that millions of people do: I vented on Twitter. I had watched the video of Tyre Nichols’ murder, as I’ve watched so many videos of excessive force, to see if, as a former law enforcement officer (LEO), I could see what went wrong.

But I saw the same thing I always see—a deeply rooted problem with training and culture. So, I poured my heart out to my small group of followers, most of whom know me personally, and spoke of losing the job I loved because I couldn’t stay quiet about those problems.

I left law enforcement almost 10 years ago and that doesn’t pain me, but seeing those same problems so prevalent after nearly a decade and after Trayvon, and Ferguson, and George Floyd and so many others, haunts me. So, I vented, put down my phone and went on a hike. I went to bed. Then I woke up to a tweet that had been viewed millions of times.

Suddenly, I found myself in the center of a national conversation about police brutality.

To be clear, I should never have found myself here. I am no one special. I said nothing new. I’ve heard my thoughts in rallies and at marches. My perspective as a white woman, and former law enforcement officer, is not the one that most needs to be heard in a conversation about the violence that disproportionately impacts Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans. But as it’s been elevated and I’ve been given a platform, I’m trying to do some good with that. Because this problem is one we have to solve. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist.

Read More: If We Want to Reduce Deaths at Hands of Police, We Need to Reduce Traffic Stops

So let me tell you what I know.

In the police academy, in my courses in Criminal Justice, I’ve studied the reports of line of duty deaths. I’ve watched the dashcam footage of traffic stops where officers are shot; read the completed investigations of deaths like Rangers Anderson and Eggle. As a National Park Ranger, those two in particular have been a constant in my education. Their murders shaped so much of how the National Park Service (NPS) trains its Rangers.

We study these deaths to find out how to prevent them, to determine what gaps in our training may have allowed this to happen. In our training, however, we are not shown videos like that of the shooting of Levar Jones on Sept. 4, 2014.

I watched the video of Jones being shot on the news just a few months after being dismissed from my third police academy, a day before graduation. Just a few months before being denied a repeal of that decision and being fired from the NPS. I thought, as I watched it, of the training exercise where, as officers, we were shown a different video of a man reaching towards his glove box for his registration, and instead pulling out a gun, firing six shots, killing the officer that stopped him, and then driving away. After the video and classroom instruction, the hands-on portion of that traffic stop course had involved a series of vehicle approaches wherein on every approach, the driver retrieved a weapon from their vehicle and shot at the officer in training. It quickly became a game within the class to see if the officer-in-training could beat the driver to the draw. Reaching into gloveboxes, center consoles, under their seats and visors, those playing the role of drivers always produced a firearm and immediately shot the officer before they reached the vehicle.

I wondered if the officer who shot Jones had received training like that.

The training law enforcement receives always reviews the video and investigation of line of duty deaths of officers and corrects itself to avoid further incidents, but I find more and more that we are studying the wrong videos. We correct the wrong things. We create a sense of dread and fear in officers in training. One that tells them over and over again, they will die if they aren’t aggressive first. We employ the likes of Dave Grossman to teach “Street Survival” courses that imagine opposing forces in our streets. The sheepdog and the wolf, predator and prey, hero and villain, us versus them, kill or be killed. A sense of righteous fury builds against the very community that LEO’s swear to serve and protect.

That ethos is echoed in the discussion of police reform as I realize there is no place for the likes of me—someone who believes in broad and sweeping reforms, who believes in diverting funding from weapons and equipment into social programs that address the root causes of crime and violence, but doesn’t believe that all cops are bad people or in the total abolition of the force. We stand on the two cliff faces, a yawning chasm of anger between us, fearful and saying our own names over and over again. Our names, the ones that align with our side. We are angry about Ranger Anderson, and cannot find space to be just as angry about George Floyd. We forget that we are supposed to take that risk and only meet force with the lowest level of force needed to stop the threat. That we protect the fourth amendment of our neighbors, and that includes their protection against an unwarranted seizure of their lives. Instead, we inflict trauma to avoid the possibility of having it inflicted upon us, and we are trained to believe that is necessary and good. After we are trained, our culture continues to reinforce that idea, and we shoot to prevent being shot.

Read More: Tyre Nichols’ Killing Is The Result of a Diseased Culture

I’ve been asked a lot, what can be done about it. I tell everyone the same thing—nothing fast. Long, boring, nuanced work that addresses the structural issues of American policing; uncomfortable discussions about the cultural issues in law enforcement; training that is standardized and reviewed by a diverse group of stakeholders; discipline and accountability for officers and departments; robust and continued investment in community care that addresses the root causes of crime that elevates instead of incarcerates our most at risk populations; divestment in the corporal system that spends it on higher walls and more weapons in an arms race with the streets.

We cannot keep adding to a list of names and silo ourselves, comforting the tribe we know while ignoring our neighbor’s pain. We have to start saying the words that admit we have a problem and we have to come to the table ready to listen. It won’t be enough at first. We can end qualified immunity and mandate de-escalation training today, and again it will not be enough, but at least we won’t be standing still on opposite sides of the canyon yelling into the void. At least, we’ll be moving forward.

Tyre Nichols, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner.

We must learn and change from their deaths, too.

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