KSU criminal justice prof: Cops use force because that’s what they’re trained to do
Starr Solomon: ‘Total, we’re looking at roughly 150 hours of use of force training versus 24 hours of something like crisis intervention’
After the murder of George Floyd and calls for police reform went mainstream, we wanted to learn more about how modern American policing came to be and why it is the way it is. To do that, we reached out to Kent State professor Starr Solomon. Solomon holds a PhD in criminology and criminal justice, and her research focuses largely on public perceptions of police and police legitimacy.
While we don’t talk a great deal about Portage County specifically, we discuss the broader issues of policing in the US, issues that can be seen in every city and township across the country.
Below is our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
I’m wondering, from your perspective, do you think over the past five years or so there’s been a shift towards prioritizing de-escalation training and prioritizing things besides use of force in trainings?
So I’m going to answer this question kind of in two ways: what people are asking police departments to do versus what they spend the majority of time training officers to do.
In 2015, following the 2014 shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Barack Obama convened this task force on 21st century policing, and this task force issued a report to kind of guide policing into this new era where police officers are being recorded more often. “How are we going to improve police relations with the community, given the prevalence of these viral police use of force videos?” And so one of the recommendations from this task force was to utilize de-escalation training. However, it’s really unclear as to what constitutes de-escalation.
When we think about the escalation, most scholars are defining it in terms of getting officers to slow down their thinking be a little bit more critical in their decision making rather than just rushing to utilize force.
So police departments are endorsing de-escalation, academics are endorsing de-escalation, but how many states have legislative mandates that require de-escalation training? And the answer is very few. Only 12 states as of 2018 require any sort of de-escalation training. Now, luckily, Ohio is one of those states, and officers are required to complete two hours of deescalation training per year.
The rest of the training and academies vary from agency to agency or from state to state. The majority of training that officers are doing is training related to use of force.
In order for officers to be certified in Ohio, they actually require 80 hours of training for firearms, which is 20 hours above the national. And they also increased that in 2019. They used to only have 60 hours of firearms training, and now they have 80. So there’s this call for de-escalation training, but we’re not necessarily seeing that reflected in how we’re training recruits and in our yearly re-certification process for officers. They’re still focusing on subject self defense, stuff like that. So we’re not spending as much time on de-escalation training specifically as we are on use of force.
So from what you’re saying, they’re requiring 80 hours toward firearms and use of force training?
Just firearms. And then another 70 to 80 hours of subject control. So total, we’re looking at roughly 150 hours of use of force training versus 24 hours of something like crisis intervention, which would include de-escalation strategies.
It’s easy to understand why officers use force, given their training. That’s what we’re training them to do. We’re not emphasizing necessarily crisis intervention tactics first if we’re looking at your hours. So if you’re spending the majority of your time and in the police academy and in your re-certification process focusing on firearms and control, when you’re out doing your job it’s reasonable then to expect officers to rely on that training, which emphasizes coercive strategies like force.
Something I’ve been researching recently is the work of Dave Grossman and the Killology Institute. He’s touted as the man who’s trained the most cops in the country and I’m wondering, do you know if he’s had an impact here in Ohio?
I don’t, but I’m familiar with Dave’s work. He trains folks to focus on their personal safety at all costs. So if that means that you have to injure somebody so that you could go home at night then that’s what you have to do. And that kind of gets at this warrior mentality in policing. So things that are emphasizing officers’ safety, prioritizing crime fighting and law enforcement. Listen, that’s not what officers spend the majority of their time doing, right? His institute, they’re focusing on the warrior cop mentality. A lot of Christian Crusader verbiage, things of that sort.
I can’t say with any confidence whether he trained police departments in Ohio. I would not necessarily endorse this style as effective for improving public perceptions of police. We know that when the police are polite and respectful, the public is more likely to see them as legitimate authority, which means that they’re more likely to think that officers have the right to enforce the law and that one should follow it and comply with them voluntarily. Knowing a little bit about Dave’s work, I don’t think that’s an effective way to train police officers. A lot of what police officers are doing day to day is service activities, responding to calls.
There’s a lot of talk about whether police should be responding to those types of calls, if they wouldn’t be better handled by social workers or folks better trained in de-escalation. What your thoughts?
The police role has expanded a great deal in the last 50 years. It used to be police officers are just focused on arresting persons, conducting investigations.
Now we’re asking police officers and honestly the criminal justice system in general, to deal with these social problems. Like mental health, like domestic violence or child abuse or sexual assault. Things that are classified as crimes that officers are not necessarily equipped to handle.
They’re not social workers, they’re not therapists. They get some training on those things. But they just might not be the best people to respond to mental health incidents. You know, if someone is in crisis, somebody showing up with a firearm could be really scary for you and certainly might not calm you down. It might make things worse. So I do think we really need to take a good hard look at why we’re asking the police to do so many things and if there are other folks who can contribute in a more meaningful way.
Why do you think we’ve asked police to become social workers, therapists, homeless outreach coordinators — all these things?
I think because the police have sort of always been involved, if only tangentially, in those activities. Not to the extent that they are today, but you know, in the past police officers used to run things like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, as you mentioned. But as cities grew larger, those problems grew larger.
Police departments grew larger and training kind of shifted. We really focused on this idea of community policing and problem solving, but there’s also this really large focus on officer’s safety. And the best way for officers to maintain safety at work is to train them on how to interact physically with subjects or civilians, how to use their firearms safely, things like that.
So on some level they’ve always been involved in those sorts of activities in the community. But maybe now we’re realizing that they’re too involved as social problems become more complex.
The militarization of police is something of concern as well and how that affects training and public perception. I was looking on the Marshall Project the other day about who has Department of Defense equipment in Portage County. Just looking at Ravenna City police and the Sheriff’s Office, they’ve gotten a lot of “fun, cool stuff.”
Things probably that they won’t need in Ravenna, right?
Yeah I mean the biggest thing we had here was a drug bust at a car dealership. I was talking with the sheriff about this, and he said, “We got this grant and the government gave us this stuff.” I asked are there any grants or programs for training? He said no, just toward equipment.
There was a study, I think, 2018 or 2019. It was about how the militarization of police departments was linked to use of force. That study defined militarization as the participation in 1033 programs, which allow law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military equipment. And not surprisingly, the more militarized police departments are, the more likely they were to use deadly force. So the amount of money spent on equipment through these grant programs had a positive correlation with the number of deadly force incidents in police departments in the United States. I think that’s concerning.
Why is that concerning to you?
Anytime a person dies at the hands of these government officials that we’re paying, that’s concerning. These policing organizations tout that they value the sanctity of life, and I think any death at the hands of police officers is a tragedy. It’s something that hopefully we can work to avoid. So that’s what I mean by concerning. If these police departments have this equipment that they might not necessarily use or need, but just having it is associated with deadly force, it’s a problem.
How do we address it as a society?
I think you’ve seen probably a ton of news stories about which reforms might be most effective. We’ve seen things like defunding the police, abolishing the police, and I would just take a step back from those approaches for a second and start on a more simplistic level. And it’s that we have roughly 20,000 individual municipal, county-level police agencies in the United States. Each agency has their own policy handbook on how they can utilize deadly force. There are some consistencies, but there’s also a lot of variability.
So I think a first step toward reducing deadly force by police departments is to have , at the very least, state-level standards. Because what happens in one place — we can take the local example of Tamir Rice — impacts policing across the United States. So I think just more simply we’ve got to work on standardizing policy manuals regarding use of deadly force.
So the standardization of use of force, use of deadly force, things of that sort you think would help with a lot of the issues we’re seeing nowadays?
It would bring more consistency to policing. I think what’s most interesting about and most unfortunate about the George Floyd death in Minneapolis is that the Minneapolis police department was receiving state-of-the-art training from a federally funded study, where they were getting implicit bias training and this procedural justice training. The thing that I talked about earlier was when police treat people with dignity and respect, and we still saw a pretty egregious and troubling use of force incident. So the verdict is still out on what’s most effective in reducing police use of force. We see a lot of discussion about de-escalation trainings, and we talked about those, but we haven’t seen a ton of evaluations, whether de-escalation trainings are effective. Same thing with body cameras, a lot of mixed evidence on whether body cameras actually reduce use to force. They certainly are increasing transparency and accountability because now we’re seeing more. But the verdict is still out on whether they actually are.
There’s a lot to talk about and consider, especially with the body cams. I’ve watched a lot of footage and seen a lot of stories of where they had body cam evidence, but it didn’t really matter in terms of any disciplinary action.
It is hard to discipline police officers, and it is hard to hold them accountable for their actions. Even if they’re dismissed from one department they’re likely not charged with a crime. It is very difficult to charge police officers with crimes, though not impossible. For instance, the officer who killed Tamir Rice took a job in another department on a part-time basis in Ohio. I believe that he’s since resigned from that job. But it’s pretty common for officers who are prone to misconduct or citizen complaints to move around to various units within police departments or move to other police departments.
On that note, I wanted to turn the floor to you and see if you had anything else you’d like to add regarding police training or conduct?
So I think departments are being, or attempting to be, responsive and recognizing that use of force is problematic. And they’re trying to address it. I think there’s obviously a lot of work to be done. Something that I’d like to mention to you is that we don’t have, or we didn’t have until 2019, a national use of force database. We have other federally funded databases to count the number of arrests or criminal victimization incidents in the United States, but we didn’t have a national database on police use of force. Most of our information was coming from individual agencies that were attempting to be transparent about that data or from other news sources like The Washington Post, which collects information on deadly police shootings.
We know that the police are using force, and we know that roughly 1,000 people are shot and killed by police per year, but we don’t know how many times they’re actually discharging their firearms, how many times they’re using other types of physical force with subjects. So I think as we learn more, we’re going to see hopefully more meaningful reforms. Whether that be in training or funds allocations for police departments. I’m optimistic that we will see some positive changes from the police departments in the near future. Hopefully. I’m trying to be optimistic.