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Professionalize the police
An obvious major reform needs more attention than it's getting.
The video of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police has sparked protests across the country. It’s highly unlikely that this will turn into a national conflagration like the one after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, but it shows that general anger against police brutality remains widespread. And it once again raises the question of what to do about the problem.
Three years ago, activists’ main slogan was “defund the police” (quickly altered from the original “abolish the police”, though many insisted the meaning was the same). This slogan and the idea behind it were a disastrous failure. Even in the initial rush of anti-police fervor after the Floyd protests, cities found it extremely hard to muster the political will to cut police budgets or conduct mass layoffs of police officers. Then a massive wave of murders spread across the country, and Americans remembered that yes, police are very important for reducing violent crime. Pro-cop politicians like New York City Mayor Eric Adams were elected, and by 2021, even Black Americans — traditionally more likely to be the victims of police brutality — wanted more spending on policing in their neighborhoods.
But the death of “defund the police” doesn’t mean that the popular desire — or the need — for police reform has vanished. Many cities have increased civilian oversight of police departments, and some have experimented with using mental health professionals to answer 9-1-1 calls instead of cops. But while the results have generally been positive, they’re also very incremental; police killings were actually up in 2022, reaching the highest level since 2013.
So what else can we do when it comes to police reform in the United States? One answer is to look at how other developed countries handle policing.
Where the U.S. lags its peers: training
The advocates of the ill-fated “defund” movement like to imagine that the country in general is over-policed. But when we look at countries in Europe and the Anglosphere, we see that U.S. police staffing levels are actually on the low side. We have nowhere near as many officers per capita as, say, France or Germany.
What’s different about U.S. police is not their staffing levels or budgets; it’s their behavior. Despite the fact that U.S. cops are relatively few in number, they kill far more people than their counterparts in Europe and the Anglosphere:
When presented with this fact, some people argue that the U.S. has a greater need for police killings than those other countries, because it has more violent crime. But the steady drumbeat of police brutality videos in the U.S. that makes Americans so angry shows many cases where violent crime was not involved. To believe that violent crime necessitates the murder of innocent people like George Floyd, you have to believe that police brutality is not just an effective method of suppressing violent crime, but also a cost-effective method. And to put it mildly, I don’t see any evidence for that.
If anything, the causality seems like it would run in the opposite direction; confronted with notoriously brutal police who are a danger to anyone they encounter, people in poor and Black neighborhoods seem like they’d be more reluctant to call the cops, or to snitch on murderers. Distrust of notoriously brutal cops seems likely to contribute to under-policing, and to overall violence levels — a bad equilibrium.
And when we look at differences between U.S. policing practices and those in Europe and the Anglosphere, we notice one other big difference: training. U.S. cops have to undergo far fewer hours of training than their peers in other countries before they’re sent out on the job:
In fact, U.S. cops undergo far less training than cosmetologists or plumbers — professions that don’t require people to carry deadly weapons and make life-and-death decisions.
Do we really think a police officer needs 2000 fewer hours of training than someone who cuts hair and paints nails? Do we really think Australia, with 3500 hours of police training and less than 1/4 our rate of police killings, is getting something deeply wrong? Is it not common sense that cops who haven’t been properly prepared for the violent and dangerous situations they encounter on a job might resort to escalation dominance and demonstrative displays of aggression because they just don’t know how else to react?
Surprisingly, I can’t find good causal studies on the impact of total hours of police training on police brutality. What I can find are some studies showing good results from specific kinds of training, such as “procedural justice training” (basically, getting cops to communicate more, explain their actions, and respond to concerns) and “de-escalation training”. (See more at the bottom of the post.)
Given this encouraging evidence, and the glaring international disparity, and plain old common sense, increasing the required hours of police training in America by a factor of 4 or 5 seems like an obvious policy to try.
Some police departments will naturally bristle at the idea that they’re under-trained, and will resist any attempt to change the status quo. But added training requirements will also increase their budgets and staffing levels — and their wages — so ultimately this seems like a reform that many departments will accept, especially if state governments and the federal government foot most of the bill (which they very well might).
Another obstacle to this common-sense reform, however, might be the misdirected passions of some activists themselves. Increasing police training to 3500 hours per officer will require a lot of money — the exact opposite of “defund”. If you think the police are a fascist institution that needs to be smashed, instead of an essential function of government that needs to be carried out in a professional and responsible manner, then the training solution will just make you even angrier.
In fact, this is already happening. There have been massive protests in Atlanta against a planned 85-acre training facility, which activists have derisively named “Cop City”. The protesters seem not to even have entertained the idea that training facilities like this one are necessary to make policing safer. (The protests also have a sheen of leftist enviro-NIMBYism, since the facility would be built in what’s currently a forest.)
I definitely don’t want to paint all “activists” with the same brush here. There’s a bifurcation between more intellectual activists who focus narrowly on police violence and who support more training, and leftists for whom raging at the police is just one of a rotating list of standard things to get mad about. (This pattern is also manifesting in the fight against climate change, where intellectual environmentalists are overjoyed about the shift to electric vehicles and solar power, while some young leftists are already screaming about the evils of copper mines in Chile. But I digress.)
In other words, if we’re going to professionalize the police through increased training, it might have to be an action taken by elected politicians supported by sensible voting majorities, rather than the result of a grassroots activist campaign. “Professionalize the police” doesn’t make a great slogan to shout in the street, but good policies often don’t.
Beyond training: Making policing into a real profession
So far I’ve talked about police “professionalization” purely in terms of hours of training. But it’s also important to get the right kind of training — for example, the “warrior mentality” training that some cops currently receive seems a lot less likely to be useful than the “procedural justice” training that has been shown to reduce violence.
And in fact, I think professionalization should probably go beyond training, to include education. Usually, when we think of a “profession”, we think of something that requires a degree. In the U.S., policing tends to be a blue-collar, low-education profession — in California, only 42% of officers have even a bachelor’s degree.
I’m all for expanding opportunity for American workers who didn’t go to college. But policing seems like a special case, because it’s about much more than wages and work — it’s about public safety and the legitimacy of U.S. institutions. Being able to sit through some lectures on Plato and do a bit of algebra homework shouldn’t be a requirement to get a decent, good-paying job in the U.S., but it seems like a pretty low bar for the people who are responsible for deciding when to deal out violent death to citizens on the street. We make teachers get a college degree, so why not cops? In fact, many teachers get a Master’s in Education after college; we should think about expanding the use of Master’s degrees in law enforcement as well.
Requiring higher education works through at least two separate channels. First, it creates positive selection effects — it means that the police of the future would come from a more educated, intellectual subset of the populace. (The military already does this with the AFQT and ASVAB.) But it also changes people’s lifestyles in generally positive ways. A number of studies have established a causal link between higher education and healthier lifestyles, leading to reduced mortality and better overall health. It seems likely that more education would also give cops a healthier mental and emotional outlook as well, which would result not just in less confrontational interactions with civilians, but in better overall policing and crime reduction as well.
Again, requiring cops to get more education would raise the costs of policing in the United States, because educated workers command higher salaries. This would not sit well with some activists, but it seems to me like something worth spending money on.
So I think that when we talk about professionalizing the police, it should mean exactly that: Making policing a profession rather than just a job. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc. all serve specialized and critical functions in our society, for which we require not just extensive training but also formalized and specialized education. I fail to see any good reason why we shouldn’t treat law enforcement as a similarly critical function, deserving of similar investments of time, money, and care.
Update: Some people have requested more evidence on the efficacy of police training. That’s a fair request, as I like to follow the data as much as possible.
As I said before, I don’t know of any evidence regarding total hours of training (i.e. the thing I compared between the U.S. and other countries), but there is some evidence on specific training programs. In addition to procedural justice training, I mentioned de-escalation training, but didn’t cite papers about that. So here are a couple.
A recent study of a de-escalation training program in Louisville found a significant impact on use of force:
A similar study in Camden, NJ by Goh (2021) found no effect of de-escalation training on “serious force events” by the officers who personally received the training, but a whopping 40% reduction in serious force events among the force as a whole. Goh suggests “spillover effects” as an explanation, meaning that training may have changed the culture of the department.
There are also studies that don’t use actual use of force as the outcome measure, but show some encouraging results nonetheless. For example, McCraty and Atkinson (2012) found that “resilience training” reduced objective measures of stress among police officers. It seems plausible that less-stressed-out cops are less likely to pull the trigger.
These studies are encouraging. Obviously, police training is an incredibly complex thing; no one thinks that there’s just one big red button called “training” that you can push to make police brutality go away. Some training programs seem to have major effects in some cities; others don’t. But the successful cases — as well as the glaring international disparities in both the quantity and type of police training — suggest that this is a reform we should try on a large scale. A large-scale increase in police training would give us much more evidence, in order to figure out what does and doesn’t work, and to codify best practice in ways that allow everyone to imitate the most successful cities. The worst that could happen is that we waste some money; more likely, we’d save some lives.