I’m a little surprised that Noah sees a college degree as a way to weed out prospective cadets. Why not increase training, including some “Plato and math” (some sort of history of race riots might be more applicable, though), but keep it open to anyone?

Pretty sure plumber and nail technician don’t require a college degree, and neither does my profession: actuary. You *do* have to pass 9-10 notoriously difficult exams, each with approximately a 50% pass rate, so if someone had an Associate or Fellow designation, you can be pretty confident they know what they’re talking about. That’s the sort of thing you’re shooting for with police, college degree or not.

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I think police needing to become more professionalised (similar to lawyers, doctors and plumbers) is something many voters should be able to get behind.

That said, I don’t think the article engages that fairly with activists who are opposed to the Atlanta training facility and the reasons why anti-police activists are arguing the USA is “over-policed.”

To begin with, whilst crime rates in Atlanta have dropped by 45% since 2009, there has been a mixed trend in the homicide rate since then. Despite this, around a third of the city’s budget in 2022 (~$250 million) was spent on its police force. To a lot of people, this has produced diminishing returns. They feel that there has not been a substantial reduction in homicides over the past decade that sufficiently justifies the enormous budget being spent on the police department every year. And that this could be better spent on programmes that reduce the underlying conditions that lead to high crime rates.

This isn’t just a thing in Atlanta either. “Defunding the police” activists observe (rightly or wrongly) that across the country, the overwhelming majority of police time is not spent on stopping violent crime, but rather; traffic stops for broken tail lights; issue citations for so-called “quality of life” offences like public drinking, “disorderly conduct,” and fare evasion; and arrest people for minor drug offences. And when police do respond to violent crimes, they often do a pretty bad job of it. I think it was around 50% of people killed by police had some kind of disability. I can’t imagine how unnecessary this would have been if they had the help they needed beforehand.

Funnily enough defunding police activists would actually agree with your suggestion that the police should be replaced with a highly specialised and professionalised organisation of public servants to respond to violent crime. Just that they also argue that the non-violent crime stuff should be handled by the community as a whole. There was an interesting leaflet made by one of said activists (also called Noah, heh) on the issue: http://www.irrelevantpress.com/store/police-abolition-101-a-collaborative-zine-project-nia-amp-interrupting-criminalization

I think the characterisation of the Atlanta activists as “environmentalist-NIMBYs” is unfair. Atlanta tree cover is an important defence against climate change and storm water flooding. But more importantly, some argue it would be better to construct environmentally friendly neighbourhoods, reducing the increasing cost of living across the city (opposite of NIMBYism). Overall, it’s a combination of the environmentalist concerns but just a general attitude that the cost of this project ($90 million of which a third is paid via taxes) is not sufficiently justified by the claimed benefits. A lot of the countries that you showed as having more training hours do not-to the best of my knowledge require massive $90 million training premises in each city in order to achieve this.

Overall this was a really insightful and informative blog post. I find that the central message of creating a more professionalised police force is something everyone can get behind. Just that I think the activist arguments could do with some more thorough engagement as you’ll find more common ground with them on this issue than you might expect.

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While I am fully on board with more training for police, the licensing requirements for cutting hair are just restraint of trade lobbied for by the industry and should be repealed. Until recently in NC you did not need ANY training to be hired by the local sheriff's department. The argument was that when a new sheriff was elected, all the old deputies would resign, so they needed a lot of flexibility to hire fast. The sheriff system needs overhauling too.

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Part of the problem is how hyper local police systems are https://www.liberalcurrents.com/liberal-democracy-and-the-federal-system/

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Leftie myself. I was always thinking this in the back of my mind but this post lays it out v thoroughly and in ways I hadn’t thought of. Not sure about the needing a bachelor’s degree though, as many cop-types simply aren’t the schooling type. Better they spend that time doing paid training in drills and training with active shooter/traffic stop/etc stuff surely

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All good points - but I would also like to add one additional factor that needs to be addressed - 'qualified immunity'. As currently implemented - qualified immunity pretty much lets cops literally get away with murder. As part of the drive towards professionalism I think the laws behind qualified immunity need to be revised For example, congress can issue laws that waive qualified immunity if constitutional rights are violated. In addition, perhaps individual police need to have malpractice insurance, to protect cities from the behavior of a few bad actors. The inability to get insurance would help to eliminate police that don't behave professionally.

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I disagree entirely with requiring someone to have a BA to become a cop.

We've way overcredentialized the US workforce and actually we need to move in the other direction as several states are in eliminating BA degree for many state jobs.

But this is a bad idea especially for police work. BA acts as a kind of IQ filter and, as a matter of fact, in most parts of the US police work is far too boring and repetitive to be interesting to smarter workers.

More training is fine. But let's not do the BA as a prerequisite.

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Jan 29Liked by Noah Smith

I agree training is woefully inadequate, and also poorly vetted/regulated. For example see this terrifying Pro Publica article: https://www.propublica.org/article/911-call-analysis-fbi-police-courts

Oversight and accountability are also extremely for much of local law enforcement, as you note.

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I'm astonished that anyone would think the key to reducing police violence is requiring more educational credentials for police. I shouldn't be, since this is a standard approach toward any responsible position in any area.

The research I've read concludes that nearly all incidents of police violence, especially violence of questionable legitimacy, come from 5 to 8 percent of officers who push policies on use of force to the limit. This is an issue of temperament, not of training. Furthermore, officers' peers and superiors are generally aware of who the "problem" officers are, but are generally unwilling (in the case of peers) and unable (in the cast of superiors) to forcefully address the issue. Some police officers shouldn't be police officers, and police leadership needs to have the authority to remove them from the force. Civil Service procedures and contract provisions make it nearly impossible to remove a problem officer. For an example, I recommend this podcast: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2022/02/this-american-life-reveals-the-dark-depths-of-racism-in-the-us-police-force.

No amount of training, or education, or credentials, will address this issue.

It may be that more training for police officers would be a good idea. It would be interesting to see what additional material is covered in the nearly 3 full years of training that Finnish police receive. But I wouldn't leap to the conclusion that more training leads to less violence.

Noah does briefly mention the content of police training. I think this is a worthwhile topic. I have the impression (without data or firsthand experience) that, since 1990 or so, police training has put more emphasis on the risk of lethal attack that police officers face. This was driven in part by cold facts: killings of police officers rose from 1960 to 1990 along with violent crime in general. If we can believe Wikipedia, the video of the killing of Officer Kyle Dinkheller of San Diego has become a standard part of police training, which may lead to many officers having unrealistic expectations of the dangers they face. It would be worth looking at the content of training, and the lessons officers are expected to take from it.

But requiring bachelors' degrees, or even masters' degrees, for police officers is an idea that could only appeal to people who like school. Obviously, Noah is one of them, and there's nothing wrong with that. I am also one of those people who enjoy school. But I've worked with enough people in enough situations to realize that school is not a useful proxy for general competence.

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I think the professionalized class are doing investigative work for law enforcement (including detectives themselves). A friend's husband is a cop (was SWAT when I met him but has done other types of police work since) and getting an advanced degree was necessary for promotion. And I think people broadly agree that we need a lot more people solving crimes, especially since technology allows them to be more effective than in the past.

A lot of the public conflict, though, involves patrol officers. I'm not sure how easy it will be to professionalize that job given other career options that don't involve dealing with the most troubled members of a heavily armed public. Yes, there are more dangerous jobs, but the risks here are less predictable because they involve human behavior. In high school I did mock trial and our advisor was a detective who became a lawyer. One of my friends (a Berkeley grad) wanted to follow the same career path and even started at the academy after college. However it became clear that spending time on patrol to even reach detective was just not worth it and he became a lawyer instead.

I do think patrol officers are asked to do too many things, especially under adverse or unpredictable circumstances. I also don't think there is a big enough applicant pool to maintain the high quality in all areas of the country. Officers are wasting their time on menial tasks while also doing difficult work that should be handled by other specialists, including mental health specialists. (Same problems we see in Medicine, really.) Beefing the ranks of law enforcement requires more public safety personnel, not just more sworn officers.

Of course this doesn't mean it's acceptable to have the least-educated, unpromotable assholes sort into the most public-facing jobs, but I understand how it could happen. And also why it's hard to get rid of them unless they're caught doing something truly egregious (like murdering unarmed civilians). And sometimes they sort into bad units like we saw with Tyre Nichols' killers. We need more people to do the work understanding that we aren't going to get perfect applicants. I think the biggest step to professionalization needs to be changing the job itself and THAT is going to be an uphill battle.

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While I agree that more professionalism is badly needed, we need to stop thinking about this entirely at the individual level. The behavior of the Memphis Murderous Five shows quite clear how this is very largely cultural and group problem. Organized police forces have only existed for less than two centuries. Armies, with a vastly longer history, have evolved cultural institutions for using violence for political purposes while constraining and delimiting it. We should work to develop and establish cultural institutions for the management of police violence. Law enforcement cannot function without the potential for exercising violence, but our society cannot afford institutions that exercise it in a random and unfocused manner unrelated to political ends.

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Overthinking the problem is a fundamental flaw. Look at the simple profile picture of todays cops. They look like, dress like, paramilitary. They are armed with military gear. Receive military type skill training. Since 9/11 we have militarized local police. Bush Obama did it well. It was surplus equipment they said.

It is policy. At local state and federal levels.

What you see is what you get. Seeing is believing.

This is no surprise to many as it was called out by senior policy folks in early 2000’S. We did this to ourselves. The swamp was sent there by us.

It’s in the legislation. Vote them out.

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Yes!! The lack of training really struck me during a "ridealong" with the police department of an East Coast city.

But it's not just training/investment up-front. It's all about continuous training. I'd estimate that at least 20% of our time in the Navy was spent training. Staffing had to account for this--the reactor plant would have 5 shifts worth of people, but only 4 shifts were "working" the plant. The other shift was dedicated to training. All shifts rotated through a training week, and there was an expectation of some "on shift" training even if your shift was assigned to the plant.

Meanwhile, in the police department I was tagging along with, they'd have like...2-3 days of training per year. So like 1% of their time. We trained ~20x in the Navy.

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One problem that’s obvious to anyone with a background in “combat sports” (wrestling, MMA, etc) is that the cops in the Tyre Nichols video had absolutely no clue what they were doing. Their attempts to restrain him looked more like drunk high schoolers boxing in a basement than an actual attempt to control the situation. This is the reason cities like St. Paul have seen such success after implementing regular Brazilian Jujitsu training for the officers. The theory is very straight forward. If a cop has little or no skill in grappling(physically controlling another person without a weapon), he's going to be extremely stressed when going hands on and he'll be more likely to escalate if the suspect is anything other than perfectly compliant.


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Jan 30·edited Jan 30

Salary levels and training are indeed inconsistent for law enforcement across the country. I am a public school English teacher licensed to teach grades 7-12. I was required to have my bachelor's degree (and within three my master's) and to pass teaching certification exams. To teach in another state, I must either have reciprocity or undergo their state exams to receive certification. It seems to me that we need state qualifications for police officers rather than only local civil service exams and municipal requirements. Effective law enforcement requires integrity, ethics, education, and a commitment to civil service, qualities that our best officers embody. These should be required of all and all should be trained to carry on their duties in the most professional manner. As a mother of a LEO, I applaud Mr. Smith's proposal to invest in better training and professional standards for our police. It is our country and all of its citizens who will benefit from doing so.

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Noah Smith, you have made all the arguments that most level headed people are making at present. I cannot understand, why the American people cling to this belief that they have a right to bear arms. Surely, there have been more than enough deaths from gun related crimes? Kids take guns into their schools, and before anybody knows they are present, they are opening fire on class-mates; causing death and misery to families that will live with them forever. BKBC.

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