State and municipal police academies in the United States are intended to provide cadets with the fundamental skills necessary for a career in law enforcement. However, an overwhelming amount of these instructional hours are devoted to preparing prospective police officers to wage war against the communities that they will soon serve, while neglecting topics that may help de-escalate or prevent a potentially violent encounter altogether. This emphasis on such strategies not only exaggerates the dangers associated with policing and contributes to a flawed understanding of the everyday happenings of police work, but it also normalizes the implementation of violent means to resolve conflict. This, in turn, attracts to the profession individuals with mentalities and skillsets consistent with causing harm and potentially discourages or outwardly excludes those who believe these procedures to be at odds with democratic policing.
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet. --General James "Mad Dog" Mattis (Retired, USMC), Former United States Secretary of Defense
THE COMBAT COURSE OF FIRE WAS PART OF THE CALIFORNIA COMMISSION on Peace Officer Standards and Training's 72-hour state-mandated firearms instructional unit and, in my last few weeks of the police academy, it was all that stood between 22-year-old me and my dream of becoming a police officer. The Combat Course was an exercise test that required police cadets to jump out of the driver's seat of a parked police car, take cover behind the front wheel well of the vehicle, and fire six rounds of service ammunition into a target at a distance of 25 yards. Cadets then ran and took cover behind a barricade, reloaded their weapon, shot six more rounds of ammunition into another target at a distance of 15 yards, reloaded their weapon, and shot six additional rounds into the target using their nondominant hand. Cadets then ran to another barricade, reloaded their weapon, and fired six more rounds of ammunition into another target from a kneeling position at a distance of 10 yards. The course concluded with three final targets and required cadets to reload their weapon a fifth and final time, run up to and fire at point-blank range two rounds of ammunition into the chests and one round into the heads of two of the three remaining targets. The third of these last three targets wore a badge to simulate a fellow officer who had been taken hostage by the remaining two targets, and to so much as point the muzzle of the weapon at this target was an automatic failure. Cadets had to complete the Combat Course in under two minutes, only six rounds of ammunition were allowed to miss their intended target, every missed round resulted in a three-second time penalty, and cadets were required to qualify during both daylight hours and hours of darkness.
By the end of this training module, approximately a dozen of my classmates were dismissed from the police academy, several of whom were compassionate, respectful, and level-headed, and embodied many of the traits that, in the aftermath of so many cases of police violence, are argued by many to be visibly absent from policing as a social institution in the United States. Nevertheless, I watched as cadet after cadet was denied entry into the profession because of their inability to effectively navigate a scenario that mirrored more closely that of a video game than any situation we would likely encounter throughout the duration of our law enforcement careers. It was in these moments on the gun range that I was forced to confront the harsh reality that the romanticized, heroic depiction of the police that had once served as the foundation for my dream of becoming a police officer was drastically at odds with the profession I was about to enter. Rather, I was pursuing a career that above all else valued the ability to cause harm, and most troubling of all, my successful navigation of the Combat Course of Fire had just deemed me fit for duty.
State and municipal police academies in the United States aim to provide cadets with the foundation of skills necessary for a career in law enforcement. However, an overwhelming amount of these instructional hours are devoted to a survival curriculum that emphasizes hyperaggressive strategies aimed to prepare prospective police officers to wage war against the communities that they will soon serve. Such curricula include extensive hours of firearms and chemical agents training, arrest and control tactics, weaponless defense strategies, and less lethal weapons training (Reaves 2016). This not only exaggerates the dangers associated with policing and contributes to a flawed understanding of the everyday happenings of police work, but also normalizes the implementation of violent means to resolve conflict.
This overemphasis on the learning of violent tactics is coupled with minimal police academy curricula on the subject of de-escalation tactics and interpersonal communication skills, as well as limited instructional time on responding to calls for service involving persons with mental health issues. This is particularly concerning when considering that the expansion of violent, state-sponsored social institutions such as the police has been accompanied by the weakening of mental health care, leaving individuals with mental health issues in situations in which their family members and friends are forced to call upon the police for assistance (Hirschfield 2015). Likewise, despite the relentless brutality and continued pattern of disrespect that the police exhibit against communities of color (Martinot 2014), only a limited number of academy instructional hours are devoted to cultural understanding, fair and impartial policing, and procedural law. This emphasis on tactics that are intended to cause harm, coupled with an avoidance of de-escalation strategies and ignorance of the inalienable constitutional provisions the police are duly sworn to respect, facilitates an entitlement to violence among police academy cadets long before they are even sworn into the profession.
Police Academy Training in the United States
Police preservice training has evolved significantly throughout the history of the United States. During the political era of policing (from the 1840s to the early 1900s), police recruits learned the ins and outs of the profession through observing fellow officers, rather than through formalized police academy curricula (Chappell 2008). It was not until 1907 that August Vollmer established the Police School in Berkeley, CA, and recommended that police officers undergo preservice training prior to hitting the streets:
A school for the special training of police officers is a requirement of the times. Those authorized and empowered to enforce the laws, rules and regulations which are intended for the better protection of the public should have some knowledge of the fundamental principles underlying human actions, more especially those actions which are commonly designated as criminal or contrary. (Vollmer & Schneider 1917,878)
Over the course of the next several decades, other agencies followed suit and began establishing preservice training programs for prospective police officers (Wilson 1953).
Despite the expansion of preservice training over the next several decades, police recruits continued to be ill prepared when it comes to the fundamental principles of police work. In President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967 report, the task force found that with regard to police training:
Many courses are unsophisticated and incomplete ... and there is far too little discussion of fundamental principles. The legal limitations on street policing and the proper use of discretion are rarely stressed. Recruits receive too little background in the nature of the community and the role of the police. (President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967,112)
As a result of these troubling findings, the task force recommended that formal police training programs for recruits should consist of an absolute minimum of400 hours of classroom work over a four- to six-month period, combined with a supervised field training program (ibid.).
The last three decades have seen a shift toward community-oriented policing (Reisig 2010). As such, efforts have been made to incorporate community-oriented policing strategies into police academy curricula, in addition to the technical and mechanical aspects of policing (Chappell & Lanza-Kaduce 2010). However, the implementation of strategies aimed at improving community relations and building public trust are drastically at odds with the formal curricula and informal socialization processes in state and municipal police academies across the United States.
Although the vast majority of a police...