New York Daily News
Cops need training from real teachers
The police beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis was despicable. As a former police captain and an expert on police behavior, however, it was not surprising. This is a well-known phenomenon that has its roots in the police culture. Police, due to the dangerousness of their work environment, need to maintain respect on the streets. To do this, officers stick together.
Three decades ago, the Mollen Commission in New York City examined the actions of corrupt officer Michael Dowd who took advantage of the police culture knowing that officers do not “rat each other out.” He worked for drug dealers in a crime spree based on lust for money and drugs.
All officers are subject to this culture because they need to rely on their colleagues to protect them in dangerous times. These officers lose sight of their mission in order to appease other officers who they rely on for safety in the streets. This is especially true of aggressive, street crime fighting units. Indeed, we have seen such aggression before with the Rodney King beating, the assault of Abner Louima, and the shooting of Amadou Diallo, among similar situations.
The police have one of the most difficult jobs in a democracy. They have countless pressures on them from communities, the media, unions, supervisors, training, the law, other officers, and much more.
The culture starts at the police academy. Police trainers, at times unknowingly, inculcate the importance of culture. Rookies are tested by tenured officers who are not sure if these officers can be trusted to assist their comrades. While cops do not necessarily do things exactly by the book, they do rely on other officers to support them. The initial police report in Memphis that was leaked shows a bias toward the officers’ account.
How can we change this culture? The answer is we probably cannot change it, but we can try to control its effects. At a minimum, wholesale reforms in training must occur. We need to get the training out of the hands of the police themselves. That is, police need to be trained at universities just like nurses and teachers. In this way, the trainers are university professors who can teach the police culture without the pressures of superiors or the use of officer trainers who will undoubtedly, knowingly, or not, pass on the traditions of the past.
The culture may be passed on through simple things like “war stories” or a wink or nod. Also, universities can instill a deep understanding of the critical role officers have in a democracy. This is sometimes lost on police leaders as they develop a myopic focus on controlling crime. New officers need to understand that the role of policing is not simply to fight crime but to protect due process rights. The NYPD, especially its leaders, lost sight of this in the stop and frisk controversy where they put high quotas on officers forcing them to violate people’s rights.
Universities can point out the importance of the social contract such as evolving community standards and build community trust. At one time some level of abusing suspects informally may have been acceptable or at least tolerated. Altering this is not going to happen from within.
Today, officers fear repercussions for doing their difficult work. In police work sometimes things get ugly. Policing is not as pristine as many would like, and officers know that. The public expects police to be perfect — the “CSI” effect where juries expect more evidence like a TV show.
We must take the vast majority of recruit training out of the hands of the police and move it to universities to teach more fairly, expose students to diverse ideas, and other students not on a police-career track. Prospective officers would be trained in many areas such as police science, law, democracy, and much more. They would get a license to be a police officer after passing board examinations established by each state. They would then be eligible to attend police academies after attaining this certificate.
This would also have the added advantage of freeing up many officers assigned to police academies, save millions of dollars that could be used elsewhere, and have a cadre of recruits completely college educated. Some training would have to stay at the academy such as shooting and driving, but we could iron out the specifics. Overall, training must change drastically. To reform a culture requires innovative thinking. Recruit training at universities — given the brutality we are seeing repeatedly — is an idea whose time has come.