On January 7, 2023, five Memphis police officers beat an unarmed Tyre Nichols to death. Nichols was Black—and so are the officers who killed him.
That complicates the usual narrative of racism as a motivator for disproportionate police violence against Black people. But, as UC Berkeley law professor john powell argues in Greater Good, we shouldn’t be surprised: “Police officers, whatever their color, belong to a system that discriminates by race while incentivizing the over-policing and under-protecting of the Black community.”
According to Mapping Police Violence, law enforcement killed 1,123 people in 2022, which is actually down slightly from the previous two years; almost every year, Black people were almost three times more likely to be killed than white people. In 10% of those deadly encounters, civilians were unarmed. According to one study, unarmed Black people are two times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed whites.
While it’s necessary to highlight how history, culture, economics, and laws have shaped the Black community’s experience with police, there’s another factor to consider: American police are not well trained compared to counterparts in other developed, democratic countries—and the training they get emphasizes violence at the expense of peaceful conflict resolution. Perhaps as a result, citizens of the United States are much more likely to be hurt or killed by their own police than those in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea; in most of Europe and Japan, most years, your chance of being killed by police is almost zero, no matter what your race.
By almost every measure, those countries represent a better way. If Americans want to reduce the violence in their homes, schools, businesses, and streets, we’d do well to try to learn from them. But more than that, voters and political leaders need to find the will and the funds to train the law enforcement Americans need.
How police are trained
The United States has no national standard for police training; that’s handled by 18,000 local agencies. On average, cops in the United States are trained for about three months before starting work, according to a report from the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform (ICJTR). That varies a great deal by state, from 360 hours of training for officers in Louisiana to 900 in Massachusetts. At the other end of the international spectrum, police in Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands are trained for three years; in many European countries, police train for around two years.
Indeed, in a comparison of 100 countries, the ICJTR found that police in the United States had the lowest number of hours of training. (Many departments continue post-academy, on-the-job training under more experienced officers, but that’s true abroad, as well.) In addition, many other developed countries offer or require a college degree to become a police officer, and many require more hours of training for those with only the equivalent of a high school degree; not so in the United States.
Why should that be the case? Paul Hirschfield is a sociologist at Rutgers University who studies legal control of deadly force by police. According to him, the paucity of police training arises from how Americans fund and manage government and higher education.
“There seems to be widespread consensus in the U.S., including among the police themselves, that police need and deserve longer and better training.”
“In the USA, state governments set training standards and are certainly free to increase the minimum length of training and to tighten curricular requirements,” he says. “But states understandably have many other fixed and discretionary spending priorities (e.g., education, housing, health, etc.) and increased funding for police training is typically not one of them.”
Thus, the costs of training fall to the recruits themselves, in the form of tuition. In most other developed countries, police training is the responsibility of national or sometimes provincial governments, and it’s more generously funded by higher rates of taxation.
“Most national police colleges in Northern Europe provide about two years of top-notch education (which includes courses that everyone agrees police need, like psychology, law, communications, and cultural awareness) for free,” says Hirschfield. “Not surprisingly, they have no trouble attracting upstanding recruits.”
Since the training time available is so short, American police academies prioritize one thing above all: weapons and self-defense.
How training might encourage violence
The result for Americans is a police force that is, by international standards, poorly educated and trained—and nonetheless the third most highly paid in the world. It’s also one of the most heavily armed. How heavily?
In many economically developed, democratic countries, police officers do not normally carry sidearms—weapons are issued for special situations or only to specially licensed personnel. For example, British officers must serve years as constables and have an excellent record before they can apply for firearm authorization. If they pass an initial screening, they take a two-month course. If they pass the course—which is by no means guaranteed—most will remove their weapon from a locked compartment only when directed to do so by a superior officer.
The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, with 120.5 firearms per 100 residents—and the guns have become progressively more deadly as Congress and the courts have lifted restrictions on the kinds of firearms and ammunition that can be sold.
Since you don’t bring a taser to a gunfight, every American police officer carries at least a semi-automatic pistol—and in recent decades, law enforcement has fallen into a kind of arms race with the public.
Since the 1970s, the number of better-armed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams has risen a stunning 1,500%. In 1997, President Bill Clinton introduced the 1033 program, which allowed the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment to police. Since then, local agencies have received hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment every year, from relatively benign items like night-vision goggles to weapons of war like combat vehicles, assault rifles, and grenade launchers.
Rather than saving lives, this police militarization seems to contribute to violence. According to a 2017 report in the American Economic Journal, these arms did nothing to reduce crime rates—a finding backed up by two studies published in 2020. However, according to another study published in 2017, the weapons were associated with more civilian deaths. Indeed, multiple psychological studies find that the mere presence of weapons can make people more aggressive.
In short, the politicians elected by voters have made a series of conscious decisions to fund weapons over more training for police. What training they do receive reflects that priority. In American police academies, according to a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, cadets get a median of 60 hours of firearms training and 51 hours in self-defense—but just eight hours on mediation and conflict resolution.
Because American police training “heavily emphasizes the use of force,” says Hirschfield, “American police learn that danger is ever-present and they must always be prepared to swiftly and preemptively respond to threats to their safety.”
Of course, no weapons beyond batons were involved with the death of Tyre Nichols. He was simply beaten to death. In Memphis, where Nichols was killed, police train for about five and a half months. Would better and longer training have made a difference?
What are the solutions?
“Deficiencies in police training may play an important role in this case, but, then again, they may not,” says Hirschfield.
“The vast majority of American police officers would assert that the large majority of the blows inflicted upon Mr. Nichols clearly violated the use-of-force protocols that they studied and practiced in their academy training, and I’m sure most were neither surprised nor disappointed that these officers were fired for these violations.”
Training is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle, of course. Even years of training can’t “fix” issues like racial and economic inequality, inadequacy of mental health services, the ubiquity of guns in American society, or images of heroically violent police in movies, TV, and video games.
In addition, there are many police reforms on the table that go beyond training, including how officers are recruited and screened, revised guidelines for use of force and traffic stops, more centralized data collection, and more serious consequences for violations of civil rights.
But the evidence from abroad and from within the United States suggests that higher standards and better, longer training can make a difference, particularly since the violence in Memphis is not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern. It’s hard to say for sure if different police training could have saved Nichols’s life—but it’s certainly plausible that greater repetition of use-of-force protocols and more emphasis on de-escalation practices could have helped the officers who killed him to control violent impulses and find other solutions.
“I do think that extreme aggression applied to a suspect whose only ‘threats’ appeared to be his failure to readily comply with police commands and his flight from police custody is more common among American police officers than among police in any other developed country,” says Hirschfield. “And I believe that police training—along with related laws, policies, and administrative processes (like supervision and discipline)—can help explain these general patterns.”
What changes do we need? In 2015—in the wake of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people—President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report that drew on decades of research to form a series of recommendations for reform. Here’s a list distilled from all that work (unless indicated otherwise, quoted passages are from the Task Force report), focused on training.
1. “Change the culture of policing . . . by training officers about how to protect human rights, dignity, and public safety for all.” This entails shifting the police-training mindset from what is often described as a “warrior culture” to one that emphasizes “guardianship” or service. That includes going beyond police academies to revisiting “field training officer processes to ensure they match up with the guardian culture of policing.”
2. “Undertake trainings and organizational change that address procedural justice.” Procedural justice is a model of policing that focuses on respect, neutrality, and transparency. When Chicago police were put through a program of just one-day training on procedural justice, a 2020 study found that it led to a reduction in both uses-of-force and citizen complaints.
3. Learn how to apologize for mistakes. “A number of law enforcement agencies have taken the step of acknowledging past law enforcement involvement in discrimination and injustice,” says the Task Force report. Indeed, one 2020 experiment found that combining “acknowledgement of responsibility” for community mistrust with apologies for specific events resulted in greater willingness on the part of study participants to cooperate with police.
4. Train for implicit bias and de-escalation. Right now, by international standards, American police training puts too much emphasis on weapons and use of force. And despite the prominence of race and racism in public discussion of policing, in fact most American police receive little training specifically on race, unconscious bias (including internalized racism), confronting prejudice in the ranks, bridging cultural differences, and languages. By shifting training away from violence and toward nonviolent conflict resolution, we might save lives.
5. Train officers in empathy and mindfulness. Though not mentioned explicitly in the Task Force report, fostering a sense of awareness of your own feelings and those of other people undergirds many of its proposals. As my colleague Jill Suttie described in 2016, officers who participated in a Seattle program called LEED (Listening and Explaining with Equity and Dignity) were “50% less likely to use force in an encounter, even though they were involved in the same number of encounters as other police.” In another article published that year, Suttie describes how mindfulness training for police led, for example, to “significant improvement in self-reported mindfulness, resilience, police and perceived stress, burnout, emotional intelligence, difficulties with emotion regulation, mental health, physical health, anger, fatigue, and sleep disturbance.”
6. “Open trainings to the public and allow observers.” This innovative proposal involves integrating “community members as trainers—for example, in sessions on community perceptions about enforcement tactics, levels of trust, and areas for dialogue.” This is, in part, an empathy-building proposal, designed to help police officers see the communities they serve as complicated human beings who have their own needs and values.
In the wake of the President’s Task Force report, a survey of 47 of the largest law-enforcement agencies found that 39% changed their use-of-force policies and revised training to incorporate more de-escalation tactics. Among the agencies surveyed, shootings dropped by 21%.
What’s troubling is that over 60% of the largest agencies apparently changed nothing, at least in that time period. When Democrats in Congress put forward the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last year—which Hirschfield calls “the most ambitious piece of police reform I have ever seen”—Senate Republicans killed it with a filibuster.
We shouldn’t despair, particularly since most police reform is carried out at the state and local level. In fact, 24 states have enacted laws to restrict use of force, and a dozen have “passed substantive reforms,” says Hirschfield.
“The problem is that the movement for reform did not take hold in the states (with the exception of Colorado) with the highest prevalence of excessive deadly force,” he adds. Those are also states, like New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Nevada, with relatively small Black populations, where in fact “the vast majority of excessive force victims are not Black.”
Tyre Nichols was Black and so were his killers; police officers of all races use excessive force with many different kinds of people. These are tragedies that might become an opportunity for reframing police reform as an issue that crosses racial lines.
“There seems to be widespread consensus in the U.S., including among the police themselves, that police need and deserve longer and better training,” says Hirschfield. We can’t look to police to enact those reforms alone if voters and politicians can’t find the will or the ways to invest in their training. We owe it to them and to people like Tyre Nichols to try.