(NEW YORK) — Law enforcement analysts are calling for numerous changes to the way police are trained in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the fatal police shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina.
Recent high-profile deaths of African-American men are just the latest cases putting the spotlight on how police officers interact with the public, especially in black communities. But each circumstance was slightly different, meaning the changes would range from how police approach suspects to how they deal with suspects once in custody.
Any procedural changes that departments undergo will likely take months or even years to implement, but some are under way already.
Though Baltimore is still reeling in the wake of destructive protests and a week-long, citywide curfew, the city’s mayor has already called for reforms in its police department. One city that has already started implementing changes after a high-profile case of excessive use of force is New York, where Staten Island resident Eric Garner died after being put in a choke hold by police. After the incident, the NYPD announced a major overhaul to their training practices, including revised training for firearms, communication skills and appropriate uses of force.
Technological advancements in “less than lethal” weapons, such as Tasers, rubber bullets and pepper spray, are also seen as tools that could help.
“Technology is constantly evolving so we have to be aware of that so we can send officers out with the best technology,” James O’Keefe, the former Deputy Commissioner for Training at the NYPD who currently works as a criminal justice professor at St. John’s University, told ABC News.
Tweaks to training venues and how specifically they are trained could also help. Richard Beary, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, predicts that more departments will begin using “scenario-based training” models, where officers train in simulation programs as opposed to “just standing there shooting at targets.”
Some training policies have been in place for decades, such as the 21-foot rule, a guideline used by police to determine when to use lethal force against an armed attacker. A report published in the 1980s claimed an armed attacker could cover a distance of 21 feet in the same time it took an officer to draw, aim and fire their weapon.
“Pretty much every police department in the country covers that in their curriculum,” O’Keefe noted. “It’s a guideline, not a rule. But if that’s not taught properly, some young cop could shoot a guy and he could find himself in civil and/or criminal trouble.”
O’Keefe said he expects the rule to remain in the NYPD’s curriculum but that educators will be more detailed in the way they teach the guideline. The NYPD declined a request by ABC News for comment on the 21-foot rule.
Physical skills won’t be the only portion of training addressed in these changes, Beary said, noting that crisis intervention training, which focuses on de-escalation tactics and listening skills, will make a big impact on the interactions that officers have with suspects.
Beary said that such training “goes beyond the shouting at you to try to determine the cause of the situation.”
“I really think that is going to be one of the key parts that transforms use of force,” he said.
Some think training on a more moral level has to start from outside the department. O’Keefe said he believes that every officer working in a major city should be required to have a bachelor’s degree.
“You’ll always need the police academy segment but I think they need to be pre-educated beforehand,” he said, adding that “a common antidote to racial tension is education.”
But public pressure to change police procedures can be both positive and negative, experts said.
The public scrutiny has prompted some departments to invite members of the public to go through their training courses in an effort to show the difficulties of their job, Beary said.
Alternatively, former NYPD Sgt. Joe Giacalone said that the pressure could lead to potentially fatal second-guessing on the part of some officers.
“With the anti-cop sentiment that we have in this country now, some officers, especially younger officers, are even reluctant to have their gun out of the holster now,” Giacalone told ABC News.
“That hesitation is going to lose some cop his life,” he said.
The amount of red tape in each department and state differs, meaning that changes will take time, but like all permanent change, O’Keefe said it has to come from within.
“After years of training thousands of cops I’ve come to the realization the force has to change from the inside out,” O’Keefe said.
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