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Current Trends in Law Enforcement Training

Jack Ryan, attorney and retired police captain, and co-director of Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute, recently provided a video update of current trends in law enforcement training for members of the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund and SC Municipal Insurance Trust.

Following recent deaths — such as those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — legislators and special interest groups have suggested that law enforcement leaders examine the need for officers to receive training in the areas of implicit bias, de-escalation, procedural justice and constitutional policing. Ryan’s presentation provided insights on these topics.

Implicit bias
A police officer’s implicit or unconscious bias can influence the officer’s decision making when encountering a subject. Officers sometimes reject the term "implicit bias" because of a lack of understanding of its meaning. The term refers to the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations and feelings, even when these are contrary to one’s conscious or declared beliefs. Implicit bias refers to the way the brain processes information based on an individual’s background and lived experiences. 

Ryan pointed out research showing that the objective of implicit bias training is not to remove biases from the officer, but to raise awareness and help officers to understand the presence of those biases. The expected outcome of training is for the learner to recognize biases and to practice decision making without being influenced by the biases. The greater the officer’s awareness of these biases, the less the officer will use them during an encounter.

The topic of de-escalation, Ryan said, had once focused on teaching an officer to use one type of force and then transition to a lesser form of force as de-escalation occurred. The focus has shifted from de-escalating the force, to de-escalating the event — an attempt to lessen the intensity or slow the pace of the events happening. Ryan explained that most contemporary de-escalation training theorizes that an officer should always try to de-escalate a situation without using force. The renewed focus is for the officers to deflect animosity away from themselves.

In the past, officers learned to use this method when responding to such situations as a mentally ill individual or a person in some type of crisis. Ryan suggested using the technique more routinely. De-escalation training focuses on teaching officers to ask for cooperation, not demand it. It also focuses on slowing down, listening, being empathetic, letting the subject talk and giving them a voice. The goal is for an officer to change the dynamic of the situation by calming the subject, not provoking anger that creates a defensive response.

Ryan noted that this type of training can seem counterintuitive relative to the way many officers were typically trained in the past — to continue the progression and not to give up ground. De-escalation sometimes requires the officer to back off to diffuse the situation. The technique can make an encounter safer for both the officer and safer for the individual.

Even so, understanding that the officer must always use discretion is critical. Some situations simply cannot be de-escalated through understanding and verbal discussion, leaving the officer no choice but to respond to active resistance.

Procedural justice
Procedural justice focuses on the way the police interact with members of the public. This concept helps create the public’s view of the police and their willingness to obey the law or to be compliant. Procedural justice speaks to four focus areas to consider when an officer encounters an individual: 

  • Give citizens a voice during encounters.
  • Be transparent and trustworthy in the explanation of what law is being enforced and why.
  • Be fair and impartial in decision making — help the subject understand the decision to enforce the law is against the behavior, not against them personally.
  • Treat people with dignity and respect.

Training in this area helps officers understand that every encounter, even ones that end in an arrest, creates an opportunity to build relationships within the community. Each encounter builds trust and fosters a positive public perception of law enforcement. Ryan pointed out that officers will occasionally make mistakes in policing. When departments that instill procedural justice policing within their force, Ryan said, the community tends to support a department after a mistake, because it views law enforcement agency with respect and as a trusted partner.

Constitutional policing
The final area Ryan discussed was constitutional policing. When officers are sworn in, they take an oath to follow the Constitution, upholding the civil rights of individuals. In law enforcement, the only national standard that applies to all officers, at every level, are those cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Officers need to have working knowledge of the rules according to the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Ryan noted that a new officer receives training based on the current Supreme Court decisions and potentially never receives updates after that. The officer will then act according to what they learned, sometimes years ago, when the law may have changed. Periodically updated training on Supreme Court cases is critical in ensuring officers have the knowledge needed to uphold the constitution and protect the rights of those they serve.

Strengthening relationships
While external influences may be causing some agencies to examine current policies, procedures, and training programs, strengthening relationships with local communities is likely on the top of the list for many departments. With a focus on training in the areas of implicit bias, de-escalation, procedural justice and constitutional policing will help further build and improve relationships between law enforcement and local communities. 

SCMIT and SCMIRF members can find Jack Ryan's video presentation here