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Former Police Officer Says Training Methods For Cops Need To Change

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

As America continues to reckon with racial injustice and what policing should look like, some former law enforcement officers, like Randy Shrewsberry, believe part of the solution is changing the way officers are trained to do their jobs. He's the founder of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform and joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.

RANDY SHREWSBERRY: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: You were an officer for 13 years, and you attended three different police academies in the early part of your career. Did you feel that the training you received was not adequate?

SHREWSBERRY: No, and there's a couple of issues that I saw with training. No. 1 was just, was there simply enough time? And this is using today's data. So when we look at just criminal law, on average, police officers only receive about 60 hours of training in law. And that has to cover constitutional law, federal criminal law, federal transportation law, state criminal law, state traffic laws, local ordinances and civil liability. There's just no way in the period of time that they're given that they would be able to be trained adequately.

Now, the other issue that I saw is fear-based models of training. What this leads to is a training of possibility versus probability. And so officers are reacting to things that probably are statistically unlikely to happen. Or if they were to happen, it was very anecdotal. If it's a warrior-based style training, then that implies the rest of us are potential enemy combatants. But it's stressful for the officers themselves. And what we know is, is police officers are far more likely to kill themselves, nearly five times as likely, than to ever be killed in the line of duty. And we think that this kind of fear-based training is contributing to that.

ELLIOTT: You wrote a piece a few years ago titled "I Was A Racist Cop." And you discuss in that what you saw as a culture of racism in which you yourself participated. How so?

SHREWSBERRY: I say regularly that not all police officers are racist. But police officers are regularly asked to do racist things. If we, you know, use the war on drugs as an example, which is a failed policy that absolutely targets one community group versus another, we know that all ethnic groups use and deal drugs relatively at the same rate. But, you know, a person of color is far more likely to have an interaction with the police, to be arrested. So just by virtue of some of these policies, you know, are asking officers to do racist things.

ELLIOTT: So what needs to be different in the way that policing works in the U.S.?

SHREWSBERRY: Well, first and foremost, we just - we have to expand training. The other thing is, is a refocus on de-escalation and alternatives to arrest that allows them to be stewards of the community instead of only an arm of enforcement.

I'd like to also say that we're not going to train our way out of this problem. This has to be coupled with policies. And since George Floyd's death, you know, we see some small but albeit positive reevaluations about where is the police's role in our society. And so when we look at what is the focus that police officers are spending their time on as an example, which we see with Mr. Wright this week, is, was it a good use of resources for a police officer to be, you know, stopping somebody for an expired license plate when that's something that can be handled administratively by the DMV?

ELLIOTT: You know, police are asked to risk their lives to protect communities. You know, you mentioned how officers are killed in the line of duty. Gun violence is real. You know, just look at the tragic mass shooting we had this week in Indianapolis. So how do you strike the right balance here?

SHREWSBERRY: We are asking our officers to run towards danger for which the rest of us are running away from. And I never want to minimize the responsibility that police officers are taking on in doing that. But it can't be the sole thing. We have to give them the tools for de-escalation, for dealing with mental health. We have to rely on policy changes so that we can reduce the interactions. This is critical. If we don't reduce the number of times the police are coming in contact with the public, then the outcomes just certainly aren't going to change.

ELLIOTT: That's Randy Shrewsberry, former police officer now with the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SHREWSBERRY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.