State lawmakers in Tennessee have responded to the brutal killing of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols at the hands of police by proposing new training to help police officers de-escalate situations and check implicit biases.
Similar calls surged in 2020 after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and in 2014 during the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. Such trainings broadly seek to change how police relate to the public and often use principles from psychological science to alter officer behavior.
“There are a bunch of promising training approaches, but a lot of the evidence is mixed,” said Calvin Lai, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies implicit bias. “Many of them are good at changing what officers believe and might even be pretty good at motivating officers to think about things differently,” he said. “But in terms of actual changes in law enforcement actions, like what they are actually doing on the job, that’s been much trickier to find evidence of.”
Part of the problem is that these trainings are often viewed as add-ons, boxes on a list that can be checked off and forgotten about instead of actively maintained. “Many departments go in, take a module of training one day and then go back to their job where they might not get the training for another year,” Lai said. “And they get a lot of counter messaging from their peers — ‘That’s what they said in the classroom, but this is how it works out here.’”
In search of justice
One approach that’s gained attention in recent years is “procedural justice” training, which focuses on making the process of policing more fair — in ways that are visible to public — to build trust and legitimacy.
Traditionally, “police are trained to overcome what they perceive to be resistance by more force,” said Tom Tyler, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University. “Procedural justice is a toolkit to say you can approach these situations in a different way.”
The basic idea, he said, is to teach police to approach the public in ways the public perceives as fair, based on research: acting transparently, applying processes fairly, providing opportunity for people to be heard, being impartial when making decisions. When done correctly, the idea goes, “there’s less likelihood of conflict, of escalation, of anger, of excessive use of force or really any use of force,” Tyler added.
The four principles of procedural justice are being fair in processes, being transparent in actions, providing opportunity for voice and being impartial in decision-making. “It’s giving people an opportunity to explain themselves, being clear about what they’re accused of doing and what the rules are, treating the person with dignity and communicating a concern about the situation the person is in,” said Tyler.
The trainings themselves can vary widely, from day-long workshops to 40-hour classes that involve extensive use of videos, role-playing and discussion. The gist is to get officers to think about how they’re understood by the public and approach encounters differently. Some include sections on the historical reasons for why minority group members might be suspicious of the police.
Does it work?
While it’s hard to draw broad conclusions about the effectiveness of procedural justice training, the existing evidence suggests that it can be helpful, if not a complete solution, said Cody Telep, a criminologist at Arizona State University and co-author of the hotspot study. “It’s really just the last several years that we’ve seen efforts to try to apply this to training programs for police,” he said, and more research is needed to understand what sort of training scheme is most effective. That might include more frequent training or instituting such methods at police academies.
Another training target is implicit bias, or prejudicial attitudes towards a particular group that operate below the level of conscious awareness. Implicit bias likely contributes to racial disparities in police use of force, and the trainings seek to make officers aware of such biases and give strategies for countering them. A majority of states require police officers receive such training, but there’s actually little real-world evidence it changes police officer behavior in the streets.
“Officers who are taking these kinds of implicit bias trainings, they’re learning more, they buy into the idea and motivated to use the strategies they’ve learned,” said Lai, who is about to publish research similar to the NYPD study. “But when we look at the follow through, we’re just not seeing it. The effects are fleeting, and there’s little or no observable influence on actual policing behaviors a month or several months later.”
Why is the evidence so mixed?
“I don’t want to undermine the notion that in a randomized control trial you might be able to change an individual officers’ behavior or citizen perspectives,” said Yanilda María González, a political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School. “But when those types of reforms are put within a system of zero structural change, it’s very likely that their impact will be limited in reducing police violence,” she said.
There’s also an issue with police behavioral training being treated as a box to tick off once a year or less and then forgotten about. One key to changing that culture could be better supervision on the job, said Jim Burch, president of the National Policing Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and policy organization.
“An agency may have said, ‘We’re going to follow de-escalation training,’ but if the supervision isn’t there at the field level, then it almost negates the policies and procedures in place to guard against these things,” he said. Changing supervision structures and practices could help reinforce better behavior, he said.
Such supervision is especially important for specialized units, like the Scorpion Unit in Memphis involved in the killing of Tyre Nichols and since dissolved. These groups often operate outside of a police department’s normal control structure. “I think it’s often taken for granted that supervision is there,” said Burch, pointing to reactions of surprise that the police involved in Nichols’ death did what they did while wearing body cameras. The officers “were probably aware that most agencies rarely review the footage unless something compels them to do so.” Without accountability, promising measures will fall short.
Incentives matter too. Many police departments incentivize outcomes like tickets or arrests as a means of advancement, something experts say can work against trainings aimed at reducing use of force. “Officers are just like everyone else, they’re going to follow the incentives,” said Lai. Changing those incentives toward reducing complaints or more subjective assessments might be a more structural way of shifting behavior.
Police departments are often resistant to larger, more structural changes, which could limit the impact of pushes for procedural justice, de-escalation or implicit bias training. “I do worry about [the idea that] because small reforms, like a single day of training, aren’t worth doing because they aren’t changing all of the outcomes overnight,” said Lai. “We’re working in a space where most interventions are going to have small effects,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet.”
Still, that doesn’t mean such interventions aren’t worth doing, said González. “We just have to have realistic expectations of what can be achieved in the absence of deeper structural reform.”
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