There are 18,000 police agencies across the United States, each with its own culture and particular view on police reform. Many of them are now reexamining long-standing training strategies and shifting emphasis from confrontation to de-escalation. Some do better than others.

Facing loud and sustained public protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, police officials have been forced to reduce the use of excessive force. A fundamental shift in public safety strategy is emerging, with a mandate to transform the very nature of police officers from warriors to guardians.

Two Rutgers University centers and the police department of Washington, D.C.  are jumping headfirst into this fray, announcing Wednesday an international initiative to reform police training. The new group, called the Global Consortium for Police Academies and Law Enforcement Training, convened for the first time this past weekend in New Brunswick with a three-day training session attended by 13 of the top police training academy leaders across the nation. Officials from Sweden and Canada also attended.

“Police departments come in all sizes, from departments as small as 3-5 officers to the NYPD with over 30,000. But in countries like America where government is by the consent of the governed, it is essential that police conduct on every scale inspire public confidence,” said John J. Farmer Jr., director of both the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience and the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University; the Eagleton Institute hosted the event. “Where that is lost, law enforcement’s legitimacy is questioned and the constitutional balance between government and governed is threatened. The protests in the past year of George Floyd’s murder were not limited to the jurisdiction where it occurred, but reflected widespread public discontent and have inspired many in law enforcement to engage in restoring public trust as a mission-critical enterprise.”

Uniform training for all agencies?

One of the consortium’s goals is to encourage uniform training for all agencies, many of which are experiencing increased demands for reform along with rising incidents of violence across the United States. The group has already started assembling a database and a repository of best practices.

“Agencies across this country are struggling to identify and implement best practices and data driven approaches for police officer training. This Consortium will positively impact our communities by learning from agencies around the world,” said Marvin Haiman, chief of staff for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.

From America’s “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, many in the public saw police officers as zero-tolerance foreign occupiers patrolling communities in which residents were the enemy. Training has placed a larger emphasis on firearms proficiency and self-defense than it has on conflict management.

One of the seminars conducted this past weekend was entitled “How to thread the needle of culture (guardian vs. warrior) in police education.”

“This Consortium was a phenomenal opportunity … to share best police practices in a variety of areas including community engagement, de-escalation, and the handling of mentally ill persons. Relevant topics of discussion that agencies everywhere are facing on a daily basis,” said Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, also a sponsor of the recent conference.

Striving for community policing

Central to the group’s mission is establishing and improving techniques and strategies for community policing, a long-touted public safety concept that has rarely been realized. Paul Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Miller Institute, noted that the Newark Police Department, however, was cited several times during the consortium’s first conference as an agency that has made great strides in involving the community in its public safety strategy.

“In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, demonstrations turned violent across the country,” he said. “In Newark, the demonstrations were peaceful, and it was not by accident. Newark has been extraordinary in transforming itself and showing us community policing at its best. “

‘In Newark, the demonstrations were peaceful, and it was not by accident.’

Those successes need to be shared, Goldenberg added, so that other agencies can start to develop their own “culture of study, action, reflection and consultation … and contribute to a global body of knowledge.”

Sponsored by the Center on Policing at Rutgers University, Rutgers’ Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience, Rutgers Police, New Jersey State Police and the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, the consortium established several primary lines of action that should be taken, including:

  • Advocacy for Police Training
  • Standardized Training Practices
  • Developing Evidence-based Practices
  • Building Communities of Trust/Community Based Policing
  • Impactful Officer Wellness Programs

Support of former AG Peter Harvey

“I think it’s terrific,” said former state Attorney General Peter Harvey, who five years ago was appointed by the federal government to execute and monitor reform measures in the Newark Police Department. “As usual, the Rutgers Center on Policing is defining the agenda for best policing practices.” The center has also been a partner from the start in the federal oversight of the Newark PD.

“Police officers are going to act on the streets as you teach them,” Harvey said. “Without proper instruction, they are forced to make it up as they go along. And it has to be continuous and systematic training — the same way we ask doctors and lawyers to go back for continuing education.”

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