An imbalance exists in police training: the actual daily demands of law enforcement officers are poorly reflected in the way in which they are trained. This begins in academy settings where trainees—recruited from the military—are honing firearm proficiency and force-option skills, training for the most combative situations to prepare for the worst. This military model for training has been applied in nearly half of police academies; being geared for battle after graduating through the 1033 program creates a further disconnect between expectation and reality. As stated in the recent webinar on the neuroscience of de-escalation delivered by the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI);
“When we understand the context of culture, and the culture of law enforcement as it is, so many training academies today in 2020 are doing things because this is the way it’s always been done”explains Joe Smarro, CEO of Solution Point + and main subject of the Emmy-award winning HBO Documentary Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops. “We evolve at a very different pace than the society around us, and that creates [a] disconnect.”
The current reality of training inadequacies doesn’t end with the academies. Police want continued education once they graduate, but resource limitations often prevent adequate training from happening at the pace at which it is required. While calls for broad-brush police reform have received pushback from the law enforcement industry’s leading association, some prominent agencies like Boston PD are embracing opportunities to evolve. As a sign of continued progress, the need for reform has prompted the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to hold a summit and publish their de-escalation strategies and techniques. This is a comprehensive approach to ensuring de-escalation is not only thoroughly trained but fully understood by officers and members of the public alike. Some say this approach is inadequate; however, the uniting answer might be equipping officers with not just more training, but more substantial training—a solution upon which both sides can agree.
“I’d love to see 20% of officer time on duty spent training to actively keep skills from decaying, but the reality is resources don’t provide for that,” explains Dr. Nancy Panza, forensic and police psychologist who recently discussed the problems with police training on the Joe Rogan Experience. “When you look at the makeup of police academy training, it’s so short… they do need more training, but more importantly they need the right type of training.”
We know improvements are needed in de-escalation training, and that there is money available in the CARES Act to fund it. But before agencies make mistakes and approach this critical part of reform without careful consideration, here are a few things to bear in mind to ensure that money isn’t wasted:
#1: Understand the real “why” first. By asking why the training is needed, leaders can drill down to the realities of the work and identify issues that need to be tackled either at an individual level or as an organization. Research shows that behavior change requires motivation to change, understanding the brain-based factors we need to have in mind to help us move the needle, one behavior at a time, and the group dynamics that guide our behavior: “Humans explicitly and consciously look to others for “social proof” to determine appropriate behaviors and to understand changing norms, such as the development of new habits at the organizational level.” Some questions to ask include: are there just a few new officers that need training, or is the entire program in need of an overhaul? Is the agency checking a box to appease the latest societal complaint and mitigate agency liability, or does leadership observe a systemic need?
If the why is clear and leadership is committed to taking action on the necessary improvements but officers still feel obliged instead of inspired to follow the lead, take a closer look at the culture.
#2: Foster a culture that embraces progress and adjustments, instead of maintaining status quo attitudes of “tried and true” or “we always have done it this way.” This means going beyond buy-in and developing an organizational culture in such a way that stakeholders embrace—and even seek—developments as part of an intrinsic and beneficial process. One lens through which to view this approach is to embrace the concept of growth mindset that allows us to reframe what we experience as a positive, ongoing process of improvements. Both on individual and organizational levels, we can be better equipped to adjust, course-correct our way of doing things, learn from mistakes, or hear constructive feedback without the looming feeling of failure we so often experience when stuck in a fixed mindset. Adopting or adjusting to a new way of behaving requires us to face a change, and change does not come easy. In fact, we need to remember that our brains process change events in either of two ways: as a potential threat that can cause distress and make us feel overwhelmed, or as a challenge which elicits an eustress response—a form of positive stress that creates an energizing result instead of a debilitating one.
#3: Ensure training programs are built upon a solid framework of empirical research and science. Until we understand the link between our physiology and its impact on human behavior, we will struggle to adopt and sustain a new behavior on both individual and group levels. Taking a science-based approach to effective de-escalation means not just going through the motions, but actually understanding what escalation is, how it looks to the naked eye, and what happens behind the scenes in both the brain and the body.
The problem of inadequate de-escalation training remains a reality for most agencies, but it isn’t too late to address. It is during a prolonged state of crises where paradigm shifts occur, and this is actually the perfect time to embrace science-based solutions. This is why NLI and MILO Range have partnered to deliver a groundbreaking interactive de-escalation training program. The first step of that program is a science-based briefing available for free to US federal and state law enforcement agencies through the remainder of 2020.
“We need opportunities like this to be implemented years and even decades after officers graduate, and to continue throughout their careers to regularly assess performance and make sure they’re on the right path,” Dr. Panza continues. “Observations of the de-escalation training that NLI and MILO Range are conducting can help determine if an officer is healthy, or if they might be approaching a dangerous place in need of some help.”
Dr. Joy VerPlanck leads research efforts and curriculum development at MILO Range Training Systems, ensuring innovation continues to be developed upon empirical academic research. She earned her doctorate in Educational Technology from Central Michigan University, with research on the effects of simulator training on the cognitive load and creative thinking of law enforcement officers attempting to de-escalate. She previously served as a Captain in the US Army Military Police Corps.
Dr. Kamila Sip is the Senior Director of Neuroscience Research and the Science Content Lead for the NLI’s Education Programs. At NLI, Kamila manages and oversees the implementation of science-based content into NLI’s solutions, ensuring rigorous scientific findings are translated in a digestible and actionable style while maintaining the integrity of the science behind them. Her Ph.D. is in the Neuroscience of Human Deception from Aarhus University in Denmark in partnership with the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging in the UK.