It isn't just a few bad apples in police departments across the country who, on average, have killed 1,000 people each year. Rather, it is dedicated public servants whose training has failed them—and the country. The United States lags woefully behind most other wealthy countries in police training, according to experts, leading to needless fatalities and undermining public trust in law enforcement.
The Sept. 4 shooting of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who suffers from autism and anxiety, is an example of police training that emphasizes force and immediacy. During a psychotic episode, Cameron, who had committed no crime, ran from his Salt Lake City home. Officers gave chase, ordered him to stop and when he didn't obey, they shot him multiple times. He survived but was seriously injured and faces a long recovery with injuries to his shoulder, both ankles, intestines and bladder, according to a GoFundMe account set up to help with his medical expenses.
The average police training in this country is 17 weeks—4 months. There are no national standards, and training varies widely from state to state. In Utah, law enforcement officers are trained at the state Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) academy for 16 weeks. Depending on the agency, they may receive more training. Salt Lake City operates its own POST-certified academy, where cadets get 22 weeks of training, followed by 16 weeks of on the job training with a veteran officer.
In western European countries, however, police cadets go through two to three years of training. It includes college-level courses in psychology, sociology, communications and other fields that train cadets to effectively deal with the people. The training there focuses on non-lethal outcomes.
Nationally, police in this country shoot and kill 3.42 people per million (about 1,000 per year). That's 30 to 300 times more often than in western European countries.
What is never mentioned in media reports, however, is the trauma suffered by the officers involved. According to clinical psychologist Wayne R. Hill, the trauma is real, but officers do not always feel free to speak of their disturbing feelings. In the long run, that can lead to emotional isolation, depression and even suicide. Last year, 228 police officers in the U.S. killed themselves.
More expansive training is better for everyone involved, said Kirk Burkhalter, a former New York City detective who now teaches at New York Law School. "This is not a zero-sum game," he said. Better training "can achieve what's best for all parties."
The use of deadly force by police is front and center again in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But while Floyd died of asphyxiation from an officer's knee on his neck, most of the 1,000 or so deaths each year attributed to police are the result of gunshots wounds.
Recent shootings in Atlanta, Georgia; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Salt Lake City and across the nation show a pattern emerging that leads to police shootings: Officers approach a suspect and give instruction. If the suspect does not respond properly, physical force is applied; if that's unsuccessful, a taser is deployed; and if that doesn't render the suspect compliant, then police use a gun.
It's called the "use-of-force continuum" and, at each stage, the officer has discretion if additional force is required to make the suspect compliant. However, over and over again, the public has seen police move to the ultimate force—deadly force—within seconds.
Shortly after Floyd's death, an Atlanta police officer shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot in a scenario similar to the one described above. The June 12 incident came after police interviewed Brooks and took his driver's license information. The question is, could the police have let him flee and arrested him later at his home or workplace? Perhaps, but the officers involved did follow training protocols.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back after he tussled with police and was not stopped by a taser. Blake survived but is paralyzed from the waist down. The video of the shooting is gruesome and caused a public firestorm. Did police have to shoot him? They knew who he was and could have arrested him later. Nonetheless, the officers acted in accordance with their training.
On May 23, Salt Lake City police officers shot and killed 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal as he fled. Unlike Brooks and Blake, Palacios-Carbajal had a handgun and had just attempted a felony armed robbery. When police arrived, Palacios-Carbajal ran, dropped his gun, picked it up and continued to flee while police ordered him several times to stop and drop the weapon. Two officers then fired 34 bullets at him, by which he was hit with at least 13, and he died at the scene.
The event was captured on police body-cam video but was not released until June 5. The officers involved acted precisely as they were trained. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined the shooting was justified, in part because it was in the commission of a felony. Nonetheless, the ruling ignited protests in downtown Salt Lake City.
Because he was armed, Palacios-Carbajal does not fit neatly within the wave of protests of police brutality. Officers believed he posed a threat to them and others. However, Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City Police chief who is now affiliated with the national Center for Policing Equity, said in an interview that the shooting of Palacios-Carbajal as he was fleeing was not necessary. Police knew what he looked like, Burbank said. He wasn't going to get far on foot, and there were a lot of cops in the area. "His actions don't warrant the (police) taking of a life," Burbank said.
A growing number of experts, some of whom are former cops, say significant change must be made to police training before there can be any meaningful reduction in fatalities and a better relationship between cops and communities.
Among them is Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who said training in this country is fundamentally flawed. The standards in the U.S. are below anything in any advanced country, she said in a City Weekly interview.
Haberfeld has studied police training and its outcomes for 20 years here and abroad and has written a number of books, including Critical Issues in Police Training.
In the U.S., cadets are trained with an emphasis on the technical aspects of the use of force and to neutralize any threat. However, she explained, there is little to no education on the emotional, psychological and physiological aspects of force, which would give a broader understanding of when it should be used, and why it's not always the best strategy.
Norway is a good model, the professor said, where would-be police officers must earn a college degree that is shaped specifically for them. The instruction emphasizes psychology, social sciences and communication skills.
"It requires a college environment," she said, "rather than eight to 10 hours a day for 16 weeks. That's not how you retain knowledge."
Among the challenges is that municipal budgets are tight, and training is expensive and often comes after such things as new cars, computers and equipment, as well as staffing increases. But saving money by not expanding police training because it's expensive is irresponsible, Haberfeld said. "You're putting a dollar sign on people's lives."
Too many unarmed people are being shot, said Burbank, the former chief. "We are talking about unarmed individuals," he said. "This is not what policing was meant to be."
Police training needs a complete overhaul that would change how officers approach any situation, he said. De-escalation must begin, in some cases, before contact with a suspect. "Once you put a gun in your hand, it's very hard not to use it."
On Aug. 11, 2014, while Burbank was chief, Dillon Taylor, 20, was killed by Salt Lake City Police Officer Bron Cruz, who responded to a call of "possible man-with-a-gun" at a convenience store. There, he encountered four young men, including Taylor, who began walking away with his hand inside his sweatpants. Cruz ordered Taylor to turn around and show his hands. When he turned and pulled his hand from his pants, Cruz shot him believing he was armed. He wasn't.
The shooting was ruled justified because Cruz said he feared for his life, which under Utah law is a reasonable defense for police, even though Taylor was not a credible threat.
Still, it was the officer who set up the deadly situation. His approach to what could have been an armed suspect was deeply flawed, Burbank said. Cruz did not make sure something, his car perhaps, was between himself and Taylor to provide cover that would allow him more time to assess the situation.
Slowing down such events is critical to de-escalation and achieving better outcomes. The urgency that cadets learn can put them in situations where they must make snap judgements that can lead to deadly results. Cops take away a "win at all cost" attitude from the academy, the former police chief said. "What you get in training is, 'It's better to be judged by 12 [jurors] than it is to be carried by six [pallbearers].'"
It also reveals, to some degree, police culture. And that, too, must evolve, Burbank said, to yield more thoughtful agencies. "Culture is created by leadership," Burbank said.
Another incident that might have had a different outcome with more training is the Utah County case of Darrien Hunt, who was shot in the back six times while fleeing from Saratoga Springs police. On Sept. 10, 2014, Hunt, 22, was walking along a roadway carrying a sword that has been described as a "decorative" wall ornament, rather than a real sword. Police, however, had no way of knowing it wasn't authentic and stopped to ask Hunt what he was doing. Details are sketchy, but witnesses say after some conversation, Hunt made a threatening motion with the sword and ran. Officers Matthew Schauerhamer and Nicholas Judson gave chase and, believing Hunt could be a lethal threat to others, shot him.
Later, the officers testified they told Hunt he must surrender the sword, which apparently set him off. "In this case, whatever their training was, if it had to do with de-escalation, it didn't work," said Randall K. Edwards, who represented Hunt's mother, Susan Hunt. "Was the only option available shooting him in the back?"
The shooting was ruled justified by the Utah County Attorney. But Saratoga Springs settled a lawsuit brought by Susan Hunt for $900,000, indicating, perhaps, that the killing was not necessary.
"It's time we re-imagine the role of police in society," said Burkhalter, the professor and former New York City detective.
Burkhalter's father also was a New York City cop. Police training hasn't changed significantly since the 1960s, he said, when his father was on patrol. Meanwhile, the world has changed into a much more complicated place. "It's time we throw out the book and start from scratch," he said.
Burkhalter, too, would like to see an entirely new training curriculum that would include college courses in psychology, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines that would inform police as they interact with the public. "Education focuses on information and that leads to better decision making," he said.
It isn't so much what police are trained to do, Burkhalter noted, as what they are not trained to do. Cadets are not instructed how to limit the use of force, which should be proportional to the threat to society.
What was the threat posed by 13-year-old Linden Cameron in Salt Lake City? It wasn't immediately clear to police that night because his mother, Golda Barton, told them her son may have had a gun—although she thought it could be a BB gun. That quickly shifted the dynamic because officers then had to assume the boy could be armed and a threat to others. The incident is under investigation. Authorities have not revealed whether a gun was found at the scene. Still, the question remains, could the officers have continued the pursuit and resolved the matter without using deadly force?
Police training teaches that the dangers are greater than they really are, particularly with firearms, said Randy Shrewsberry, a former cop who heads up the LA-based Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform. "Officers view dangers that are possible, rather than dangers than are probable."
For example, on average, the same number of officers die each year from automobile accidents while on duty as die from gunshots—about 50. As of Oct. 1, 35 cops had died from gunshots in 2020, compared to 117 who had succumbed to COVID-19.
"We have to reshape the conversation on how police are trained overall," he said. "Police want more training, but there are fiscal limitations."
One solution, Shrewsberry said, would relieve agencies of the cost: If would-be cops sought college degrees in law enforcement that included a broad curriculum including both classroom education and field training, then the financial burden, like other college degrees, would be born by the student rather than taxpayers.
Such innovative thinking that would bring a new paradigm to policing does not appear close at hand. From New York City to LA, law enforcement has shown a reluctance to change, even though a significant body of research should inform them of the failures in policing and proposals that could improve it.
"Nothing will change until we take this seriously," said Haberfeld, the John Jay College professor. "Training must be scientifically based and not based on politics."
A good place to start would be the adoption of national standards, said Burkhalter, the former New York cop, but getting legislation through Congress would be difficult against pushback from police unions.
"The key," he said, "is convincing the police and their unions that this is best for them and the public."
In the meantime, each of the 13,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation will independently determine whether or not to update training.
Salt Lake City is in the midst of police training enhancements. Read Salt Lake City Mayor Mendenhall's remarks on police training on page 14.
New Salt Lake City Police Use of Force Policy includes:
• While the previous Use of Force policy required that an officer find it "reasonable to believe" that a person will use a weapon to harm someone, an officer must now determine that deadly force is "necessary" and that the threat of death or serious bodily injury is "imminent."
• Officers will now be required to use de-escalation techniques before using force. Officers will employ effective communication techniques in an attempt to achieve voluntary compliance.
• Officers will be expected to not contribute to a situation that could lead to use of force by taking unnecessary, overly aggressive action.
- Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall
Mayor Mendenhall compelled to change Salt Lake City policing
In early September, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall made more restrictive the use of deadly force by Salt Lake City Police and mandated that de-escalation techniques be used on every call before using force of any kind.
The old policy held that the use of deadly force is "reasonable" when an officer "believes" that a person will use a weapon to harm someone. The new policy says deadly force can only be used when it is "necessary," and the threat of death or serious bodily injury is "imminent." The significant policy shift is more restrictive than state law.
The mayor's progressive approach includes training for Salt Lake City's first responders with the organization KultureCity on how to recognize and communicate with people who have special sensory needs or other invisible disabilities, including autism. It would be a first, nationally, Mendenhall said.
"Since the murder of George Floyd, we've been able to see through a new lens and are compelled to change the way we do policing," she said.
The new policy took effect the day after the police shooting of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who suffers from autism and anxiety.
The mayor conceded that changing policies does not automatically transform the culture within the police department, but already, she said, that along with increased de-escalation training, officers are approaching challenging situations with an eye toward defusing them rather than using force.
The police union has criticized the new policies, saying the mandates make policing more dangerous. Mendenhall noted, however, that union representatives have been unwilling to participate in discussions surrounding the new approach.
But Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, who took the helm in 2015, said the rank and file, some 300 officers, are adapting well to the new policy. "Our men and women are committed to the police reforms we've been talking about."
He pointed to a recent incident, where a man with two knives came at officers and dared them to shoot. Rather than pull their guns, they returned to their cars and backed up, giving them time to find a solution. In the end, the man was taken into custody without serious injury.
Brown has put an emphasis on neighborhood policing, where officers have an assigned beat so they can get to know people in the area in an effort to build trust. That's especially true with minority communities, he said. "Trust is a commodity we need."
The police department this year will spend about $1 million on training for officers already on the force. Much of that, the chief said, will include instruction in de-escalation techniques.
Salt Lake City already requires more than the 16 weeks of cadet academy training mandated by the state. Recruits in the capital city get 22 weeks of instruction plus an additional 16 weeks training with a veteran officer on patrol.
Training is key to providing better policing, Brown said. "How you practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday is how you're going to play the game on Saturday."