Professionalize (and fund) the police

Great post from Noah Smith on our need to professionalize policing:

So what else can we do when it comes to police reform in the United States? One answer is to look at how other developed countries handle policing.

Where the U.S. lags its peers: training


The advocates of the ill-fated “defund” movement like to imagine that the country in general is over-policed. But when we look at countries in Europe and the Anglosphere, we see that U.S. police staffing levels are actually on the low side. We have nowhere near as many officers per capita as, say, France or Germany.

Source: Wikipedia

As a percentage of GDP, the U.S. is in the middle of the pack. In fact, there is a body of evidence that suggests that the U.S. is under-policed.

What’s different about U.S. police is not their staffing levels or budgets; it’s their behavior. Despite the fact that U.S. cops are relatively few in number, they kill far more people than their counterparts in Europe and the Anglosphere:

And when we look at differences between U.S. policing practices and those in Europe and the Anglosphere, we notice one other big difference: training. U.S. cops have to undergo far fewer hours of training than their peers in other countries before they’re sent out on the job:

Source: ICJTR via BBC

In fact, U.S. cops undergo far less training than cosmetologists or plumbers — professions that don’t require people to carry deadly weapons and make life-and-death decisions.

Source: ICJTR

Do we really think a police officer needs 2000 fewer hours of training than someone who cuts hair and paints nails? Do we really think Australia, with 3500 hours of police training and less than 1/4 our rate of police killings, is getting something deeply wrong? Is it not common sense that cops who haven’t been properly prepared for the violent and dangerous situations they encounter on a job might resort to escalation dominance and demonstrative displays of aggression because they just don’t know how else to react?

Surprisingly, I can’t find good causal studies on the overall impact of police training on police brutality. What I can find are some studies showing good results from specific kinds of training, such as “procedural justice training” (basically, getting cops to communicate more, explain their actions, and respond to concerns) and “de-escalation training”.

Given this encouraging evidence, and the glaring international disparity, and plain old common sense, increasing the required hours of police training in America by a factor of 4 or 5 seems like an obvious policy to try.

Yes, yes, yes.  Every time we discuss policing in my classes we always end up with a consensus on more and better training.  (Right now, far too much of the training is the wrong training– also addressed in Smith’s post).  Let’s do it.  But it will take more of an investment in policing.  Smith also advocates for requiring a college degree.  That would also require more money through higher salaries.  But, if the benefit to these financial costs is safer communities and a dramatic reduction in police misbehavior sure strikes me as worth it!

The one thing I was kind of surprised Smith left out is that when it comes to our insane level of police shootings compared to other democracies is that this is surely closely related to the fact that we have an insane number of guns on our streets compared to other modern democracies. To be fair, that’s an issue beyond policing reform, but in the big picture, our streets awash in guns is surely part of the problem as it absolutely encourages a “warrior” mentality and combat training of the police.  


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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