Expert: U.S. Police Training in Use of Deadly Force Woefully Inadequate

Maria Haberfeld is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. A veteran of the Israel Defense Forces who also served in the Israel National Police, she has conducted research on police forces in multiple countries, and has also written many books on terrorism and policing, including Critical Issues in Police Training. We spoke on Friday about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of Kajieme Powell by St. Louis police, which was caught on video. Powell, brandishing a steak knife, approached officers, saying “Shoot me!.” As reported by the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said lethal force was permitted under department rules if a knife-wielding attacker is within 21 feet of police.

Paul Waldman: Did you think what the officers did [in Powell's shooting] was appropriate? It seems pretty clear that that's standard operating procedure.

Maria Haberfeld: Yes it is, absolutely.

PW: Are those procedures adequate to deal with those kinds of situations?

MH: The procedures are adequate; what's not adequate is the way police officers are trained. That's the problem, and this is something I've been talking about for decades. The majority of police officers are overwhelmingly trained with a focus on the technical part of use of force, and are not trained enough in the emotional, psychological, physiological aspects of use of force. And of course, the social aspects of use of force: how this all plays later on within the community, how it impacts police-community relations.

So the use of force is not something that should stand alone. Unfortunately, in most of the training academies, it does stand alone, even if there is some rhetoric about, "Oh yes, we integrate [it] into other modules.'' The reality is—and I look at police training all the time, in various jurisdictions around the country and around the world—that's not the case, unfortunately.

PW: So, is most of [that training] focused on "Here's how to protect ourselves"? It seems that's the message when you hear police representatives talk about this. Their focus is, obviously, that police work is very dangerous, and if there's any kind of a threat at all, we're going to neutralize it.

MH: Yes, but how you perceive the threat is a subjective thing, and how you go about neutralizing the threat is also a subjective thing, even though they're trained around this continuum of force that allows them to go from one step to another, or skip a number of stages based on their assessment of the situation. Their assessment of the situation sometimes can be exaggerated based on their previous experience, based on what's going on in any given moment, based on the bystanders' reactions. So it's a very complicated and complex issue that cannot be just explained by: "We have the right, we are authorized, and it's our discretion."

There are a host of variables that go into things. And those variables, at least in my mind, should be constantly addressed, and not end with the police officer graduating from police academy, and then the only thing they have to do is to qualify twice a year whether or not they can still carry a weapon. But this qualifying twice a year is focused completely on the technical aspect of use of deadly force.

PW: One thing I've seen in the discussions about this is, for instance, that the police in England and Wales fire their guns only a few times in a year.

MH: Because they're not armed.

PW: So that raises a couple of questions. If most of them are not armed, what do those police do if they don't have guns, and they're confronted with a suspect who, say, has a knife?

MH: First of all, there are a few countries where police forces are not armed—Ireland would be the other one. The British police have units that are armed, and if there is a situation that would require an armed backup, then the backup is called for. But a situation like this, where they have somebody with a knife, it's a simple explanation. It goes back to training. Police forces in U.K., in Ireland, in other countries where police forces are not armed, they have a much more extensive, in-depth training than we have. An average training in the United States is fifteen weeks. Fifteen weeks is nothing. Police forces in other countries have twice, three times as long training as we have here.

It's all about how police officers are prepared to deal with people who pose threats to them or to others. This is not something that we should save money on, but to me, that's exactly what we're doing. We are saving money on police training, saying that it's very expensive to have longer training. And I think it's irresponsible in a democratic society to say that a profession that has the authority to use deadly force, we just should shorten the training because a longer training is too expensive. Basically, what we're doing is putting a dollar sign on people's lives, both police officers and members of the public.

PW: So that means that if you're a policeman someplace else—England, France, Germany—you're going to be trained so that you're better capable of talking that person down and getting them to put down their knife or their pipe or whatever it is that they have?

MH: No doubt in my mind, based on what I am seeing in police training in other countries, that police officers are better prepared to deal with the public over there than the ones we have here. No doubt in my mind, based on the research that I have done over the years.

PW: Do you think that a controversy like this one will make police forces around the country more likely to reexamine how they do their training?

MH: No.

PW: It won't make any difference at all?

MH: No, and I'll tell you why. Ninety percent of the police budget goes to salaries in any department. So, whatever is left is allocated to equipment and some other stuff, and nothing is left for training. The majority of police departments around the country don't have in-service training. So if you don't have the money, you're not going to re-examine.

PW: Well that's a little depressing.

MH: It is depressing. I've been writing about this for twenty years, it's very depressing to me. [Most] police departments in the United States are not NYPD or LAPD. Police departments in the United States are exactly what we're seeing—the Ferguson police department, fifty cops. This is the average size of a police department in the United States. So you can understand that a department of that size is not going to get any resources. This is very sad, and this is why I've been talking about the need to centralize law enforcement in the United States, to professionalize their response to the public, not just about use of force, but about everything.

Because policing is not just about the high-profile incidents, it's also about how they perform on a daily basis vis-à-vis the public. But this requires skills, this requires education, this requires training. An average police department, all they care about is whether you have a GED, and you didn't use drugs in the last three years. I mean, it's ridiculous. If somebody looks at this a little bit closer, then it's really scary.

PW: Is the training and the resulting way the cops deal with the public—not just about the use of force but about everything—do you think that is superior in other Western countries, too?

MH: Absolutely. I don't think, I know, because I do research with police departments in other countries, I see their training, I visit the departments, their police academies. That's what I've been doing for almost twenty years, so I know exactly that it's superior over there—not in each and every country, but the majority of police forces in democratic countries today —yes, absolutely.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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