How We Create Killer Cops

We had just finished waxing and buffing the floors at the old Simms Supers grocery store on Airport Road. It was ten thirty on a Friday night. We were teenage boys with cars, money in our pockets, and nowhere to go. We smoked cigarettes while debating whether to go to Pizza Hut to eat or go to Garret’s house to try and sneak some beer from his old man. Suddenly, a police car screeched into the parking lot with lights flashing. The officer jumped out of the car with his gun drawn and ordered us to the ground. WTF?! We lay down on the still warm asphalt confused and frightened as the officer called for backup while he kept his gun trained on us.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“We work here,” David answered. “What does it look like?” My fear escalated at his audacious response. Keep quiet, I thought. But he was right. We all wore white shirts and black ties with our Simms name badges on. What did it look like? A second officer arrived and we were frisked one by one and forced to show identification. They searched our cars and finally told we could go.

“What the hell is wrong with you guys?” we all asked at once. We were reminded that there had been a break-in at the store two weeks earlier. We pointed to our badges and uniforms. Who breaks out of a store with badges and uniforms? When the first cop left, the second one admitted that the whole affair was a major overreaction. That the first cop was a rookie looking to make name for himself. We were angry and scared. But in hindsight, I now know it could have been worse. We could have been black teenagers.

Football coaches work their players hard in practice because they believe in the adage, “How you practice is how you play.” Students of WWII know that the invasion of Normandy almost collapsed due to a multitude of failures at Omaha Beach. The Army spent a lot of time and effort trying to discover everything that went wrong and how to prevent future failures. Interviews by Army historian and author S.L.A. Marshall uncovered a curious claim. Many of the soldiers who had landed at Omaha Beach said in group interviews that they did not fire their rifles at the enemy. In fact, Marshall estimated only 20 to 25% of the troops actually shot at the German defenders. Although critics have argued with Marshall’s methodology and numbers, the Army took them seriously enough to change its rifle training. Instead of shooting at circular targets, recruits trained with human silhouettes. Exhibit A is that by the time I trained for Vietnam, we shot at pop-up green human silhouettes. The idea is to create muscle memory so that killing is an automatic reflex.

To no psychology student’s surprise, the number of soldiers who reported aiming at the enemy rose. By the time the Vietnam War ended, it was reported that over 90% of soldiers fired at the NVA and Viet Cong. When stressed, humans behave according to their training. There is a lot of debate about whether the arrests and deaths of young black men like Sam DuBose, Michael Brown and Eric Garner were racially motivated. I think that denying a racial component to these killings by cops is naïve at best. But I want to argue that it is the training we give our police that is the driving force behind these overreactions. Yes, that training has a racial bias, but it is the nature of what we teach cops to do in a stressful situation that leads to so many deaths especially of black men and women. In other words, we are training our police to kill. And that’s not just my opinion but it is also a conclusion that can be drawn from a 2015 report by The Police Executive Research Forum.

This is not an attack on police. They have a tough, dangerous job. But I think we are making it tougher and more dangerous by our expectations and by how we train them. Police spend little of their training on deescalating situations. And even less on handling the mentally ill or those impaired by drugs and alcohol. Instead police are trained to do what is called a “plus one” response to uncooperative citizens. They are trained to evaluate the level of resistance and respond with the same or one level above. If a suspect throws a punch, for example, the police respond with a counter punch or one level above using a nonlethal weapon such as a club. The stated goal of the training is for the officer to gain control of the situation. Almost by definition, the officer is required to use force to overpower the suspect.

It is understandable why this training exists. Many officers have been killed or wounded when they have failed to control a situation. But when people are being killed because of shoplifting a candy bar or selling cigarettes, something is clearly not working right. By right, I mean balancing protecting police as well as citizens. The video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop and arrest is a perfect example of an officer escalating a situation in order to “gain control” rather than working to calm things down. No matter what happened to Ms. Bland in jail, she shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. If she had been white, she wouldn’t have been. If you think I’m wrong about that, you’ve never tried to stand up for yourself to the police. Whites can get away with arguing with police in situations that people of color cannot.

Police in Europe get twice as much training as police in the U.S. receive. And much of it is about how to work with citizens rather than how to overpower them. By contrast, according to the PERF report, our cops get ten times as much training in use of force and weapons than in communication and ratcheting down a confrontation. It would save us money, create a better police force, and get more cooperation from minority communities if we changed our training approach. But there is an even simpler and cheaper change in training that we could implement quickly. Remember what I said about the military switching from circular targets to human silhouettes? Police often train with black human silhouettes. Some people might say so what? It’s not like they are using pictures of real black men as targets, right? Oopsy. Officers in New York got caught doing just that.

My argument is that how you train is how you react. Police train by shooting at black silhouettes or gray scale pictures of humans. Is it really a coincidence that the percentage of blacks shot during police stops is higher than that of whites? It’s easy to find out whether there is a connection. Switch to white silhouettes on black backgrounds. Or red on green. Even better, why not go back to circular bullseye targets instead of human shaped ones. It won’t cost more and it won’t affect training. So why not try it? If green targets are good enough for our soldiers, then why not our police? It can’t make things worse, and it’s a painless way to maybe improve the situation. Because what we do now clearly isn’t working. #maketargetswhite.