Police get lots of training on how to use a gun, very little on how to talk to people

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This week has been a heart wrenching in terms of seeing how police deal with members of their communities. Three separate incidents—the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.; and an unarmed 19-year-old Dylan Noble in Fresno, Calif., all at police hands—have reignited questions about police officers' use of deadly force. But it's no wonder that police are sometimes so quick to fire guns: data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that they may not be receiving the training they need to deescalate conflicts.


According to a 2006 Census Of Law Enforcement Training Academies, the most recent data available, new recruits get just eight hours of training in topics such as mediation, conflict mitigation, and basic community policing strategies compared to 60 hours in firearm skills and 51 hours in self-defense in basic training.

That translates to just one training day on average for sensitive topics such as cultural diversity and human relations, compared to 7.5 training days in firearms training.

The data, which comes from a survey of 678 police training academies around the country, raises questions about how law enforcement academies are prioritizing training areas and preparing new recruits to work in diverse communities. Here is a breakdown of the instructional hours for basic recruits by training topic:

Data source: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2006. Average instructional hours by topic as reported by 648 training academies surveyed nationally. Topics classed as related to community policing according to the survey highlighted in orange.

Requirements for new recruits differ from state to state. The survey groups training topics by a number of broader topic areas. Cultural diversity falls under the broader topic area of community policing according to the census, along with basic community policing strategies and mediation and conflict management.

According to the bureau, the median duration of basic recruit training, excluding any field training component, averages 18 weeks but can range anywhere from four weeks to six months. During that training, new recruits spend on average of 35% of instructional time on topics related to operations, 25% on weapons and self-defense and less than 6% on topics related to community policing.


Training also includes special topic areas such as domestic violence, hate crimes/bias crimes and training related to juveniles— but these also get much less emphasis on the whole than training in weaponry and self-defense.

In 2002, the only other period for which data is available, the breakdown in instructional time was roughly the same. This despite high profile incidents of police brutality and an increased awareness of racial profiling by police during those years that led to calls for increased community policing.


Data source: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2006. Instructional hours aggregated by topic area.


It's important to note that this data is now a decade old and only looks at the breakdown for basic training around the country.

Beyond basic training, police officers also receive field training and on-going continuing education. Likewise it's unclear how to interpret the training data with respect to police response to potentially dangerous conflicts. Is the emphasis on firearms and weapons training better equipping officers to use restraint and respond safely? Or, is it resulting in an over-reliance on weaponry and a focus on self-defense?


With these questions in mind, it does offer some insight into the priorities of law enforcement training academies and their role in setting expectations for new recruits. Just how should new recruits view their role in the community on their first day on the job? It's an issue that communities seeking not just justice in the aftermath of police killings, but real change will have to look at more closely in the days and weeks to come.

Kate Stohr is a data journalist and community builder based in San Francisco, CA.