Police training is expensive and still not enough

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Do we have a right to a well-trained police force? The question is one we should discuss in the wake of two recent developments in the 2020 shooting death of Breonna Taylor: last week’s announcement that the federal investigation has led to the indictment of four police officers, and the less publicized decision of a federal judge in late July to dismiss most of the lawsuit filed by Taylor’s neighbor, whose apartment was hit by the bullets fired that night. Although the indictments are understandably the biggest story, the neighbor’s lawsuit may also point the way toward avoiding such tragedies in the future.

Taylor was killed when officers broke down the door to her apartment based on false (possibly fabricated) information that drugs were being delivered to her address. Her boyfriend, unaware that the intruders were police, fired what he described as a warning shot. In response, the officers fired 32 rounds, wounding the girlfriend and killing Taylor. A government inquiry was rightly criticized for its leniency towards the officers involved; the subsequent federal investigation has now borne fruit.

Meanwhile, behind the headlines, neighbor Chelsea Napper sued both the black officers and the Louisville Police Department. It is undisputed that some bullets fired by police officers that night entered her upstairs apartment. Although no one was hit, Napper claims she and her family “suffered invasion of privacy, unreasonable risk of death, excessive force and emotional distress.” And here’s the key: Her case named indicting not only the officer whose shot entered her home, but also supervisors and the department itself on the theory that her civil rights had been violated because the police had been poorly trained.

The claim of insufficient training is the part of Napper’s case that the judge rejected. This result was predictable, given that existing law sets an almost impossibly high standard for lawsuits alleging that municipal employees were inadequately trained. But at least in cases where the topic is training the police, perhaps the list should be lowered. It’s hard to see how else we can ensure that law enforcement officers get the training they need—and the citizens they serve deserve.

The police are the sharp spears of the law. We depend on them to use violence when necessary to maintain social order. Yet we are rarely willing to spend what is necessary to help them do that part of the job effectively.

For example, most police officers are bad shots, and when under stress, they shoot even worse. And few events increase stress more than encountering an armed suspect. One study found that experienced officers who shot fairly well at the range quickly lost accuracy when faced with instructors who returned fire — even though the “bullets” in the drill were soap pellets. When faced with live rounds, the loss of accuracy can be expected to be greater.

The same study reported that the more time participants spent under fire, the smaller the effect of anxiety on their accuracy. The authors suggested that “training with anxiety”—that is, training that better simulates a real gunfight—might reduce inaccuracy even more.

Unfortunately, such training is increasingly rare. Recent years have seen an increasing emphasis on paper learning – lectures and manuals and quizzes – with “shooting” often limited to virtual devices. Experts have warned that training in anything but a realistic environment will make little difference. But to save money, many departments limit the number of practice rounds officers can fire, or prohibit practicing with the weapons they carry on the street. Never mind working through realistic scenarios with the armed suspect.

Think about the night Taylor was shot. Police fired 32 shots, six of which hit Taylor and one hit her boyfriend. This means that around 31 hit nothing they were supposed to. Little wonder that an external review of Louisville’s police practices, commissioned by the city after Taylor’s death, was scathing on the subject of how well — or rather, how poorly — officers were trained. Not only did the training spend little time on what to do when someone is shooting at you; those who attended courses on the subject were not required to practice what they had been taught.

The report recommended redesigning the way officers were trained to include regular scenario-based training and “establish a long-range outdoor shooting facility where officers can use ammunition on duty during firearms training.” Good idea. And perhaps additional training can remedy an additional problem: that an escalation to violence is much more likely when police interact with people who are black.

But additional training will be expensive, at a time when we already spend a lot on law enforcement. A Bloomberg CityLab study conducted after reports that Uvalde (population 16,000) spends 40% of its budget on police found that number is not unusual: In cities of similar size, an average of 32% of budgets pay for policing. And it is low compared to what many of the country’s larger cities use. According to 2020 figures compiled by the Vera Institute, Billings, Montana spent an astonishing 64% of its municipal budget on policing; Milwaukee, 58%; Kansas City, Missouri, 43%; Tampa and Phoenix, 41%; Austin, Texas 40%; Chicago 37% – just to take a few examples. (In Louisville, it’s 29%. In New York City, for those who might be wondering, the number is just 8%.)

A right to be monitored by a properly trained force will necessarily increase these numbers considerably, at a time when budgets everywhere are being squeezed. Still, it’s hard to see the alternative. The police deserve our respect, not our scorn. They do a job that is so stressful that it significantly reduces life expectancy. Unfortunately, it’s a job that is often done so badly that bystanders end up dead or injured. I have long argued that better training would reduce that danger. By allowing cases like Napper’s to move forward, the courts can help point us in the right direction.

More from Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Supreme Court’s “Originalists” are flying a false flag: Noah Feldman

• Can mass shootings be prevented?: Sarah Green Carmichael

• America’s gun laws are as old as gun policy: Francis Wilkinson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is most recently the author of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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