Art & Literature in Police Academies?
Understanding ourselves & others is the most important skill in policingBy Scot DuFour | Jan 31, 2018
Some authors and publications have argued recently against police receiving and using equipment, training, and tactics similar to the military (the so-called “militarization of the police”). Like most cops, I disagree with this characterization. I present as evidence situations like the shooting in Las Vegas, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Century-16 shooting and boobytrapped apartment, and countless other incidents in our country that involved automatic weapons, explosives, and military tactics. During such situations it would be wrong, and infeasible, to ask victims to wait for a military response. Police will go to work to save lives and so they must have the proper equipment and training to do so.
But, having said this, I do believe we need to reevaluate our training and education as a profession.
Training for What We Do
Police training has long included a lecture-based academy with a focus on memorization of facts, largely leaving the “hands-on” training to the areas of arrest control, defensive tactics, and firearms. Where I believe we fall short is in training our officers in communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. I’ll give you an example. The regional police academy of Kansas City, Mo., has their curriculum listed, partially, as follows: 81 hours of class lecture on law, 150 hours on defensive tactics, 120 hours on firearms training. I saw three classes which involved communications and diversity for a total of 24 hours with two hours listed as “practical application.” Only four hours are spent on “ethics and professionalism.” The Johnson County Community College police academy in Kansas spends 46 hours on law, 11 hours on communication, 68 hours on defensive tactics, and 71 hours on firearms.
This isn’t aberrational. In Colorado, the minimum requirement for police officer certification includes 70 hours of law, two hours of traffic direction, eight hours of verbal communication, eight hours of ethics, and two hours on problem-solving. That is not a typo: Colorado police officer certification requires the same amount of training in directing traffic as it does on problem-solving. The “humanities” in police training are grossly underrepresented.
The skills taught by the humanities are far more applicable to what police officers do on a daily basis than skills taught in firearms and defensive tactics. Only about 27% of police officers will ever fire their weapons on-duty outside of the shooting range but this number includes all scenarios, from accidental discharges to shooting an injured animal. It’s believed that fewer than 12% of officers will ever fire their weapon at another person during their entire career. In contrast, 100% of officers will encounter situations requiring communication, collaboration, problem-solving, writing, critical thinking, and compassion. These are skills that are refined in subjects like philosophy, ethics, sociology, literature, art, and history.
I don’t suggest we add classes on art or literature to police academies; that isn’t the point. Most police agencies spend a good deal of training time on use of force and firearms for good reason. I think we seriously neglect those other skills which happen to be the ones we use the most. Classes like Calibre Press’ Street Survival Seminar and Communication Solutions for 21st Century Policing are an excellent way to get this education. But we still need to do more.
Police academies must explore and implement education for officers that includes developing interpersonal skills and increasing our ability to recognize what humanities calls the “other.” The goal of the humanities is to understand the human experience which allows each of us the opportunity to place ourselves in the shoes of the “other.” The “other” is the existence and experience of other individuals, which is naturally foreign and difficult for us to understand. What could be more important for a cop than understanding the human condition and experience?
In addition to the ability of the humanities to increase our awareness of human experience it also explores concepts of truth, value, critical reflection, and duty. One of the biggest difficulties for all people and institutions is our ability to honestly reflect on our weaknesses. The criminal justice system is broken in so many ways, from policing and courts to corrections and victim assistance. We have little hope of ever making real positive change if we can’t understand the problems in their context. These skills aren’t just valuable to the executive agency administrator but to all members of the justice system. The humanities are not dead: They are the most important yet undertrained subject in policing.