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Police Training Varies Across The U.S. Is It Time For National Standards?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Kim Potter, who was then a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minn., shot Daunte Wright with a gun, she was shouting, Taser, Taser, Taser. Her chief labeled the shooting a mistake, although what does that say about the officer's training? Here's NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Protesters in Brooklyn Center weren't just angry about the shooting death of Daunte Wright. They were also incredulous. Outside the police department, Felicia Cornell rejected the idea that the shooting was an accident.

FELICIA CORNELL: When you kill someone for a traffic stop, whether they were trying to flee or not, that is not how you handle a situation like that.

KASTE: That sentiment was echoed by a lot of cops, too. They went online to criticize the rookie officers for trying to cuff Wright by an open car door, which allowed him to break free and jump back into the driver's seat. And in the struggle, Officer Kim Potter, the veteran on the scene, yells Taser, then shoots him with her gun. The next day, the then-police chief, Tim Gannon, found himself defending his department's level of preparation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM GANNON: We do tactical training. We do firearms training. We do Taser deployment.

KASTE: In fact, state records show that Potter had just recently taken a Taser refresher class provided by her department. But was it a good class? Was it hands on or online? The state's Peace Officers Standards and Training Board doesn't have details. And Minnesota is not unusual in this.

LAURA HUEY: I would argue a lot of training is completely and utterly ineffective.

KASTE: Laura Huey is a policing researcher at the University of Western Ontario. She's tried and failed to get data about training in American and Canadian police departments.

HUEY: The issue is that we don't actually evaluate whether or not any of this training achieves the goals and objectives that it's intended for.

KASTE: Some states like Minnesota do set minimum numbers of hours for in-service training and topics to be covered. Recently, for instance, some states have been adding implicit bias training to the list. But the only kind of ongoing training that you can be sure that all cops have had is on the firing range, and even that can be pretty basic, says retired NYPD officer Kevin Branzetti.

KEVIN BRANZETTI: I went twice a year, and it's, you know, stand at the line, fire three rounds in seven seconds - beep. And I fire my three and it goes beep again. You know, I'm not running through a house, you know, having things thrown at me, lights flashing. That's not how it works.

KASTE: Other topics, such as the safe handling of resisting suspects, are often taught by private companies who compete on price or a police chief might pick the training consultant recommended by the chief of the next town. Maria Maki Haberfeld teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and writes about police training. When she came to America from Israel, she was shocked by the degree of local choice.

MARIA MAKI HABERFELD: And this to me is unacceptable because there's really no professional oversight whether or not they doing something that is of real value to police officers. So they just check the box of needing to the in-service training.

KASTE: There have been various proposals over the years for a system of national standards, a goal echoed by President Obama's task force on 21st-century policing after Ferguson. Laura Huey would like to see policing follow the model of aviation, where the NTSB tries to learn from fatal incidents.

HUEY: It is about trying to figure out what happened so they can create rules and regulations that will prevent that from happening in the future.

KASTE: The closest thing to this kind of learning feedback loop is litigation, where somebody sues a police department after a death demanding changes. University of Chicago law professor John Rappaport has studied the effect of lawsuits on police standards.

JOHN RAPPAPORT: It's possible for a police department that really has the right mindset and wants to learn from litigation to do so, but it takes a lot of effort.

KASTE: Take the Minneapolis Police Department. To settle a lawsuit a decade ago, it pledged to teach its officers about the risk of asphyxiation when holding handcuffed people face down. And yet, years later, their officer, Derek Chauvin, seemed either ignorant or indifferent to those dangers when he encountered George Floyd. Rappaport says it's important to understand how deeply ingrained local control of training is in American policing.

RAPPAPORT: You might fear that centralization pushes against the idea of community policing and the idea that we want departments to have a lot of flexibility so that they can do things in ways that suit the community. I think those are good objectives.

KASTE: But he says it still should be possible to establish a basic minimum floor for training so that, in the words of one retired officer, police departments can learn these lessons and improve training together instead of each one on its own.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "NEEDED LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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