To train or not to train? That is the question.

NYPD Cops being re-trained - Photo by Richard Harbus
NYPD officers being re-trained – Photo by Richard Harbus

After police involved incidents like the ones in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York City as well as well as others which made big news within the last year or so, one of the first accusations is that police are not trained enough or well enough and need to be schooled. Each police related incident regardless of where and how it happens should of course be treated on its own merits and based on the facts and circumstances. The incidents which occurred within the recent past in the different cities mentioned are vastly different from one another and while the race baiters and some media put an immediate racial spin on it, in reality there is no proof that I am aware of that any of those incidents had anything directly to do with race. The only correlation is that the persons who died by their interaction with police happen to all be black and the officers involved happened to be white. There is no evidence to support the notion or accusation they were killed because of the color of their skin. Each incident started because of the actions of those individuals prompted a police response and / or involvement where in each of those confrontations all ended with the “offenders” being mortally wounded by police. I would find it hard to believe that in these incidents, each of these officers went out that day with the intention to kill a person of color. If of course that was the case then they deserve to be tried, convicted, and the key thrown away, but it would be shocking if that were actually the case.

I will be the first one to admit that we certainly live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, and trans(gender)phobic society in the United States. Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that. I will also be the first one to say that there is ALWAYS room for improvement when it comes to the quality and quantity of training of police officers. Police officers have an awesome responsibility in that they have to uphold and enforce local, state and federal laws in an unbiased and professional way while ensuring their personal safety is kept of paramount importance as they are attempting to save the many unknown citizens around them. There have been some incidents in the past where you could point a definitive finger at an issue and say the cops were wrong and there is a gap in training to address this issue and we need to plug the gap immediately. One look at the NYPD Patrol Guide and you’ll see that it has grown to biblical proportions due to years and years of updates based on general changes to laws but also a series of changes in training due to the way prior police interactions in different situations and re-trainings to be conducted.

Earlier in February 2015 a rookie NYPD officer was indicted for the shooting death of Akai Gurley in the Louis Pink Houses in Brooklyn in December of 2014. This incident happened at a time of already heated tensions between communities of color and the NYPD because of the incidents in Ferguson, MO with Michael Brown and Staten Island with Eric Garner. From what has been released by the NYPD and the media it seems as if the incident was a horrible accident. Mr. Gurley was not armed, not in the commission of any crime, and not in a confrontation with the officer. Basically this is an officer’s worst nightmare other than actually being shot or shot at. Gurley was shot as the officers gun discharged as the officer was opening a door in a dark stairwell where the bullet ricocheted and hit Gurley. Doing “verticals” in a housing development ( sometimes referred to as “projects” ) is dangerous because in poorly or unlit stairwells and rooftops are where many gang members, drug dealers and other undesirables tend to conduct their illegal business. It is not uncommon for officers to have their weapons drawn in instances like these because of the high danger level, however they are trained to have their finger off the trigger to avoid an accidental discharge such as this which could have just as easily killed this officers partner in lieu of killing Akai Gurley. If I was a betting man, I would bet in the next round of firearms and tactical training there is some additional or focused instruction as to how to have the officer best handle their firearm when entering a stairwell or other premise to avoid having the same thing happen again. This will happen regardless of what occurs in the pending criminal case against the officer and assumed civil suit against NYC for the death of Mr. Gurley.

There are times where with all best intentions, trainings are conducted but don’t meet up to the expectations of those being trained or to those who ordered those trainings to be conducted. Based on recent media stories this seems to be the situation occurring right now at the new NYPD academy in Queens, NY. After the Eric Garner grand jury decision to not indict Police Officer Panteleo in the death of Mr. Garner, there were a series of protests and then a double assassination of two NYPD officers ( unrelated to the Garner incident ). The knee jerk reaction from city hall plopped into the lap of the dogged police commissioner was to re-train all 35,000 members of the NYPD on how to better deal with citizens, particularly those citizens they may be facing in a heated exchange. This was likely to happen regardless of the Garner grand jury verdict since Mayor DeBlasio has been hell bent on some form of “police reform” to satisfy one of his main campaign promises. There was already a reform with the out of control “stop and frisk” program which had been perverted by the previous administration under the Bloomberg-Quinn-Kelly threesome.

The subculture of police is such that any training that revolves around learning about cultural diversity, different methods of mediation, or a brush up of proper manners is taken with great offense by many due to the simple fact that most officers deal with the worst of humanity daily and generally do it fairly professionally. Are there some that act nasty, arrogant, and seem like they woke up on the wrong side of the bed? Yes. Without a doubt. The problem is that it would take too long to cherry pick the sour apples out, so it’s just easier to re-train in mass about subjects (that may insult the intellect of the many that act professional regularly) and be done with it. A good solid training delivered by skilled presenters will not only be well received but the positive training tips will be integrated almost naturally without any arm twisting or without having to threaten repercussions with disciplinary action if the advice is not heeded. By all accounts it seems the training being given to the officers in the current form is not having the desired effect as it is being reported that some 80% of officers polled feel it is a complete waste of time and a number of officers couldn’t even keep their eyes open and fell asleep. Allegedly part of the training includes watching a clip from the 1989 movie Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze where he says: “If somebody gets in your face and calls you a c–ksucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice.” In all fairness, the reported take away from a chunk of the training was for officers (when faced with a heated confrontation) to “take a step back, close your eyes and take a deep breath.” Apparently some of them took that very literally and decided to practice it – in class.

It is a very interesting time in policing, particularly in the NYPD. It is a department that largely had not seen a major regime change in a dozen years until 2014 when Deblasio and Bratton took over. That in itself was undoubtedly going to rattle the collective cage for many who have only worked for one commissioner until that happened. Mix in the series of high profile, highly emotionally charged police related incidents around the country and in New York City, the growing public backlash from all of them, and the double murder of two NYPD officers just before Christmas 2014. Add the unexpected slap in the face by the Mayor in response to the non-indictment of the officer in Staten island and the expected knee jerk scrambling to figure out a proper retraining to teach these out of control racist storm troopers a lesson! Couple that with a still unresolved contract negotiation ( one of the longest in history ), and add a wacky (now removed) NYPD Deputy Commissioner who thinks the answer was to have “officers should pop mints in their mouth when they feel the need to curse” and ordered a box of 10,000 individually wrapped mints shipped to police headquarters to do it, its enough for the average officer to feel the city is spinning off its axis. These are not things that training is going to fix and neither will cops popping a Mentos. As the older generations are retiring after 20, 25, 30 years or more of doing good for king and country you have younger staffed police departments that are going through growing pains. Aside from isolated incidents of an officer acting in an irresponsible manner or certainly one acting in a criminal manner, by and large the overwhelming majority are doing very well considering millions of police-public interactions take place daily and the rate of awful crazy happenings are few and far between. Have faith that the standard trainings given are doing a pretty good job at keeping police together for the most part.

About Tom Verni

As a retired NYPD Detective with nearly 22 years of experience as a Community Policing Officer, Certified Police Academy Instructor, City-Wide Community Affairs Liaison, and Crime Prevention Specialist, Tom Verni has a wide breadth of public speaking experience and extensive knowledge in various aspects of police training and community relations. He is now able to pass along this knowledge to law enforcement or other organizations seeking to enhance the skill sets of their personnel via training seminars. Tom is also available to media outlets for consulting services regarding crime issues or police related incidents.

2 thoughts on “To train or not to train? That is the question.

  1. Reform is needed, but for it to be meaningful it needs to start at the top- not with token retraining efforts on the front lines.

    Any financial linkage of police activity (encounters, tickets, reports…) to the city’s revenue and budget creates a target on every citizen’s back. While blatant “quotas” are probably frowned upon, and can’t technically exist, certainly “productivity” ratings and rankings do live on in one form or another.

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