In Defence of Decolonisation: a response to Southern Criminology

Authors: Thalia Anthony, Robert Webb, Juanita Sherwood, Harry Blagg & Antje Deckert

Mohwak scholar Taiaiake Alfred has remarked that in settler colonies, reconciliation is another form of re-colonisation. The “reconciliation of Indigenous people to colonialism”, in Alfred’s words, do not challenge structures of power that deny First Nations people substantive rights. We draw on Alfred’s observations to highlight the agenda of Southern Criminology. This increasingly influential school while seeking to engage epistemologies of the South reinscribes colonial relations of power, including colonial hierarchies of knowledge. It does so by uncritically bringing together the North and the South through a working partnership in criminology. 

The standpoint of Southern Criminology was recently updated by lead-author Professor Kerry Carrington in the British Society of Criminology blog. A key purpose of the blog is to take to task ‘decolonial theory’ in Criminology by accusing it of essentialising Indigenous knowledges, making unfair criticisms of Western Criminology and presenting ‘crude simplistic critiques of southern criminologies’. Our blog represents a defence of decolonising frameworks. We point out numerous false claims and inconsistencies in Carrington’s blog. Among these are that decolonial theory is ‘negative’. We contend that challenging colonial legacies in criminology is crucial for building more inclusive ideas and praxes.

Colonisation is not a metaphor

Carrington opens her blog by questioning the division of the world between North and South, centre and periphery and/or First and Third World. She claims these demarcations universalise theories of the North to cast the South as backwards. To buck this trend, Southern Criminology advocates for the equal acceptance of the North and the South, in which criminologists accept that the South is not lesser than the North. A move that, according to Carrington, would contribute to cognitive and global justice.

In conceptualising the South, Carrington describes it ‘as a metaphor’ for inequality. The blog does not contend with real power relations where inequality is not a metaphor. We assert this in a similar way to Tuck and Yang’s contention that ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’. Inequality is countenanced in everyday colonial institutions that dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land, destroy sacred sites, steal Indigenous children, kill Indigenous people in custody, condone racist policing, deny Indigenous people basic rights and silence Indigenous critiques and systems of knowledge. Unequal power relations have assured that First Nations people are hyperincarcerated across settler colonial societies and that Australia’s Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on the planet.

Carrington’s choice of words, such as North and South, understates past and present structures of oppression. A telling omission in her language (and analysis) is the lack of reference to geo-political divisions of “colonisers and the colonised”. By failing to confront ongoing colonising relationships, the type of ‘Southern Criminology’ Carrington champions cannot challenge this divide. This is highlighted in its main mission to ‘democratize’ knowledge by promoting a partnership between the North and South through simply expanding ‘the repertoire of criminological knowledges’. The blog rejects the proposition that the ‘epistemologies of the south and north, east and west, Indigenous and non-Indigenous’ are ‘dichotomous’ or ‘mutually exclusive spaces or categories’, hence neglecting the colonising dynamics embedded in the construction of the divisions.

A decolonising lens reveals why these differences exist. Blagg and Anthony contend in Decolonising Criminology that the existence of the colonial world and its epistemologies, including its criminological mindset, relies on the colonisation and assimilation of Indigenous people and knowledges. Inferiorising Indigenous peoples and knowledges justifies colonisers’ self-proclaimed superior ideas and intrusive practises. Colonisers regarded Indigenous people as trespassers on their own land to enable settler violence and land take over. Constructs of Indigenous people as outlaws justified frontier massacres and segregation.

Universities are a symptom of colonial forces and their constructs of Indigenous people permeate the academy and research. Criminology in colonised states is preoccupied with identifying, quantifying, explaining, and fixing Indigenous “criminality”. The blog claims that bridges can be built between these approaches of the North and approaches in the South. However, a decolonial lens identifies that the North’s deficit discourse relating to Indigenous people stands at odds with the discourse of sovereignty of Indigenous people and the colonial harms of penal institutions. How can the colonising impetus of the North sit alongside theories of critical resistance and Indigenous self-determination? Conceivably, they cannot. If there are to be attempts at a reconciliation, the terms should be governed by principles of Indigenous self-determination to recognise the legacy of epistemological oppression.

Decolonisation seeks to disrupt the structures and theories of colonisation that are intent on eliminating Indigenous people. Juan Tauri’s decolonising research calls into question Criminology’s ‘veil of scientism’ that perpetuates ‘myth construction’ of Indigenous people’s inferiority and the colonial state’s superiority. Decolonial research has a different agenda (in relation to furthering Indigenous sovereignty and resistance), asks different questions (about the colonial harms of the state and ruling class) and applies decolonising methodologies (that radically critique colonial institutions, elevate the voices and knowledges of Indigenous people and accept different forms of knowledge sharing – song, poetry, art, film, ceremony etc). It supports a post-disciplinary approach in which university disciplines are not the central repository of knowledge production. It also challenges the focus of much of Criminology on policing, surveillance and prisons, and instead recognises that colonial harms against Indigenous people operate in a broader carceral network for which penality is only one site.

Southern Criminology’s false representation of decolonial approaches

Repeatedly through her blog, Carrington accuses ‘post-colonial/decolonial theories’ of reductionism and essentialism. Carrington states, ‘One of the problems with theories of decolonisation, has been the tendency to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity’. Carrington cites Cain (2000) to suggest that decolonial critiques of Western Criminology engage with a ‘romanticization of “the other”’. Cain’s article, however, is not an analysis of decolonial thinkers. Rather, it takes aim at the ‘western criminology of orientalism’ because it ‘romanticizes the other’ (Cain 2000, 239); the reverse of what Carrington claims in her blog. The issue of misrepresentation of other’s work arises with Carrington’s use of de Sousa Santos’ work. Carrington also relies on de Sousa Santos (2014: 212) to argue that post-colonial/decolonial theories ‘reify and essentialise concepts, such as Eastern or Indigenous knowledge’ (Carrington’s words, not de Sousa Santos’). However, de Sousa Santos does not state this about post-colonial/decolonial theories. Instead, he identifies this trend in the Global North. In the cited reference, he critiques

both the reified dichotomies among alternative knowledges (e.g., indigenous knowledge versus scientific knowledge) and the unequal abstract status of different knowledges (e.g., indigenous knowledge as a valid claim of identity versus scientific knowledge as a valid claim of truth).

Following on from de Sousa Santos, decolonial approaches recognise that Indigenous knowledge – in its multiplicity of forms – is scientific knowledge. It provides a method for understanding the world and for continuing survival. Decolonial approaches can also use the tools of statistics to challenge colonial institutions. The research of Palawa woman and Professor Maggie Walter’s is a testament to this approach. In these ways, decolonial approaches reject that Indigenous knowledge is homogenous, “romantic” or reified – these are all ideas that stem from the Global North. Rather, it recognises the need to reclaim Indigenous knowledges from the melting pot of colonial knowledge and from misappropriation. As Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2008, 62) attests in Decolonizing Methodologies,

[C]olonialism not only meant the imposition of Western authority over indigenous lands, indigenous modes of production and indigenous law arid government, but the imposition of Western authority over all aspects of indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures.

We can draw from Carrington’s use of other scholars’ work that misrepresentation can contribute to false claims. There is a high importance for criminologists to accurately present other scholars’ work in order to further knowledge.

Spurious claims of Southern Criminology

To defend Southern Criminology against decolonial approaches, Carrington claims that Blagg and Anthony’s book Decolonising Criminology reference ‘very few Indigenous scholars’. A careful examination of the text demonstrates that the contention is false. There are over 200 publications authored by Indigenous scholars, organisations and people on the ground that are quoted and cited. There would be few Criminology texts that could make this claim. To name a few Indigenous authors across the settler-colonial lands of Australia, Canada, New Zealand: Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Alfred Taiaike, Jackie Huggins, Eve Tuck, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Peta MacGillivray, Pat Dudgeon, Amanda Porter, Jeff Corntassel, Alison Whittaker, Nicole Watson, Juanita Sherwood, Vanessa Davis, Peter Yu, Gallarrwuy Yunupingu, Willie Ermine, Martin Nakata, Sákéj Youngblood Henderson, Renee Linklater, Eddie Cubillo, Moana Jackson, and Ambelin Kwaymullina. By contrast, Carrington makes scant references to Indigenous researchers in her blog and article she and her co-authors’ published in the British Journal of Criminology, including from the country she occupies, Australia.

Not only does Decolonising Criminology reference Indigenous scholars in significant numbers, but more importantly, their ideas are centred – not because the authors reify them, but because they provide new understandings, Indigenous understandings derived from Indigenous lived experience. These have been silenced for over 500 years and, to use the blog’s own words, giving voice represents ‘cognitive justice’. The book is a challenge to criminological research that largely neglects the impacts of penality on Indigenous people and practises of Indigenous resistance and sovereignty. Key ideas in the book include Gaykamangu’s and Gaymarani’s analysis of the relationship between Indigenous and Western laws; Marie Battiste and Sákéj Youngblood Henderson’s notion of Indigenous Knowledge; Larissa Behrendt’s examination of the colonisation of Indigenous women; Audre Simpson’s concept of Indigenous refusal; Irene Watson’s critique of international law in the context of Indigenous sovereignty; Yin Paradies’ analysis of institutional racism and Juan Tauri’s critical examination of restorative justice. Decolonising Criminology includes a foreword by Wiradjuri woman and Pro Vice Chancellor First Nations Engagement, Professor Juanita Sherwood who states (2019, ix), ‘This book challenges the colonial epistemology of one truth and explores the expertise of First Peoples of Australia and their ways of knowing, being and doing regarding their experiences, circumstances and unfair treatment.’

Southern Criminology’s inconsistencies

There are a number of inconsistencies within the Southern Criminology schema and claims as set out by Carrington in the blog.

First, despite arguing that decolonial approaches essentialise Indigenous knowledge, Carrington claims that she herself has adopted a decolonial approach. Indeed, the title of her blog reads, ‘Decolonizing Criminology through the inclusion of epistemologies of the south’. She writes in the blog, ‘the southernizing of criminology pursues practical decolonizing projects’. The attempt to criticise decolonial approaches, on the one hand, and claim them, on the other hand, is inconsistent. It signals Southern Criminology’s gesture of claiming the decolonial space on its own terms while actively marginalising its decolonial and Indigenous detractors.

Second, Carrington criticises scholars who perceive the decolonial limitations of Southern Criminology, on the basis that they publish in ‘privileged journals in United States and England’. She does not appreciate the irony that her seminal piece on Southern Criminology was published in the British Journal of Criminology. In her blog, Carrington prides Southern Criminology on a conference co-hosted with the University of Oxford. With no disrespect to these forums, it is disingenuous to criticise decolonial thinkers who may engage in these forums. It also neglects the journals that are founded or edited by decolonial scholars such as the open-access journals, Decolonization of Criminology and Justice and Journal of Global Indigeneity. In response to Carrington’s claims on this issue, it can be argued that the best place for decolonial and Indigenous scholars to ensure their critique reaches Southern Criminologists is to publish in the journals that they clearly prefer because they do not cite or submit to decolonial or Indigenous journals.

Third, despite Carrington imploring intercultural exchange, she refutes a resurrection of ‘alternative origin stories or “founding fathers”, as some decolonial theorists have done’. Without identifying who these decolonial theorists are or the nature of these origin stories – in other words, without offering evidence to support her claims – these claims amount to an unevidenced rejection of alternative knowledges. Does she intend to demean stories about Country that are passed down by ancestors? Her denial of alternative stories is inconsistent with Southern Criminology’s calls for a cross-pollination of knowledge and perpetuates the dismissal of Indigenous knowledges.

Fourth, the blog suggests that the tendency of ‘theories of decolonisation … to essentialise race and romanticise ethnicity’ makes invisible the ‘gender of coloniality’. Carrington claims that ‘southern feminisms’ aim to ‘decolonise and democratise feminist theory … by embracing a mosaic of epistemologies’. However, Carrington’s own work eschews the epistemologies of Indigenous women. As discussed in the following section, deep seated concerns by Indigenous women scholars, including Amanda Porter, Crystal McKinnon and Marlene Longbottom, with Carrington’s methods and findings in her numerous publications on women’s police stations have remained unaddressed in her work.

Southern Criminology in practise 

Carrington’s recent research on women’s police stations signify the importation of assumptions of the Global North. Far from questioning the role of the police in women’s lives, especially its brutalising impacts on Indigenous women, Carrington seeks to layer gender into police operations. Injecting gender into policing operationalises Carrington’s objectives for Southern Criminology ‘to decenter, democratize and pluralize knowledge by injecting it with knowledge from the south and the periphery’. 

Carrington et al assert that the Argentinian model of women’s police stations ‘would be good for Aboriginal women’. She states (2020),

Australia does indeed have much to learn about how women’s police stations respond to and aim to prevent gender violence. If appropriately staffed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous teams trained to work from both gender and culturally sensitive perspectives, police stations designed to specifically respond to gender violence, have the potential to significantly enhance the policing and prevention of gender violence across Australia.

Carrington assumes that place-based practices from one side of the globe can be exported to another side of the globe. This is reminiscent of Western Criminology which applies, for example the family violence model from Duluth, Minnesota (which centres police and courts) to Indigenous people in remote Australia. Conversely, because the women’s police station model is from Argentina, ostensibly part of the ‘good South’, does not make it any more appropriate for Indigenous women. Carrington’s universalising methodology – where all practises from the South can be transferred – is tantamount to essentialising the South. This replicates one of the key critiques of the domination of ‘the North’, which is at the forefront of Southern Criminology, namely its long hegemony over the development and global transfer of theories, policies and interventions.

What this body of research reveals is that Southern Criminology reinstates the penal institutions that threaten Indigenous communities. This is because Southern Criminology ‘is blind to coloniality and, therefore, has yet to break away from criminology’s modern epistemological and ontological underpinnings’, as Eleni Dimou describes. It ignores calls by Indigenous scholars and campaigners to defund police. When Southern Criminology speaks of building bridges in Criminology, it amounts to incorporating elements of the South into the penal structures of the North. It has no regard for the fact that Australian Indigenous women who die in police custody often do so under the watch of women police officers. Women police officers served as the custody supervisors and lockup keepers when Indigenous women Tanya Day, Ms Dhu, and Rebecca Maher died in custody in Australia in recent years.

Confronting oppressive criminal institutions as a pathway to unity

In her blog, Carrington describes decolonising research – which identifies the colonial logic in penal enforcement – as ‘negative decolonial projects’. She claims that they ‘damn all criminologists as “racist”, “westerncentric” “control freaks” on some sort of “bandwagon”’, and once again she does so without providing any evidence to support her assertions. By contrast, Carrington venerates Southern Criminology’s projects for ‘bridging global divides’ and not setting out to ‘denigrate the contribution of metropolitan criminology’.

However, it is racism, its manifestation in Criminology and translation in carceral practices that are divisive and negative. By calling into question the deep-seated precepts of Criminology – namely, the criminality of the ‘Other’, the defence of penal institutions and the righteousness of universalising Western methods – we can imagine a different world. We can imagine a world that promotes collectivity, human rights, and Indigenous self-determination rather than one that depends on exclusion, hierarchy, and racism. A decolonising agenda is based on unifying humanity by dissolving the structures that divide us.

About the authors

Collectively and individually, our research identifies the colonial legacies in penal institutions, criminological thought and the broader carceral network. In our work and activism we seek to decolonise the carceral and criminological agendas so we can move beyond them.

Thalia Anthony is a Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney Thalia.anthony@uts.edu.au.

Robert Webb is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Auckland robert.webb@auckland.ac.nz.

Juanita Sherwood is a Professor and Pro Vice Chancellor First Nations Engagement at Charles Sturt University (NSW). jsherwood@csu.edu.au

Harry Blagg is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Western Australia. harry.blagg@uwa.edu.au

Antje Deckert is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Auckland University of Technology. Antje.deckert@aut.ac.nz

Main image courtesy of Montecruz Foto

Bend or Break: Resilience in Pandemic Policing

A reflection on the Centre for Police Research and Learning annual conference about resilience in policing and publics.

Dillon Ashmore

Dillon Ashmore is a second-year student and research assistant at the Hague University of Applied Sciences studying Safety and Security Management Studies. Dillon’s research interests include policing, intelligence and criminalistics.

The Covid-19 Pandemic presented a new type of critical incident to police globally that included several unprecedented elements, namely its reach, its uncertainty, and the legal implications of the restrictions related to it. In addition to these elements, due to their close contact with members of the public, the police were at a heightened risk of exposure to Covid-19. This risk, due to the nature of police roles as maintainers of public order and servants to the local community was unavoidable and complicated policing.  Moreover, the expansion of police responsibilities beyond the aforementioned traditional roles to include working with the government to contain the spread of the virus further sapped police resources and capabilities. This adversity, navigating a complex health crisis with additional responsibility, challenged the police’s capabilities to not only respond in the short term to the scenario but also rebound strengthened and more resourceful. In essence, policing during the Covid-19 Pandemic was characterised by a need for resilience. 

The relationship between the police and resilience was the focal point of this year’s Centre for Policing Research and Learning’s annual conference, “Resilience in Policing and Public” hosted by the Open University. For three days, from April 26th to April 29th, a host of guest speakers explored and explained the multifaceted effects of the pandemic on the police and every dimension of this institution including its organisational structure, its workforce and operational policing. These speakers came from both policing and academia, a combination that enhanced the various talking points throughout the conference with experience and research.  As a student of Safety and Security Management, the notion of resilience is of particular interest to me. Not only does it signify an emerging approach to risk management that contrasts mitigation, it also, as described by Gooren (2019) urges safety and security professionals to pay attention to their organisation’s core purpose and integrity. These values are often compromised by safety and security but in disturbances such as the current pandemic, they are revitalised which can lead to quality improvements of the system they belong to. Thus, in attending this conference I had an opportunity to greater understand resilience within the police system through observing collaboration between police and academics using critical challenge and the exploration of research ideas and evidence. In this article I will reflect on the conference, the talks it entailed and how it expanded my knowledge of policing and resiliency on a holistic level.

The first day of the conference focused on the challenges faced by the police force in the early days of the pandemic in England and Wales. To police it in a unified manner the police forces throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland adopted a ‘one UK policing approach’. To accommodate this, the multiple frameworks within the UK’s police were standardised to ensure a one-fold police response was maintained. Policing the pandemic, codenamed Operation TALLA was then characterised by the ‘4 E’s’ approach. This approach determined how the police interacted with the public through engaging, explaining, encouraging and as a last resort, enforcing Covid-19 restrictions. Theoretically the 4 E’s guided police on how to conduct Covid related activities however it was not without its issues. Primarily there was a lack of clarity provided to staff as to where the police stood with regards to legislation, regulation, and guidance. The failure to articulate the differences between the three to officers created confusion and consequently the enforcement of protocols that were guidance rather than legislation, for instance, the maintenance of a two-metre distance between those out in public. Consequently, the media coverage of those involved in policing the pandemic disproportionately focused on the mistakes and confusion of the police rather than their successes.

Additionally, the adoption of new legislation, regulation, and guidance by the government at an unprecedented rate meant that the police were operating in a sophisticated yet hectic political environment, one which they were inadequately prepared for. As described by Chair of the National Police Chief’s Council, Martin Hewitt, the chaos and confusion amidst the pandemic demanded the police to abandon, adapt, accelerate, and adopt new approaches to policing. This demand for the police to absorb and persist through the adversity it faced characterises resilience. The police illustrated resiliency through the maintenance of professional relationships on all levels, the collection and distribution of data, maintenance of public engagement and public confidence in addition to officers demonstrating proactivity through the rapid adaption of internet communication systems into their modus operandi. These adaptations undertaken by the police during the pandemic are consistent with what Bonnano and Diminich (2012) label as emergent resilience, where favourable adjustments emerge in the face of chronically aversive circumstances.

The second day of the conference progressed with the theme of resiliency but deviated from analysing it solely through the lens of the pandemic and approached it from the lens of climate change. The first speaker of the day DCC Julian Moss of the West Mercia Police Force discussed the lessons his force had learned from previous floods in his home county and those which surrounded it. These lessons he argued can be adapted to other crises including the current pandemic. Among those lessons, he emphasised the importance for the police to draw on their previous experiences for learning and training, after all, history is the greatest teacher. Moreover, playing to your strengths and refusing to accept poor performance are also important in responding to an unfolding crisis. However, above all else, DCC Moss stressed that the police must expect the unexpected, which is a tenet of resilience.

This talk was followed by a discussion with Neil Edwards on the criminogenic factors that are induced by climate change and how they impact policing in the UK.  Edwards explained that climate change will increase the emergence of criminogenic factors including heat stress, insecurity, uncertainty, and fragmentation in years to come. This is an issue that has already been explored by academics including South and Brisman who predict that rising sea levels will trigger mass immigration into regions including Northern Europe which consequently intensifies the fear of crime and public disorder in these countries. Moreover, the increased focus on environmental crimes will change the repertoire of crimes, their structure and subsequently the corresponding legal framework. The consequences of this are predicted to be increased individual, group, corporate and state crime, which will all put pressure on existing police resources. In addition to these plenary presentations, several sessions ran parallel to each other on the topics of mental health and wellbeing of emergency responders in the UK, the consequences of organisational injustice, and social media resilience and policing. Each of these talks, despite tackling different topics, were connected through the emphasis of the conference’s focus on resilience in the police and policing scholarship.

The final day of the conference focused on organisational resilience within the police force. Several speakers approached the topic from a plethora of directions for instance Dame Stella Manzie explored it from the perspective of adaptability whereas Jean Heartley approached it in the context of the political interface between the police and formal governance. Both approaches highlighted the demand for resilience and adaptation within the police. In addition to these, Dame Manzie addressed the existing threats to resilience within the police: change without consultation, lack of resources and lack of visibility. However, what stood out to me the most was the discussion led by Paul Walley on how improvement science can be utilised to build resilience in the police. Improvement science as a concept focuses on the methods and theories which can be applied to create improvement consistently. This concept, Walley proposes, can be used within the police to contribute towards resilience by developing problem-solving and solution implementation capabilities. This would be achieved through the implementation of Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles which would offer practitioners a structured approach to understanding problems and locating solutions. What resonated with me about this topic is how it pushes an organisation to its extremes. How I understand this is that improvement science explores how to reduce the gap between what is actual and what is achievable. Additionally, the constant focus on exploring ‘what works’ was of interest to me as it coincides with the cliché “there’s always room for improvement”.

As the conference drew to a close, I reflected on it in its entirety. The keynotes, presentations and research projects not only illustrated the resiliency demonstrated by the police from both an academic and practical perspective but also the underlying issues the pandemic brought to the surface. The presentation of both academic and practical perspectives was a selling point for me in attending the conference as it made it very applied in nature. Moreover, the information conveyed at the conference contributed to enhancing my understanding of resilience and how it is relative to the fields of safety and security. Reflecting on the conference I would say that I understand resilience as something which can be defined as both a process and an outcome. In defining it as a process, the capabilities of resilience are dictated by the degree to which it is endorsed by the police. It is tied to the police’s mission and sense of purpose in addition to their sphere of control. The former is imperative as without them the resilience of frontline officers who rely on that sense of mission and purpose would be eroded. Similarly, there will be many things outside of an officer’s control and it is important to emphasise that the focus should be on that which they can control otherwise energy will be expended and the capacity of the police drained. Thus, in maintaining a sense of mission, purpose and establishing spheres of control, the police can foster agency-wide resilience.  When interpreted as an outcome, the police force can be seen to have been resilient as it evidences good outcomes in the face of adversity. Keeping in line with this interpretation, the police ‘bouncing back’ to their former level of functioning in the face of the Covid-19 demonstrates resilience. Regardless of how resilience is interpreted, it is clear to me that during the Covid-19 pandemic it was demonstrated as both a process and an outcome that ensured the police force bent but did not break.

Dillon Ashmore, Faculty of Public Management, Law and Safety, The Hague University Of Applied Sciences  
Email: D.E.Ashmore@hhs.nl
Twitter: https://twitter.com/d_ashmo

Photos courtesy: author and Tim Dennell – Police asking if journeys are essential during lockdown.Coronavirus Album: www.flickr.com/photos/shefftim/albums/72157713538756686

U.S. Police Academies Overemphasize “Warrior” Training of New Officers

National-level data of U.S. police academies indicate basic training of new police recruits overemphasizes traditional “warrior-style” training


John Sloan is Professor Emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham whose research interests include police recruitment, training, and ethics.

Gene Paoline is Professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and former Chair of the Division of Policing for the American Society of Criminology whose research interests include police culture, use of force, and training.

The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on charges of second degree murder in the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 has brought into sharp relief the training U.S. police officers receive. Evidence presented to date in the trial shows that Chauvin misused physical constraints officers are trained to use when responding to someone who is resisting arrest. The prosecution claims Officer Chauvin’s purposeful misuse of the constraints directly resulted in Mr. Floyd being asphyxiated.

 The killing of George Floyd is but one in a long series of well-documented incidents over the past decade where unarmed citizens in the U.S., disproportionately people of color, experienced excessive – including deadly – force by police during the encounter. As a result, heated debate continues in the U.S. over policy responses to police violence. Some critics have opined the only option is to abolish the police and replace them with other systems of public safety. Others have urged defunding the police and redirecting that funding to other areas such as mental health, housing, and other programs. Still others have argued what is needed is “reimagining” police training by completely overhauling it.

Questions about the training of U.S. police officers are not new. During the 20th century, for example, at least three major commissions were created to reform the police and included a focus on police training. The most recent example of such a commission was the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing convened by the Obama administration and which focused a great deal of attention to perceived deficits in both basic law enforcement training (BLET) for new hires as well as in-service  training for officers on the job. Among others, the Task Force recommended the federal government partner with training facilities to promote consistent standards, establish training innovation hubs involving universities and police academies, and create a national postgraduate “institute of policing” for senior-level police officials that would include a standard curriculum preparing them to lead agencies into the 21st century.

The problem as we see it, is little research has been conducted on BLET and most of what has been done has focused on basic training occurring at a few academies. In fact, a large portion of BLET research involves case studies conducted at  a few academies. To our knowledge, no national-level studies of U.S. police training academies – where most BLET occurs – have been published since the 1980s. To remedy this, we have been examining the structure and organization of BLET using data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from the population of U.S. academies offering such training in 2011-2013, the third wave of data collection (a fourth wave of data has been collected and is currently being prepared for public release). The BJS census compiles information on the number and type of staff employed, academy budgets and sources of funding, number of officers trained and their demographic characteristics, policies and practices, and training curriculum.

To understand the importance of BLET, it’s important to place it into a larger context relating to how new officers are exposed to and begin the process of socialization into their occupation. For example, in America, these individuals have been recruited into policing and gotten through a rather extensive hiring process that includes civil service tests, background checks, drug tests and polygraph exams, and one-on-one interviews with department officials in charge of hiring. Another major hurdle is completing BLET at a police academy.

New hires are typically “sponsored” by the hiring department and while technically they can attend any of the approximately 600 accredited academies operating across the U.S., they usually attend an academy preferred by the hiring department, often one the department operates. And while one can classify academies any number of ways, we suggest there are two basic types: law enforcement agency academies (LEAAs) operated by or formally affiliated with municipal, state, or county police departments, and academic institution academies (AIAs) operated by or formally affiliated with two-year or four-colleges or universities or with local public school systems through “career centers” or similar operations. About 56% of U.S. academies are LEAAs and 44% are AIAs.

On average and regardless of which type of academy attended, new recruits will be required to complete about 837 contact hours of BLET –  about 21 weeks of eight-hours-per-day, five days a week – which, in its own right, is impressive and suggests new officers are not being rushed to the streets. Most of the contact hours (about 680 hours on average) consist of training in the BLET “core curriculum” that includes six substantive areas that in turn are comprised of specific topics: operations (seven topics), weapons/defensive tactics (three topics), “special topics” (16 topics), self-improvement (six topics), legal issues (three topics), and community-oriented policing (COP) (four topics). Using various methods including lecture, scenario-based training, and adragogy (adult focused learning), both full-time and part-time academy instructors deliver the training and evaluate recruits’ performance using different tests, including written, oral, and skills- or competency-based.

Research we’re conducting on BLET curricula at U.S. academies reveals several interesting patterns. While between type-of-academy differences exist, we nonetheless find striking similarities:

  • About 54% (~369 hrs.) of total core basic law enforcement training hours are devoted to just two areas: operations (33%; ~225 hrs.) and weapons/defensive tactics training (21%; ~144 hrs.). More specifically, training is devoted to topics involving patrol tactics and procedures (25% of operations hours) and criminal investigations (21% of operations hours), along with firearms skills (47% of weapons/defensive tactics training) and defensive tactics (42% of weapons/defensive tactics training). Only about 6% (~42 hrs.) of total core training hours are devoted to COP and topics like cultural diversity and conflict management;
  • About one-quarter (24%) of total training hours in the core area of “special topics” are devoted to the use of force. The remaining 15 topics comprise the rest of the training hours;
  • Just over one-half (52%) of training hours in self-improvement are devoted to physical fitness. The remaining hours are devoted to five topics including communication, professionalism, ethics & integrity, stress mitigation, and the basics of a foreign language.
  • Overall, approximately three-quarters (74%) of the total BLET hours are devoted to just 13 (of 39) topics, all of which seek to develop in new officers skills largely associated with “traditional” aspects of policing like use of (lethal) weapons, emergency vehicle operations, criminal investigations, report writing, traffic enforcement and accident response, patrol tactics, and criminal/constitutional law.

To be clear, we are not suggesting topics such as patrol tactics and criminal investigation should no longer be included in BLET. However, as Sue Rahr and Stephen Rice have cogently observed, “fueled by post 9-11 fear”, American policing “veered away from Sir Robert Peel’s ideal that ‘the police are the people, and the people are the police’ and toward a culture and mindset more like soldiers at war with the people [the police] are sworn to protect and serve”. Rahr & Rice also argue “The seeds of [the warrior mindset] are planted during recruit training, where some recruits are trained  in an academy environment modeled after military boot camp”: a model that produces a warrior ready for battle and to follow orders and rules. The problem is while patrolling, most of the time no supervisor is present to “give orders” to officers. Rather, they are largely on-their-own to decide how to respond to myriad situations encountered when interacting with members of the community who are often people of color who neither look like the officers, or come from similar backgrounds.

To Rahr & Rice’s point about the academy “sowing the seeds” of police-as-warriors, if one assesses the proportion of time allocated to traditional policing functions – compared to training hours in non-traditional areas such as communication, cultural diversity, ethics and professionalism, and stress management – the scales clearly tip in the direction of the former. In fact, hours allocated to all of the “non-traditional” topics are less than the hours allocated to just firearms skills training or to just defensive tactics involving exerting physical control over people who are resisting officers’ efforts to arrest them.

Over 80 years ago, the American police reformer August Vollmer bemoaned the lack of personnel standards relating to officers and available training for them. Since then various commissions – convened to investigate allegations of inappropriate police behavior (individually or organizationally) and identify best practices for effective crime reduction, while building and preserving community trust – have either indirectly or directly focused their attention on the importance of police training, including that received at police academies. Thus, for nearly a century, police scholars and practitioners alike have argued the nation’s police officers should receive either more training, better training, or some combination of the two. Few of these assertions, however, have been buttressed with empirical evidence.

Our ongoing research into BLET finds that police recruits do not seem to need more training: on average, basic training involves more than five months of full-time activity. Rather, what is needed is providing recruits with different training. However, achieving that goal necessitates a complete reorientation of the BLET curriculum to deemphasize traditional aspects of policing like operations and weapons/defensive tactics geared toward teaching recruits about and preparing them to “go to war” that is too often waged disproportionately against citizens of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This new curriculum would instead emphasize to recruits the need to develop skills in communication, stress management, building partnerships with the community, and problem solving. Recruits would also internalize mounting evidence that procedural justice is inexorably linked to police legitimacy, especially in communities of color; understand that greater diversity brings strength, not weakness, to the ranks; and learn how to make ethically sound decisions while simultaneously advancing professionalism within policing. While this reorientation will likely encounter resistance, if American policing is to survive current existential threats to its continued existence and rebuild the trust that has been lost in so many communities, the choice seems obvious.

Contact

John J. Sloan, III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Email: prof@uab.edu

Twitter: @SloanProf

Eugene A. Paoline, III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida

Email: Eugene.Paoline@ucf.edu

Website: https://ccie.ucf.edu/profile/gene-paoline/

Photographs courtesy of authors and 88192456@creativecommonsstockphotos|Dreamscape.com 

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