Use of force and how law enforcement officers are trained in tactical methods is a sensitive subject for many. As such, having a balanced and informed discussion about it can be difficult, yet it was this specific topic that was recently addressed in a webinar presented by the Justice Clearinghouse and sponsored by Vector Solutions.
The webinar was presented by Dr. Shawn L. Williams Ed.D., an associate professor at St. Cloud State University, School of Public Affairs. He currently leads the Professional Peace Officer Education Program at the university and brings 17 years of experience as a police officer with him.
In his presentation, “Confidence in Training for Law Enforcement Leadership: What is the Missing Element?” Dr. Williams discussed use-of-force training challenges that law enforcement agencies and training programs are currently experiencing across the country.
He stressed during the presentation that he would share information from both an academic point of view as well as a working professional point of view.
“As we talk about bettering, enhancing, solidifying the practice of law enforcement, and more specifically use-of-force training, the more lenses we have, the better we can put together a plan of action to enhance training,” he said.
Throughout the presentation, Dr. Williams frequently referred back to what he called “pesky questions” about law enforcement training.
This concept of proficiency, which is to have “a high degree of competence or skill,” according to Oxford Languages, was featured heavily throughout the presentation.
These situations, Dr. Williams said, are not an everyday occurrence for most law enforcement officers, but each incident carries high liability and risk. When officers have a high level of confidence in their level of proficiency regarding use-of-force tactics, they can go into a situation with an unwilling subject knowing they can defend themselves and their partners. This is an essential component to reducing the risk of harm for both law enforcement and members of the public.
Dr. Williams also discussed the importance of ongoing training for leadership and police educators.
“It starts at the top. [A law enforcement officer’s] sentiment on whether or not they want to go train may start with, ‘well, what’s my boss doing?’” he said. “Your sentiment on training is a direct reflection on your guys’ and gals’ sentiments on training.”
When conversations about use-of-force training occur, state standards and the lack of national consistency is almost always mentioned.
In his presentation, Dr. Williams acknowledged this, sharing that in his state,
there is no standard required time for hands-on, use-of-force training. He also noted that most departments do have a required minimum number of hours that must be met for use-of-force training, but if there isn’t a state standard, the amount of training each officer receives can vary greatly.
Each community is different and the needs that law enforcement agencies respond to will also vary. However, if a law enforcement officer moves from one state to another, into a community of a different size and with different needs, what does that mean regarding training?
“Do you personally have full confidence that all officers nationwide meet one specific level of proficiency for all duties?” Dr. Williams asked during the presentation. “As [an average person], if I move from California to Ohio, should my expectations for professionalism and proficiency be the same as they were in my last state? As a citizen, isn’t there a certain level of proficiency I should expect?”
Of the three “pesky questions” Dr. Williams addressed in his presentation, the third is perhaps the hardest to answer.
“Who is responsible for what law enforcement officers are proficient in?” Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to get a different answer. The truth of the matter is there are multiple stakeholders.
First, there are the law enforcement educators and training programs who are responsible for the initial education of each officer. Then, there is the law enforcement agency, which is responsible for the hiring and ongoing training of its officers. Next is the overseeing bodies, which enforce training standards and requirements.
Each of these three stakeholders have some level of responsibility for the level of proficiency and confidence a law enforcement officer has when confronted by a use-of-force situation. However, as shared by Dr. Williams, there’s a fourth stakeholder.
Community members are directly affected by the level of proficiency law enforcement officers have. Should they, especially civilians with training in things like martial arts, which directly apply to use-of-force situations, have a seat at the table when it comes to use-of-force training discussions?
“Do you think there are people in general society who are maybe more highly trained in martial arts or hands-on tactics than some of our law enforcement officers?” Dr. Williams asked. “They’re training regularly, so why aren’t our law enforcement officers?”
At the end of his presentation, Dr. Williams laid out what he believes is the “missing element” when it comes to law enforcement training.
“The missing piece is simple,” he said. “I believe we are missing an honest conversation, internally, when it comes to use-of-force training. We’re missing that honest piece, all the way from the top and all the way to the bottom, that we need to do more.”
To learn more about the topics covered in the webinar we discussed above and to find out how to watch it for yourself, please visit the Justice Clearinghouse website.