Better officer training would prevent excessive use of force
Chicago police form a line to prevent protesters from entering an expressway on Nov. 24, 2015, in Chicago. (Photo: Paul Beaty, AP)
Police officers form a line to prevent protesters from entering an expressway on Nov. 24, 2015, in Chicago. (Photo: Paul Beaty, AP)

By Edwin Pantoja

Viral videos of police-citizen encounters are coming in by the truckload. In them, we repeatedly see these confrontations go bad fast. The latest example broke Tuesday. Chicago made public a video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. McDonald died, and Van Dyke now is facing a first-degree murder charge. In another case, an officer in South Carolina dragged a female student across a classroom. The officer lost his job.

Much of what is happening now is the result of inadequate police training. We need to do better. A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum this spring of nearly 300 law enforcement agencies found the largest segment of recruit training was on firearms, which accounted for a median of 58 hours. About 10 hours were devoted to communication skills and eight on de-escalation techniques.

Recruits attend the New York Police Academy graduation ceremony on Dec. 29, 2014, in New York City. (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)
Recruits attend the New York Police Academy graduation ceremony on Dec. 29, 2014, in New York City. (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)

It is understandable that firearms training requires a significant amount of hours. The emphasis on communications skills and sensitivity training, which I’ve seen increase, is also a good move. The problem is, no matter how much we want to avoid it, some situations require the officer to get physical. When officers don’t know how to effectively subdue an individual, frustration kicks in. Frustration and poor tactics lead to injuries and sometimes death to one or the other.

Officers need examples of how to do things right, and what it looks like when a situation goes horribly wrong, long before they encounter civilians on the streets. I have found it extremely effective to give officers video examples of poorly handled situations from start to finish, followed by examples of similar situations that are handled professionally. They also need to be shown when to use necessary and justified force. 

Let me be clear: My No. 1 tool for the past 27 years has been my communication skills. I’ve worked in a city with highly trafficked bars for most of my career, dealing with drunken patrons and bar fights on a weekly basis. Sometimes we have to act to prevent a situation from spiraling out of control. Some people are going to challenge you no matter what you say.

This three-image composite was made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student on Oct. 26, 2015. It shows Senior Deputy Ben Fields trying to forcibly remove a student from her chair in Columbia S.C. (Photo: AP)
This three-image composite was made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student on Oct. 26, 2015. It shows Senior Deputy Ben Fields trying to forcibly remove a student from her chair in Columbia S.C. (Photo: AP)

You will most likely never see trained, skilled officers in these viral videos. Officers who are trained and efficient in verbal communications and basic take-down techniques rarely receive excessive use-of-force complaints. In addition, these skills together produce that thicker layer of skin necessary in dealing with a hostile subject. Well-trained officers are not easily swayed by verbal hostilities because they are confident they can physically handle the person when talking him or her down doesn’t work. They have nothing to prove, so they don’t lose control.

My philosophy is that a properly trained officer will know how to end the fight before it begins. If we are not giving our officers the proper training, then we are complicit in their actions because they don’t know any better.

In all my years, I have never heard a single police officer say: “I really feel like beating or shooting an innocent person today for no good reason” or “I really want to lose my job and go to prison.”

Detective Sergeant Edwin Pantoja is a 27-year veteran of law enforcement and founder of ForceEffects Training