Police Training: How to Shoot People

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)


Many of us are reeling as we watch the body count of black shooting victims pile higher at the hands of violent police officers. This time it is the tragic deaths of Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott, and Tyre King.

Video footage proves that Terence Crutcher was simultaneously tasered and shot by Tulsa police, while his hands were in the air, as he was calmly standing near his disabled car. Police in North Carolina fatally shot a disabled man, Keith Lamont Scott, who was waiting to pick up his son from the school bus. The police claim that he was armed, though they refuse to release the video. Regardless, the pat explanation that he may have had a gun does not end the matter – even by police accounts, Mr. Scott was not threatening anyone, and it is legal to openly carry guns in NC. But witnesses at the scene say that Mr. Scott carried a book, not a gun.  And yet another black child was killed by police in Ohio. Thirteen-year-old Tyre King was gunned down in Columbus, Ohio, for carrying a BB gun, reminding us of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice who was similarly shot on sight for playing with a pellet gun in an Ohio park.

Watching these tragedies unfold, it is time to revisit the issue of police training. Why do police offers arrive on the scene and immediately start shooting black people? Why do they then stand idle, as their victims lie bleeding and dying at their feet?

In most of the police shootings we see, the police have gone in guns ablaze instead of trying to de-escalate the situation. Sadly, this is what police training teaches: shoot first, ask questions later; hesitation can be fatal; “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” Police training varies from locality to locality, and there are no uniform rules or national standards for how officers should be trained. Much of the training is done by private, for-profit companies emphasizing a warrior mentality and a shoot-first, escalation approach, which at best belongs on a battlefield and not in our communities.

The vast majority of police training teaches preparation for using violence, with very little training about how to avoid it. For instance, a recent survey of 281 police agencies found that the average new officer received over 100 hours of firearms/defensive tactical training, but only eight hours of de-escalation training. And for most police departments, veteran officers continue with military-like defensive training, but they never again revisit the issue of de-escalation. Instead, they take paranoia-inducing training classes with names like “Bulletproof Warrior” and “Officer Survival,” where the message is that an officer will be killed if he hesitates for even a moment before shooting.

When this sort of aggression-based police training combines with internalized racism spawned by our cultural racism, we see police officers gunning down black men at alarming rates. Far too often, police officers look at black men and their assumption is “dangerous.” It can be heard loud and clear in the video of the Terence Crutcher shooting. Immediately before two officers inexplicably fired at Mr. Crutcher, one with a taser and one with a gun, a third officer far overhead in the helicopter can be heard saying, “That looks like a bad dude.” What he bases that on, outside of Crutcher’s race, is a mystery.

I’ve watched video again and again, but for the life of me, there can be no other explanation for Mr. Crutcher’s murder except for racism. Mr. Crutcher does not look like “a bad dude.” He looks like a man with car trouble. He looks like a man with his hands in the air, respectfully complying with police orders. As long as aggressive shoot-first police training couples with a fear that all black men are dangerous, we are going to have the police murdering “bad” black men instead of de-escalating situations with fellow human beings. We have to rethink how we train police officers.


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