A recent New York Times story about armed teachers casts doubt on the adequacy of the training they receive with a misleading comparison to the hours required to become a police officer. The real scandal here is not how little training is mandated for teachers who want to carry handguns in school but how little training police officers receive for a job that extends far beyond handling firearms.
Under a new Ohio program, teachers who want to carry handguns as a safeguard against mass shooters have to complete 24 hours of firearm training. “The law in Ohio has been especially contentious because it requires no more than 24 hours of training, along with eight hours of recertification annually,” the Times says.
Although the training for teachers is more extensive than Ohio’s requirements for armed security guards, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio thinks it is plainly inadequate. “That, to us, is just outrageous,” Michael Weinman, the union’s director of government affairs, tells the Timeswhich adds: “By comparison, police officers in the state undergo more than 700 hours of training.”
That is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison, as the Times more or less concedes in the next paragraph. Supporters of the new law, it notes, “say 24 hours is enough because while police training includes everything from traffic tickets to legal matters, school employees tightly focus on firearm proficiency and active shooter response.” If anything is “outrageous” here, it’s how easily someone can qualify as an armed agent of the state empowered to detain, search, and arrest people as well as use deadly force against them.
As the Cincinnati Enquirer noted in 2020, Ohio requires much less training for police officers than it does for “the person who cuts your hair.” Basic training for cops involves 737 hours of training, compared to “1,500 for licensed cosmetologists and 1,800 for barbers.”
Some cities in Ohio go beyond the state’s minimum requirements. “Cincinnati police run a 28-week training program,” the Enquirer noted, while “Columbus and Cleveland police both offer 1,100 hours of training to recruits”—still less than you need to accept money for a haircut. The paper added that “the level of training often depends on a department’s finances, which vary across the state.”
Police training is actually more rigorous in Ohio than it is in most states. According to the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform (ICJTR), the national average for basic training is 652 hours. State minimums range from zero hours in Hawaii to 1,321 in Connecticut. In Hawaii, the ICJTR notes, “agencies such as the Honolulu Police Department may provide training to some [officers]but not all attend.” And while Ohio does not allow cops to start working before completing basic training, 37 states do.
Insider notes that “the average US police department requires fewer hours of training than what it takes to become a barber or a plumber.” According to a 2017 Institute for Justice report, the average training requirement for barbers was about 1,300 hours. To qualify as a master plumber, you have to complete trade school and up to five years of apprenticeship.
The Institute for Justice reported that three states and the District of Columbia required licenses for interior designers. In those jurisdictions, it noted, “aspiring designers must pass a national exam, pay an average of $364 in fees and devote an average of almost 2,200 days—six years—to a combination of education and apprenticeship before they can begin work.” In Louisiana, which requires that interior designers have 2,190 days of education and experience, someone with a high school diploma can work as a police officer for up to 12 months even before requiring basic training, which entails a minimum of 450 hours.
In Texas, the report noted, “eyebrow threaders with 20 years of experience are being told they must stop working and spend between $7,000 and $22,000 and 750 hours in a government-approved beauty school that does not even teach threading.” But if you want to wear a badge and carry a gun as a law enforcement in Texas, you need just 696 hours of training and can work up to a year before officer it.
In addition to firearms training, would-be police officers are supposed to learn “everything from traffic tickets to legal matters,” as the Times put it. Those “legal matters” include complying with constitutional constraints on the use of force. But as UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz points out, that aspect of police training typically provides nothing more than a brief overview of major Supreme Court cases.
While “police departments regularly inform their officers about watershed decisions,” Schwartz notes in a 2021 University of Chicago Law Review article, “officers are not regularly or reliably informed about court decisions interpreting those decisions in different factual scenarios—the very types of decisions that are necessary to clearly establish the law about the constitutionality of uses of force.” Yet the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields officers from civil liability for alleged misconduct when it did not violate “clearly established” law, is based on the premise that officers can reasonably be expected to know the relevant cases, giving them fair warning about when they are overstepping constitutional limits. Schwartz calls that assumption “qualified immunity’s boldest lie.”
Even when officers should understand that a particular use of force is unlawful, they do not necessarily act accordingly, as illustrated by the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In federal court last week, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, two of three officers who failed to stop their colleague, Derek Chauvin, from killing Floyd, were to three years and three and a half years, respectively, for violating Floyd’s constitutional rights. The week before, the third officer, Thomas Lane, received a federal sentence of two and a half years. Lane had previously pleaded guilty to a state charge of aiding and abetting manslaughter, for which he has not yet been fulfilled. Kueng and Thao are scheduled to be tried on similar charges in January.
Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE), a training program that was established in 2021, aims to avoid situations like this by encouraging officers to intervene when a colleague violates someone’s rights or seems about to do so. ABLE, which was developed by Georgetown University’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety, grew out of a New Orleans program known as EPIC (Ethical Policing Is Courageous) that was launched in 2014 under the guidance of Ervin Staub, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It is based on insights gained from research into why people either intervene or fail to intervene in emergency situations.
ABLE entails eight hours of training conducted by officers who have completed a week-long certification program. But this is a supplement to standard training that so far has been adopted by just 265 or so of the country’s 18,000 police agencies. Is it too much to expect that police departments add another eight hours to basic training, which would increase the average from 652 hours to 660, so that officers are less likely to look the other way when a colleague needlessly escalates an encounter or uses unlawful force ?
Additional training is by no means a silver bullet for police abuse. It seems doubtful that any amount of instruction would have changed Chauvin’s behavior. And when cops willfully misuse their authority to punish people who irk them, the problem is not that they were never taught they should not do that.
Still, “active bystandership” training might have affected how Kueng, Thao, and Lane responded when Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes. It was clear that Lane, a rookie who twice suggested that Floyd be moved from his stomach to a position in which it would have been easier for him to breathe, remembered what he had been taught about the dangers of “positional asphyxia.” If his training had included more emphasis on the duty to intervene and had better equipped him to do so, he might have been more insistent, and Floyd might still be alive.
Even basic information about techniques commonly used by police might help prevent Fourth Amendment Abuses. A couple of years ago, the Johnson County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Office reached a $150,000 settlement with a couple whose home was searched in 2012 based on a drug field test that misidentified tea in their trash as marijuana. Neither the deputies nor their boss, then-Sheriff Frank Denning, seemed to be aware that such tests are notoriously unreliable, notwithstanding a warning label that said their results “are only presumptive in nature” and should be confirmed by laboratory analysis. A little instruction on how often field tests finger innocent people could help reduce false arrests, not to mention thousands of guilty pleas based on a technology that is not accurate enough to be used in court.
You probably can think of additional examples. The notion that a few months of training (if that) is enough to prepare people for a job that presents myriad opportunities to wrongfully detain, interrogate, search, arrest, assault, and kill people is risible. Americans would be safer if states took those risks more seriously than the danger of a bad haircut.