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It’s time to rethink Minnesota’s system of police education and training

Only legislative action on the Minnesota model of police officer education can save us from more bullets and bloodshed.

Police training perpetuates the 1990s “warrior” culture of policing that paints police officers as soldiers at “war” with crime, drugs, and criminal gangs.
REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Anger and protests over the death of Philando Castile in police custody have sparked yet another re-evaluation of policing in Minnesota. As a criminal justice professor who a) literally (co-)wrote the book on Minnesota’s criminal justice system and who b) teaches in one of the state’s Professional Peace Officer Education programs (PPOE), I’ve done this dance before. I’m tired. Only legislative action on the Minnesota model of police officer education can save us from more bullets and bloodshed.

densley photo
James Densley

Minnesota is the only state in the nation that tasks colleges and universities, not police academies, with police officer education and training. To become eligible for a Minnesota Peace Officer License, one must earn at least a two-year degree from a regionally accredited college or university and successfully complete a PPOE program from one of approximately 30 colleges and universities certified by the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). On paper this sounds great. Indeed, it guarantees Minnesota has the most educated officers in the nation. The problem is, they are getting a bad education.

The first rule of law enforcement is to go home at the end of your shift. The key principle is officer survival. PPOE, taught disproportionately by retired cops, is designed to promote this. But it ends up endangering civilians rather than protecting them.

A curious approach to recruitment

It starts with high-school career fairs and police recruitment videos that show the “sexy” side of the law enforcement — officers dressed in hard body armor crashing through doors at dawn, fast-roping from helicopters, taming riots, and shooting their way out of trouble. This is especially curious given most officers go their entire careers without firing their weapons. But the image attracts a particular type of candidate. PPOE schools then further entrench this by teaching officers to be afraid; telling them that policing is an incredibly dangerous profession.

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The fact is policing is not especially dangerous, compared to say, work in logging or construction, or driving a taxi, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the 2000s, crime has declined and with it the risk of line of duty deaths. Indeed, police officers are many times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by a criminal. But instructors teach what they know (or were themselves taught), perpetuating the 1990s “warrior” culture of policing that paints police officers as soldiers at “war” with crime, drugs, and criminal gangs. This, in turn, contributes to implicit biases that associate danger with young black men and reinforce the myth of the “righteous kill,” thus shootings that were most likely avoidable.

Officers are conditioned to view every encounter as a potential deadly force incident. Admittedly, it’s a reasonable expectation in a conceal carry state like Minnesota. Not every Minnesotan is armed, but potentially they are. Likewise, not every Minnesotan is dangerous, but because they’re potentially armed, or, in the tragic case of Philando Castile, definitely armed, it’s better to be safe than sorry. In this context, treating everyone with fairness and respect (what criminologists call “procedural justice”) comes second to putting hands in pockets or pulling the trigger. PPOE students complete about 50 hours of firearms training on average but only five hours of de-escalation conflict resolution training, most of which is classroom-based and focuses on the “letter of the law,” not the nuances of mental illness and other concerns.

Dallas is an anomaly

Critics will point to the appalling events in Dallas on Thursday, where five police officers were killed and seven wounded by snipers, as evidence that policing really is a matter of life or death. They’ll paint me as part of the problem. But Dallas is an anomaly, proof perfect that the breakdown in public trust and police legitimacy has catastrophic consequences. When cops continue to be found working “within the law” but in ways far removed from community expectations, violence, for some, becomes an attractive alternative to official or bureaucratic state means of action. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Deadly force myopia means law-enforcement programs are expensive to run (bullets cost money), thus PPOE schools need large numbers of full-time equivalent (FTE) students in their classes in order to continue to offer them. Most PPOE programs are housed in open-access colleges and universities that service anyone and everyone. The problem, of course, is not anyone can protect and serve and certainly not everyone will be good at it. Unless a student has a disqualifier that would clearly prevent him or her from being a peace officer, however, there is nothing a PPOE school can do to stop the person enrolling in the program. They can advise students against it, but not bar them outright, for to do so would violate a school’s anti-discrimination policy. Such explains why less than half of all PPOE graduates actually get a police job in the state. College gets you license-eligible (for a fee!). Police agencies control who gets licensed.

License eligibility is no indicator of quality

Since all law-enforcement graduates have invested two to four years minimum into becoming a cop, at an estimated cost of anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, depending on the school, there can be no question they are objectively qualified for and committed to the profession before they enter it. But license eligibility, the true outcome of PPOE, is no indicator of quality. Graduates all look, sound, and think the same, chiefs tell me. The process intended to separate high-quality law-enforcement graduates from their low-quality counterparts is actually pooling them because a) law-enforcement degrees provide a pretty narrow workforce preparation and b) the high financial and opportunity costs associated with PPOE compared to traditional police academies dissuade diverse or “second-career candidates” from taking the plunge.

It’s time to rethink our system of police education and training. You would think that after 40 years, if our one-of-a-kind system was so good, other states might have adopted it. But no, Minnesota is alone in this experiment. The lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Minnesota law enforcement and the continued deaths of black men in police custody suggest the experiment has failed.

 James Densley, Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and author of “Minnesota’s Criminal Justice System” (Carolina Academic Press, 2016). He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Oxford.

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