Policing in America.

Via Unsplash.

Matthew Petrocelli, professor of criminal justice, gave a lecture on how research indicates American policing should be reformed but not abolished, including police culture and socialization, training and accountability. 

Petrocelli said the police culture mindset must shift from warrior to guardian. Petrocelli, who graduated from West Point, said the police have paramilitary roots and their culture reflects the military’s in a number of ways, from their uniforms to cadences about killing and war. He said the two groups are trained in very similar ways despite their different purposes. 

“It’s not a good thing that police are being socialized into violence, that they’re being socialized into aggression on this level … These ideas have been around for a very long time, but it only seems that when there’s a tragic event that we return to these ideas,” Petrocelli said. 

Petrocelli said because policing is a complex and high-stress job, police need to rotate out of the workforce about 20 percent of the time for ongoing training, which would require more funding. He said this is an aspect of the military that would actually benefit the police. 

“It [would give] them a chance to get out of real life and decompress, and more importantly, they can talk about, in a training environment, what they did right and what they did wrong,” Petrocelli said. “In the military, we do this all the time.” 

He also said they need to rotate out to train in lethal force decision making, and use realistic training rather than target practice. He said this should include situational awareness training to avoid tunnel vision, which often leads to tragic outcomes, and rules of engagement. 

“Borrowing stuff from the military that could actually work, tactical shooting where you learn when to shoot and not shoot,” Petrocelli said. “In the military, you have rules of engagement where you have to learn, This situation I’m allowed to shoot, this situation I’m not allowed to shoot,’ and you drill that constantly.”

Michael Cushing, a senior criminal justice major from Glen Carbon, said he’s had a lot of discussions with police officers as part of his senior assignment, and sees a duality of opinions from being on the road with them and academically studying them. He said what he got out of Petrocelli’s talk was that we need to shift away from the idea of defunding the police. 

 

“Even though the sentiment is well-warranted, we need to be investing in our police and the training that they receive and to create a culture of going back to, ‘We need to protect and serve the community,’” Cushing said.

Additionally, Petrocelli said police need to shift away from curt militarism to respect when interacting with individuals – because even if they are committing a crime, that interaction determines the outcome of that situation. He said this can be done by active listening, explaining why they’re doing something and using a respectful tone. 

Mya Scott, a sophomore criminal justice major from St. Louis, said she is a student of Petrocelli’s and thought the conversation would be interesting. She said it’s important for criminal justice majors to learn about these things because many will go on to join the police force after college. 

“I learned how unpopular it is for police forces to be generally respectful of the public, how they're often … trained in the wrong way, socialized in the wrong way. And it's not really effective for their purpose in society,” Scott said. 

Petrocelli then said we need outside agencies to review police use of force, including a federal registry of misconduct, because disciplinary reports often become part of an officer’s personnel file that is not made public. This allows disciplined officers to simply make a lateral transfer to another department without agencies knowing the officer’s history.  

Petrocelli also suggested doing away with qualified immunity, which protects police from being sued civilly and to change the use of force threshold from “reasonable” to “necessary to prevent death or serious injury.” He also said they should prohibit chokeholds and no-knock warrants, although people often claim there are no issues associated with no-knock warrants.  

“Just like a lot of things with policing, we don’t know if that’s true or not. There [is] no federal or state tracking or mandated reporting in the wake of what happens in no-knock warrants,” Petrocelli said. 

Similarly, Petrocelli said we have no idea how many use of force incidents occur in the U.S. because police are not required to report them on the state or federal level. He said we need a federal database of use-of-force incidents and reviews conducted by outside agencies, as police chiefs can approve and review research of their own agencies. 

“This relates back to police culture. There is this well-known dynamic, the police blue wall of silence. You talk about ethos of the police culture … aggression is one of them, showing bravery is another one, but not being a rat is very, very big in policing,” Petrocelli said. “It means you never report on another officer.”

Petrocelli said change will be slow because police do not want to be told what to do by outsiders, but increased funding and training are absolutely necessary. 

“I think citizens should do what citizens can best do and that’s vote for candidates that are talking about police reform,” Petrocelli said.

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