As American cities grapple with calls to defund the police, violent crime is soaring. Yet, at the very moment police are needed most, trust in police is low. This mistrust in the police contributes to the deteriorating safety within our communities because, without the public’s trust, officers can’t effectively protect the people they serve.
Training is an important part of restoring that critical trust. Most commentators focus on de-escalation and use of force training, which are both very important aspects of police training. But you may be surprised to learn about another type of training which some studies show might restore trust in the police – ethical training. Particularly, ethical training that improves Constitutional literacy.
Every police officer swears to uphold the Constitution, but a large number of officers don’t understand the protections that document guarantees citizens. On average, police academies dedicate 3.21% of training hours to ethics and other public service topics.
One reason police officers sometimes violate the rights of citizens is likely that police officers don’t get enough training on ethics and civil rights. So, they may not realize they’re crossing a line. But that can be fixed with training.
A paper by Dr. Monica M. Moll, who is currently the director of Public Safety at Ohio State University, argues that modern ethical training only teaches officers to follow the rules and avoid getting in trouble. Police departments and academies spend little time on the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, or the Federalist Papers, if they address them at all.
But what about what criminal law researcher John Kleinig calls the “murky middle?” – when officers face ethical choices that straddle the line between completely acceptable and illegal or against the rules.
How should an officer respond to competing priorities? What if they’re asked to enforce the law in order to generate revenue for the city or department? When should they make an arrest instead of giving a warning? Is it morally acceptable to lie to suspects?
These are just some of the questions officers face in the line of duty. Leadership needs to spend more time exploring these ideas instead of issuing a simple list of hard-and-fast rules.
It’s not shocking that results are poor when police officers take an oath to uphold documents they haven’t read, which contain ideas they may not understand.
Our Constitution and Declaration of Independence are based on philosopher John Locke’s “social contract theory.” It holds that a government is legitimate to the extent that it protects human rights. Public trust in the police must stem from their demonstrated commitment to upholding our rights, including our rights to due process, to bear arms, to equal protection under the law, and others.
Without the proper training, it’s too easy for law enforcement officers to see our rights as impediments to doing their jobs, rather than realizing that protecting these rights is their primary responsibility.
Of course, training is just one component of good policing. We also desperately need to completely rethink how we recruit police and hold them accountable. But increasing ethical and Constitutional training could improve outcomes for police and citizens. It may be wise to advocate that the International Association of Chiefs of Police incorporate this training into their curricula.