US police need fewer hours of training than American plumbers and cosmetologists, a level of formal instruction for law enforcement that is a fraction of the requirement in many other western countries.
The comparatively low level of training hours needed to qualify to use deadly force in the US has come under renewed scrutiny after the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five policemen in Memphis, Tennessee.
US officers receive 652 hours of training on average, compared with the 3,500 hours needed to obtain a plumbing licence or 3,000 hours to be authorised to provide cosmetic treatments — professions that do not entail carrying weapons and making life-and-death decisions.
The US also requires far lower levels of formal instruction than western countries such as Finland, where police officers undergo 5,500 hours of training to qualify, more than eight times the US average.
A recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum, which focuses on researching critical issues in policing, concluded that training standards for the US’s more than 18,000 police agencies were outdated, inconsistent and often too brief.
As calls for police reform intensify following the death of 29-year-old Nichols after he was pulled over while driving, Financial Times analysis reveals the fourth leading cause of death in encounters with US police officers occurs after a traffic stop.
Of the recorded 6,821 deaths involving US law enforcement between 2017 and 2022, 622 or roughly one in 10 involved a traffic stop. This figure includes only those cases where the person killed was initially stopped for a traffic-related offence. A further 131 people were killed after being pulled over in relation to other offences.
There are no official federal statistics on the number of people killed by the police in the US. Data is compiled by organisations such as Mapping Police Violence, who combine official police statistics in states where they are published with data collected from other public sources. The organisation estimates that its data set covers more than 90 per cent of US police killings since 2013.
Other encounters with the police that led to a death include allegations of violent crime, which was the most frequent type of encounter cited, other non-violent offences, domestic disturbances and mental health and welfare checks.
In 15 per cent of cases, the person who died following a traffic stop was unarmed, while in the majority of cases the individual was classed as “allegedly armed”.
Among the 93 unarmed individuals who were killed following a traffic stop between 2017 and 2022, 39 per cent were black, 38 per cent were white, and the remaining belonged to other ethnic groups, such as Hispanic.
In 2022, 86 deaths occurred as a result of an individual being stopped in a vehicle, a small decline from 2021 when 114 people died after being pulled over. But total police killings were up in 2022, reaching their highest level since Mapping Police Violence started compiling the data in 2013.
Advocates of the defund the police movement argue that the US is over-policed compared with other countries. However, the most recent data shows the country has a similar number of law enforcement officers per 100,000 residents as other western countries.
But where the US does stand out is in the deadliness of civilians’ encounters with the police. Data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative shows the rate to be 33.5 police killings per 10mn people, compared with 9.8 in Canada and 8.5 in Australia, the second and third countries in the ranking.
The five police officers involved in the death of Nichols were part of the so-called Scorpion elite unit, created in 2021 to deal with a rise in property crime and violent offenders in Memphis. It was disbanded after Nichols’ death. US policing is in the midst of a recruitment crisis and, in big cities especially, many vacancies remain unfilled, making it harder to replace officers.
The focus of US police recruitment and training needs to shift, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. Its report said that rather than centring on weapons and tactics, more attention needed to be placed on “decision-making, communications and other critical skills that officers use every day”.
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