“Bad training is instilling bad behavior,” said one criminal justice reform advocate.
Hundreds of cops across the United States have been taught by individuals who espouse far-right extremist views, according to a new investigation that was published Friday to sound the alarm on a burgeoning and unregulated private training industry.
Reuters identified five law enforcement trainers who have been hired by police and sheriffs’ departments nationwide despite their support for right-wing militia groups, including the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and Three Percenters; the QAnon conspiracy, which baselessly claims that Democrats and Hollywood stars belong to a cabal of Satanist pedophiles and cannibals; and former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.
Some use bigoted instructional materials that promote racism, misogyny, and transphobia, and many endorse the constitutional sheriff philosophy, which maintains that county sheriffs should refuse to uphold any law they find unconstitutional.
“Adherents to the constitutional sheriff movement consider the federal government a grave threat to U.S. citizens,” Reuters reported. “They argue that local law enforcement is a higher authority, with the power to countermand the decisions of legislatures, courts, and presidents.”
Richard Whitehead, one of dozens of active and retired police officers or trainers who were listed in a database of members of the Oath Keepers, “has called for public executions of government officials he sees as disloyal” to Trump, Reuters reported. In a 2020 social media post, he urged cops “to disobey Covid-19 public-health orders from ‘tyrannical governors,’ adding: ‘We are on the brink of civil war.'”
During his day job, “the Idaho-based law enforcement consultant has taught at least 560 police officers and other public safety workers in 85 sessions in 12 states over the past four years,” noted the news outlet, which analyzed public records from the departments that hired him.
“He is one of five police trainers identified by Reuters whose political commentary on social media has echoed extremist opinions or who have public ties to far-right figures,” the news outlet added. “They work for one or more of 35 training firms that advertised at least 10 police or public-safety training sessions in 2021.”
Whitehead, Darrel Schenck, Adam Davis, Tim Kennedy, and Ryan Morris are tapping into a lucrative business opportunity that likely wouldn’t exist if U.S. police officers were adequately prepared during their initial job training, Reuters reported. The lessons promoted in their private courses, meanwhile, might be less dangerous for civilians if states had more funding to set standards and provide oversight.
As the news outlet explained:
Private trainers work in an unregulated industry that largely has evaded the heightened scrutiny of U.S. policing in recent years in the wake of high-profile police killings of civilians. Trainers like those identified by Reuters, a half dozen police-training specialists say, highlight a lack of standards and oversight that allows instruction that can often exaggerate the threats that officers face, making them more likely to respond with excessive force in stressful situations.
U.S. law enforcement officers receive far less initial training at police academies than their counterparts in comparable countries, said Arjun Sethi, a Georgetown University adjunct law professor and policing specialist. That opens “immense commercial opportunities” for private trainers to fill the void with ongoing training of active-duty officers, often “in a politicized manner” that normalizes biased policing against Black people and other communities, he said.
Private trainers typically advertise their courses to police and sheriffs’ departments, who often pay for their officers to take them. But individuals can also seek out and pay for courses on their own to satisfy government or department requirements for ongoing training. The courses vary widely in content and in price, from hundreds to thousands of dollars per attendee.
State-based oversight institutions, often called Peace Officer Standards and Training agencies, set requirements for police training, such as the types of classes and minimum teaching hours that officers must complete. But the institutions have little power in most states to influence course content or set standards for private police trainers, in part due to budget constraints, said Randy Shrewsberry, a former police officer. He saw unregulated police training as such a problem that in 2017 he founded the California-based Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform.
Cops who perceive a far-right trainer as authoritative and credible may end up adopting their ideology, said Shrewsberry. “Bad training is instilling bad behavior,” he added.
According to a 2019 analysis of historical FBI data published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy, “The number of line-of-duty deaths has declined dramatically over the last five decades.” Police deaths per 100,000 officers fell by 75% over the past half-century—from 81 in 1970 to 20 in 2016. Deaths from felonies decreased even more than accidental deaths during that time.
“In light of such data showing declining dangers to officers, many training agencies long ago abandoned training that emphasized putting officers through simulations of threatening situations,” Reuters reported.
“That’s the worst kind of training to give officers today, to make them feel more vulnerable,” said Gil Kerlikowske, who led the police departments of Buffalo and Seattle between 1994 and 2009. “You want people to have an awareness” of violent threats, “but you don’t want them to be so hypersensitive that it impacts everything they do.”
Although “the ‘war on cops’ thesis is not supported by any evidence,” as the 2019 study concluded, individual trainers have “wide latitude to teach America’s police officers whatever they see fit” due to the lack of regulation, Reuters noted.
The news outlet added:
The mindset that trainers impart, such as a feeling of constant vulnerability, can be more influential than the technical knowledge they share, said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and former police officer with expertise in law enforcement training. Stoughton said studies show that training which overemphasizes life-threatening situations can impart a “warrior mentality,” convincing the officers that they face constant deadly threats.
In a promotional video that Kennedy released in 2020, Chris Jackson, an officer who works for a California police agency operated by a Native American tribe, said Kennedy’s course had “opened his eyes to the world” and changed the way he would respond to threats. “You never want to be a victim of anything,” he said in the video.
Jackson told Reuters in an interview that the training, which his agency paid for, made him more aware of potential threats and prepared to respond with less hesitation. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to eliminate the threat,” he said.
More than 5,000 people in the U.S. have been shot and killed by cops since 2015, including 1,050 in the past year alone. Police kill civilians in the U.S. at a far higher rate than their counterparts in comparable countries.