It takes seconds for a bullet to reach its target. And it takes a split-second decision for a police officer to spare or end a life. The police force’s excessive use of power and restraint strategies has caused many tragedies in the past decades. Today, police brutality occurs at an alarming rate and does not appear to be slowing down. Naturally, investigation into local police forces is needed, but to find the root cause of police brutality, the government must conduct an open investigation on the Canadian police training system.
Dr. Judith Andersen is an associate professor of psychology at UTM. She has done extensive research on Canada’s police training system and how to make it ideal. At the start of her studies, Dr. Andersen explored post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions in military veterans. Following her research, Dr. Andersen transitioned from working with military veterans to police officers. She realized how police officers’ performance and behaviour in the field influenced society. Consequently, Dr. Andersen decided to research police officers’ use of force in relation to stress responses.
“The use of force incidents and potentially conflictual interactions were some of the most stressful events for police and were most likely to be the areas where mistakes were made, and what I noted was that there was no training to address this actively in policing,” states Dr. Andersen on her research. She argues that training police officers to calmly make the correct decision during heated conflicts and deal with work-related stress will dramatically reduce police brutality.
However, training police officers’ stress response requires much more than just lectures and presentations. Dr. Andersen believes that to effectively combat officers’ stress response and ensure policies and procedures are followed, physical stress response training should be mandatory. The lack of stress response training in current police training systems, combined with the short 12-week training period, makes police officers ill-prepared for active duty. “You are giving people that may have never handled a gun before the power and legal status to potentially take someone’s rights and life,” says Dr. Andersen. She emphasizes that the short training duration of 12 weeks is insufficient for police officers to absorb the skills necessary for active duty.
Regarding the outdated nature of the police training system, Dr. Andersen questions if police training was ever done correctly as police training methods have historically been problematic. Yet, the widespread availability of firearms in the contemporary police forces today means that an officer’s lapse of judgment is deadly and consequential.
In recent weeks, police brutality against Black communities have shaken the world. While these tragedies are broadcasted more often nowadays thanks to our phones and modern recording technology, there is a long history of these injustices. “I think if you look at the statistics overtime, there have been consistent interactions [between the police and people of colour],” says Dr. Andersen. “There is more media attention right now, but I do not think that [the rate of police brutality against people of colour] was low before and now [suddenly] high. I believe we had high rates all along.” Like the shortcomings of an outdated police training system, the problem of police brutality against minority groups has always been a prevalent issue. While it may have gone under the radar in the past, it is now resurfacing as an imminent crisis.
When addressing police brutality and structural racism, multiple factors should be considered. “There is no one magic technique of police training that is going to cure this,” continues Dr. Andersen. “I believe there has to be a systematic restructuring of both police training and the legal parameters by which police interact with the community. That takes community involvement in restructuring policing.”
Constant interaction with the community is the cornerstone of a successful policing system. Members of the community should be able to provide feedback and assist in determining the degree of actions police officers can take, unforeseen circumstances excepted. A mutually agreed upon degree of force reduces the chances of officers using lethal force in confrontations. Additionally, mental health support must be available to all police officers in cases involving mental health crises.
“I believe that these things can change quickly. If you look at the civil rights movement, when things began to happen, there was a momentum built. Dramatic change was accomplished within months and years,” says Dr. Andersen. She predicts that we will start seeing a new batch of well-trained police officers in less than a year from the start of a police training reform. Additionally, while police officers trained under the previous system need to be retrained, the entire police force could be retrained within two to three years.
There are successful examples of police training systems worldwide for Canada’s law enforcement to consider for its training reform. In Finland, police officers carry weapons like Canadian police officers, but the use of force is significantly reduced. In particular, the Police University College of Finland facilitates practical police training. People interested in becoming a police officer must first complete a “three-year-long focused university college degree.” During this time, police cadets get a well-rounded education. Finland cadets must also undertake in-depth training that hones their soft skills, such as interacting with citizens under stress and communicating with local communities.
The police training system has failed police officers by not providing them with the necessary skills and experience for active duty. However, research on the current police training system’s flaws is mounting, and reform must be imminent. Researchers like Dr. Andersen have developed mechanisms to pinpoint problems in the current system and how to solve them. With problems and potential solutions to police brutality made clear, there is no reason not to demand change, especially when justice and equality are on the line.