Training in the Era of De-Policing: Developing Law Enforcement Leaders

As horrendous as the effects of de-policing have been—in many places a society looking a lot like a combination of Mad Max and The Purge—those effects may eventually be outweighed in the long run by an increased emphasis on training the next generation of police leaders.

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With crime rising across many American cities—and citizens pleading for police to come to the rescue—a host of elected officials and career bureaucrats have recently disavowed earlier calls to defund the police. Many have said they never supported efforts to pull back on proactive patrol tactics like traffic stops and Terry stops (we have the videotape, so we know the truth is out there).

Those recent claims have reignited the ongoing discussion among law enforcement professionals on the topic of de-policing. That dialog continued in earnest during the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) this month. Conversations took place during formal seminar sessions and impromptu hallway confabs.

That analysis was also—in some cases—captured on video as POLICE Mag recorded a series of segments for Coffee Break with POLICE Experts on the matter. Those videos will air on the website in coming weeks and months, but in the meantime, we'll present some of the thoughts those individuals shared when we hit the "record" button.

We begin with Brian Willis, who serves as the deputy executive director for ILEETA) and president of Winning Mind Training.

Sudden Impact

"We're finally starting to realize the dramatic impact of [the de-policing] philosophy," Willis explains. "We see this with the rise in the crime rates. We finally started to realize that we've allowed a very small group of very vocal people to control that."

Willis says that one of the groups of people that have paid the highest price for the de-policing movement is the average citizens in those cities with rising crime, and the police who are tasked with protecting them.

"It's the people that don't have a voice because those special groups don't speak for them. They speak to their own agenda. Most people are afraid to come out of their home. They're the ones being victimized. They're ones being targeted," Willis says.

According to a recent report by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) examining crime trends across the United States in 2021, the number of 2021 homicides in the cities studied was 5% greater than in 2020 and 44% greater than in 2019.

Indeed, in 2021 at least 12 major U.S. cities have broken annual homicide records in 2021, including Albuquerque, Austin, Baton Rouge, Indianapolis, Louisville, Louisville, Philadelphia, Toledo, and Tucson.

Non-fatal violent crime also rose in many places. The CCJ report indicated that "aggravated assaults increased by 4%, while gun assaults went up by 8%."

Several categories of property crimes are also been on the rise. For example, motor vehicle theft rates were 14% higher in 2021 than the year before, according to the CCJ report.

Lasting Impact

Importantly, Willis points out the fact that during this time of de-policing, we've witnessed one of the most dramatic increases in violence against law enforcement. Further, amid those violent attacks, officers are feeling unsupported by their agencies and are—in many cases—feeling downright downtrodden.

"We're seeing a significant increase in burnout in the law enforcement profession in America," Willis says.

Willis points to some of the research from Dr. Gabrielle Salfati, professor of psychology and the director of the Investigative Psychology Research Unit at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"The way Gabrielle Salfati explains it is that stress is operational—burnout is organizational," Willis says.

In a presentation made at the 45th Annual Conference of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, Dr. Salfati made the assertion that "burnout is the mental or physical collapse caused by extreme and long-term stress." 

Salfati contended—quite correctly so, in the opinion of Willis and other leading law enforcement trainers—that this accumulation of stress can lead an individual to run out of energy and begin to exhibit signs of extreme exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

Willis says that this increase in officer burnout is an opportunity for a host of people—everyone from police leaders and police trainers to politicians and private citizens—to step up their game in supporting law enforcement officers.

"The hope that I have is that the anecdote to burnout—the cure for burnout—is leadership because it's an internal issue," Willis says. "I think the reason that burnout is so high is because very often people in the profession say, 'I can handle a stress on the street. I just can't handle the internal stuff.' We expect some of those things out on the street.

Willis continues, "We have an expectation that people in leadership positions in our organization are gonna look after us—that they're gonna look out for us, that they're gonna fly top-cover for us. When that doesn't happen, people feel betrayed. There's this tremendous sense of betrayal in the profession. People feel betrayed by their politicians. People feel betrayed by people that are leadership positions that are not being leaders."

The question becomes, "How do we create new leaders to take up where their predecessors have failed?"

As is almost always the case, the answer is probably found in better and more frequent training.

"I think what we need to focus—as a profession—on the importance of training," Willis says. "We need to shift the training model and make every day a training day. We need to be teaching decision making on a daily basis. We need to look at training from pre-hire to post retire. We need to shine spotlight on the importance of leadership and on importance of professional development training—not tick the box training but professional development training that takes place over people's entire careers."

Willis maintains that in so doing, we start to build and develop leaders within the organization—we create a culture of leading—where everybody in the organization understands that they're in a position to lead through challenges such as the current environment of de-policing.

Willis concludes, "I'm optimistic and hopeful that we will learn from this and now start to see training as an investment—see leadership for the critical piece that it is in our profession. As we start to develop the next generation of leaders, I think we will come out of this better off for the experience."

Felt Recoil

As has been previously stated in this space, de-policing is an outcome. De-policing is the direct result of protesters, politicians, and the press applying enormous pressure on police to do less policing leading to the obvious end state in which there is an increase in violent crime.

Rising crime in our cities and shrinking morale among our officers are not outliers. They are an outrage.

As horrendous as the effects of de-policing have been—in many places a society looking a lot like a combination of "Mad Max" and "The Purge"—those effects may eventually be outweighed in the long run by an increased emphasis on training the next generation of police leaders.

Hope springs eternal.

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