The in-custody death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis can be attributed to—at least in part—a variety of factors including the apparent absence of appropriate training, oversight, and accountability of the five officers involved.
All five were hired between 2017 and 2020—a period during which the department had lowered certain hiring standards in order to address the agency's dire staffing dilemma. Now, all five have been charged with aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, official oppression, and second-degree murder
Memphis, of course, is not alone in lowering—or eliminating entirely—certain hiring standards. The New York Police Department was quickly criticized for doing away with its timed, 1.5-mile run during academy training. The San Francisco Police Department recently made headlines for having hired a number of officers who failed to meet existing requirements such as psychological exams and background checks. There are myriad other examples.
The interwoven problems of staffing shortages and lowering hiring standards have a profound impact on law enforcement training and trainers. It's unsurprising then that during the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) 2023 conference in St. Louis last week, the topic was discussed at length during informal hallway discussions as well as in scheduled seminar sessions on the calendar. Here's some of what was said.
De-Facto Lowering of Standards
Tim Barfield—who recently retired as Chief of Police at the Wellington (OH) Police Department—says that in some ways, within the already shrinking pool of available recruits is a higher percentage of people who have in their youth had exposure to things that would have automatically disqualified them from police work not too long ago.
"This is a crisis," Barfield says. "Some departments may not want to lower their standards, but because of this problem [of a shrinking recruiting pool], the hiring standards are lowered by default. There just isn't the pool of people to draw from like there was before, so all hiring standards are being lowered."
Barfield continues, "For the longest time, the police profession has sought out the best of the best. All the standards—the background checks and the lie detectors and the drug tests—all those kinds of things try to weed out potential problems. We're looking for the best in the beginning because, you know, there are already a lot of stressors in this job. Past performance is indicative future performance, right?"
Barfield concludes, "I'm not saying people can't change—boy, you know we aren't perfect, and aren't we glad that we aren't the same people we were when we start out this life—but if you're going to hire somebody that has [done] drugs or was stealing or was involved in violence, those aren't easy habits to just, you know, completely change."
Reflecting Community Standards
Lou Ann Hamblin—a 22-year veteran law enforcement officer and co-founder of LouKa Tactical, notes that the discussion about lowering hiring standards isn't new, nor is it even close to being the same conversation from one place to the next. Further, the notion of "standards" is one that merits serious examination with the objective of always making improvements to the profession.
"Everybody likes improvement and everybody can probably come up with five really good things that they would do to improve their police department," Hamblin says. "There's no question that things could improve, but it's agreeing on what those things might be. Every agency is different. We're all put in the same bucket, but every police agency in every state at every level is different in some way. What the community standard is—what they want—is different."
Hamblin continues, "We have this discussion about having one national standard or one national police department, and that's never going to happen. As long as you have a governor representing each state, each governor wants to govern own state. Each municipality, every sheriff's department, they want to provide services to their specific community."
Addressing Mental Health & Wellness
Nick Greco—president and founder of C3 Education and Research, which provides training and consulting services in officer mental health and wellness—says that lowering hiring standards solves a short-term problem while simultaneously creating a long-term problem.
Greco, who is a board-certified expert in traumatic stress and understands deeply how the human brain functions following accumulated traumatic stress, is concerned with any effort to lower standards in psychological wellness of people entering the profession.
"I look at people who maybe have a number of adverse childhood experiences—they have a number of traumas in their life—and now they're going come on a job and they're going to be exposed to a lot of other trauma, Greco says. “How much baggage are they bringing? How much trauma are they bringing to the job how will that affect them mentally on the job? How's that going to impact them in making decisions? What are their socialization skills?"
Careful Assessment of Needs
Brian Willis—who serves as the deputy executive director for the International ILEETA and president of Winning Mind Training—says that some of the conversation about lowering hiring standards might be framed incorrectly. He says that the profession has always been in a state of constant evolution, and that having honest assessments of "the way things are" is how incremental improvements are made in any organization.
"The first thing that I would say to people is look past the clickbait headlines," Willis says. "For example, to eliminate the need for policy university credits or education—I've argued for years that we should eliminate that. I don't think that's lowering the standard. I think that maybe [we should be] looking at certain things that are in place and hang a question mark on them—things that we take for granted—and ask 'Why is this here? Nobody can justify some of these things."
Willis adds, "We need to ask, 'Is this lowering the standard or is it just different?' From the trainers' perspective, I hear trainers pushing back because they're being told that we need to move away from this culture screaming and yelling at recruits and punishing recruits. I'm not a fan of that anyway—I think we should eliminate that. But I get pushback from people saying, 'You're lowering the standards.' That's lowering standards—we can have high standards we can still treat people like adults and teach decision making, problem solving, and all those other elements."
An Absolute "Must-Have" Standard
Don Alwes—a 36-year veteran of law enforcement who now trains law enforcement officers around the country—says that making certain small adjustments in some areas may be worth examining, but other areas are for him completely off-limits.
"We've got to look closely at character—a person's criminal history, and to some extent your social media history tells us a lot about your character," Alwes says. "You can make an argument to me—that I'll listen to—about physical standards. I will take an out-of-shape officer who may not be perfect for every situation, but if their character is right, I can work with them."
Alwes adds, "The other thing is education. You give me somebody out high school who is intelligent, who has had some real world experience—especially military experience—then, I think we can make them into a police officer. We can incentivize them to get their education [later]. But I don't know how you can bring someone in without character and make them into a good human being."
A Potentially Positive Effect
Fletch Fuller—president and CEO of ReadyUp Tactical LLC and the High Liability Training Coordinator for a large law enforcement agency in Florida—says that academy instructors in particular will have to be "on their toes" when teaching this new generation of recruits. As a consequence, the quality of instruction could actually become better.
"Instructors may have people in their classes—when they're teaching about investigations and other things having to do with the law of law enforcement—who have committed some of those crimes that they are talking about," Fuller says. "They may have people in their class who have made already experimented with some of the drugs that they're talking about."
Fuller adds, "If there's a positive that can come out of it, I think that maybe it's that instructors sort of step up their game. Is this going to be challenging? Yes. Is it possible? I believe so."
Imperative of High Standards
Police work is one of the most challenging professions a person can endeavor to pursue. The long and rich history of rigorous hiring standards—age minimums and maximums, physical and psychological fitness requirements, clean criminal backgrounds, and certain educational experience—has helped keep people out of the ranks who could potentially destroy community trust.
The unwanted—not to mention unlawful, unethical, and unacceptable—behaviors in certain officers who have entered the ranks under lowered standards are a clarion call to the profession to continue to look for the very best people, and then provide them with the very best possible training to ensure that they are safe and successful on the streets.