When police officers are faced with potentially dangerous situations, the initial reaction is often to draw their weapon.
That, after all, is what their training suggests they do: A 2015 survey of training curriculum at more than 280 police agencies found that the typical agency devoted 58 hours to firearms training and 49 hours to defensive tactics, compared with 10 to communication and just eight to de-escalation.
This type of training, and the warrior mentality it creates, has been at the root of deadly confrontations between police and the people they're arresting in recent years.
And in a report by a presidential task force on policing, one of the primary recommendations was a change in training techniques in order to shift the mentality of officers from warrior to guardian.
A police training program through the University of Michigan - Dearborn hopes to do just that. The program was created by Don Shelton, a former judge who served for 25 years on the Washtenaw County Circuit Court. Now he is director and associate professor of the Criminology & Criminal Justice Program at the University of Dearborn.
He told us that recent police shootings have created a lack of confidence in law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
“Research indicates that our police are now held in lower public esteem than they have been since 1993 and the Rodney King incident,” he said. “We need to change that.”
The program, called Alternatives to Violent Force, consists of seven three hour sessions held over the course of seven weeks. There are 20-40 officers in a class, enrolled by departments that choose on a voluntary basis to participate. Topics covered during those seven weeks include de-escalation techniques, how use of force incidents are interpreted by the law, and African American culture.
“Permeating all of our training is the concept of the sanctity of human life, to try to reinforce what these officers already know,” Shelton told us. “To reinforce that everybody’s life matters: yours as the officer, the perpetrator who’s standing in front of you, and the general public.”
One particular area of focus is interactions with citizens who are mentally-ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In such confrontations, police officers are often faced with apparently irrational behavior, which can be worsened when an officer draws a gun.
Shelton highlighted an incident in Bakersfield, California, in which police officers shot and killed a 73-year-old man who was suffering from dementia. Upon searching his body the officers realized that what they thought was a gun was in fact a wooden cross.
Yet, while tragedies like that one underscore the need for reform, Shelton is well aware that a change in attitudes won't happen overnight. He said the goal of the program is not to immediately change the way police handle themselves when they are out on the streets. Rather, he hopes to get the officers who take the class thinking about the way they handle confrontations in the future.
“My measure of success is that, if as a result of all this we save one life – and I don’t necessarily mean an innocent life – if we save one life our program will have been successful,” he said.
Listen to our full interview with the co-directors of the Alternatives to Violent Force program, Don Shelton and Juliette Roddy, above.
This segment originally aired on Jan. 4, 2017.