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Modernizing police training: The imperative for academies to adapt or face legal consequences

Rising incidents of recruit injuries and deaths highlight need for training reforms

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One of the sad stories we often read about is the untimely death of a young officer during an academy training session. Recently there seems to have been many stories like this in the news. The factors leading to a sudden death while training vary. Sometimes it is a hidden genetic issue related to heart disease or some other associated cause.

Before embarking on a rigorous academy regime, which may include a residential academy like the one I attended many decades ago, recruits undergo a thorough physical evaluation. However, emergencies can arise when the human body encounters unfamiliar physical stresses, compounded by mental and emotional exhaustion, and disrupted sleeping and eating routines. Ideally, academy staff are adequately trained in responding to trainee emergencies. While this “best practice” advice might seem obvious, unfortunate events indicate it may not be standard practice.

Deliberate indifference standard

The 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case City of Canton v. Harris established a deliberate indifference standard for police training, which can lead to civil liability for deprivation of rights.

A municipality and its agents can be reasonably determined to be deliberately indifferent, and thus liable if the violation of constitutional rights deprivations can be traced back to apparent failures in municipal duties. In essence, there is a baseline standard of training that must be met by a police agency. This standard, however, relates primarily to constitutional violations committed against the public.

More general liability standards, either negligence or intentional tort, apply to cases involving trainee injury or death. Nevertheless, the Canton case should not be overlooked in the context of police academy training.

In the academy environment, recruits are placed under the care and control (and, let’s be candid, the mercy) of training staff. Many state-licensed police academies excel at preparing recruits for the initial phase of their careers as police officers. Field training follows, but the foundation is laid at the academy. The level of professional competency is often traced back to the lessons learned in this initial phase of training.

Police recruits are driven to make a positive impression, avoid showing any signs of weakness, and to push themselves beyond previously experienced physical capacities. It is crucial that training personnel remain vigilant for signs of physical distress and be prepared to intervene when a recruit struggles.

Incidents of recruit injuries and deaths during training

As far back as 1987, when Milltown Police recruit Howard Kline Jr. collapsed at the Middlesex County Police Academy during training, there have been ongoing reforms of police training methods. The Officer Down Memorial Page for Officer Kline marks his end of watch as 10 days after being transported to a local hospital due to kidney failure while training at the police academy. Despite passing a physical stress test two weeks prior to entering the academy, Kline died during his initial calisthenics period. A subsequent investigation yielded statements from other recruits who described the training as physically and psychologically abusive. The autopsy report attributed his death to heat stroke, caused by extreme physical activity, high environmental temperature and inadequate fluid intake.

In the nearly four decades since that unfortunate training death, there have been numerous studies on the risks associated with heat-related illness, sudden cardiac arrest and concussion protocols, to name just a few potential health-related emergencies that can occur during training. Ignorance or disregard of these risks is inexcusable. Deliberate infliction of such conditions is tortious and may be criminal.

In 2010, a recruit in Norfolk, Virginia collapsed during training after colliding with another recruit and being subjected to multiple head strikes by an academy instructor during a defensive tactics lesson. The incident occurred on December 9, and the recruit died in the hospital on December 18. Early in the following year, it was reported that academy training procedures were modified to prohibit instructors from making head strikes on recruits. Additionally, both instructors and recruits received training from medical professionals on recognizing and reporting head trauma.

A 2005 incident in Georgia involved a Cobb County police trainer shooting and killing a female Kennesaw Police recruit during firearms training. The incident marked the department’s first line-of-duty death. More recently, in July 2022, Jonesboro Police recruit Vincent Parks died at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. Parks’ death was investigated by the State Police, and a report was reviewed by the district attorney. No criminal charges were filed, but the report criticized the “culture” at the academy, which included hazing and intense physical punishment for infractions.

As is frequently the case, subsequent investigation and reviews of these types of incidents suggest that enhanced instructor knowledge and understanding of the effects of specific physiological stressors, such as heat exhaustion and concussive events, along with a prompt response to physically distressed recruits, could have prevented further injury and death.

Police recruits have sustained concussions, broken bones, eye injuries and gunshot wounds during academy training, often at the hands of academy instructors. In many cases, investigations have found that proper training protocols were either not adhered to or deliberate hazing activities had occurred. A 2022 story highlighted an incident at the Massachusetts State Police Academy where recruits were forced by instructors to perform unauthorized “bear crawls” over hot pavement. Recruits suffered visible hand blisters caused by burns from this incident. In 2014, accusations were leveled against Denver Police Academy instructors for hazing and using unnecessary force against recruits.

These stories are not isolated. They are too numerous to be ignored and pose potential legal problems.

Correlating excessive use of force complaints to training culture

Liability for tortious conduct arises either from an intentional tort, such as deliberately pushing someone who then falls and gets injured, or from a negligent tort. The latter tort involves four elements for liability:

  1. A duty of care: The defendant has a legal responsibility to the plaintiff as dictated by law.
  2. Breach of duty: The defendant fails to uphold their duty of care.
  3. Causation: The breach of duty directly results in harm to the plaintiff.
  4. Damages: The plaintiff suffers a legal, compensable injury.

Several instances of recruit injury during training have met either of these thresholds of intentional or negligent tort.

However, there are additional concerns. One of these is the potential correlation between the rate of agency complaints regarding excessive use of force and the use of hazing and impermissible force against recruits by academy staff during training. While the alleged connection may be tenuous and of questionable admissibility in a civil trial, the conversation cannot be disregarded as it is ongoing and persistent. The call for reform will necessitate changes.

The death of Tyre Nichols while in the custody of five Memphis police officers has brought their training into focus. In the November 2022 report “Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles,” the Police Executive Research Foundation (PERF) noted the following: “The culture of a police academy has ramifications beyond what happens during initial training. If the academy culture is demeaning and controlling, then new officers may be more likely to model those traits in the community when they graduate.”

Training academies that do not modernize and adjust their training culture to meet the demands of contemporary policing may find themselves facing the high legal bar of the “deliberate indifference” standard established by the Canton case being applied to them in litigation.

NEXT: Breaking down PERF’s “Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles” report

Terrence P. Dwyer retired from the New York State Police after a 22-year career as a Trooper and Investigator. He is a tenured professor of legal studies at Western Connecticut State University and an attorney consulting on law enforcement liability, disciplinary cases, critical incidents, and employment matters. He is the author of “Homeland Security Law: Issues and Analysis,” Cognella Publishing (2024).