The Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd and killed him was training new recruits. One of the trainees was on his third day on the job. That got me thinking: How are police trained? What type of education do police officers receive? And are there any connections between type and quality of education and training to the excessive police force so common in black communities?

My guest today is Gary Cordner, a retired professor and dean, former police officer and former police chief. Most recently he served as Chief Research Advisor for the National Institute of Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice. He has actively studied and written about community policing, police administration, police agency accreditation, and police education. We spoke last week on a range of issues including structural racism and the prospects of defunding the police.

Citation: Cordner, Gary, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 202, podcast audio, June 15, 2020.

Transcript, translation, and resources:


Will Brehm 2:03
Gary Cordner, welcome to FreshEd.

Gary Cordner 2:05
It’s a great pleasure to be here, thanks.

Will Brehm 2:07
So, what went through your mind when you learned about the death of George Floyd?

Gary Cordner 2:13
Horrible tragedy, of course. And not the first that we have seen in recent years. I do not know that initially, I anticipated that it would have the sort of national, even international, impact that it has had.

Will Brehm 2:29
And when you looked at the video, as a police officer, someone who has studied policing, and the education of police officers for many years, did you think that the officers responded in any way that might be seen as excessive or were they following proper procedures in your mind?

Gary Cordner 2:49
It was definitely excessive. Way out of bounds. You know, it is inevitable that in the course of doing police work, some degree of force is sometimes used. It is part of the business. It’s part of why we have police because sometimes bad things happen, and a forceful response is needed to protect others. But that was so far beyond anything that anybody in policing had ever been trained to do, so far outside of policies that nearly every police department has, that it was really shocking.

Will Brehm 3:21
One of the things that shocked me was that the man that had his knee on George Floyd’s neck was a training officer. Right. He was responsible for the on-the-job training of young police officers. And it made me start thinking about the education of police officers. How does that actually happen? And you are quite well-placed to talk about this. You have done quite a lot of research on the history of education of policing. So, can you give us a little sense of what sort of training and education do police officers even receive -and thinking of it more historically?

Gary Cordner 4:00
So, that is a big question. And an important one for sure. In the United States, and that’s what I’m most familiar with, police training started to become more systematic, more universal in the 1960s and 70s. I mean, that’s been 50 years ago now, but not so long ago, I suppose in the whole sweep of US police history. So, in other words, before that, we’d had police departments for 100 years or more. And training was sort of I think, “catch as catch can”. It wasn’t that uncommon, say 100 years ago, that a police officer would be hired, given virtually no training, given some tools of the trade, possibly put with an experienced officer for a while to learn by apprenticeship, and then begin performing the job. So, the history of systematic, thorough, extensive training is, let’s say relatively recent in the US.

Will Brehm 5:01
And so, since the 1960s, when this systematic training first emerged, and then obviously, I would imagine has changed over the last 50 or 60 years, you know, what are police officers learning today, either before they join the police force, and then also during and inside of the police force? I do not know how we would even begin to talk about this, like, you know, how many police officers are like going to universities? Is that a requirement to get a job these days in the police force?

Gary Cordner 5:33
In the US, the answer would be no. Now can I start by saying that it is really hard to give any standard answer that anything related to policing in the United States. The US has 18,000 literally separate independent police departments. And so, each of them independently, individually decides whether, for example, to require a university degree. Across those 18,000 police departments, there are a few that require a university degree, the vast majority do not. Typically, the requirement is what we in the US call a high school degree, 12 years of grade school. Now, that is typically the minimum requirement. By the same token, if we actually look at the population of police in the United States, something roughly around one third have actually gotten university degrees, even though it’s, as I said, not required. And part of the story behind that is that in the United States, in most states, again, nothing is standard. But in most states, you have to be 21 years old to become a police officer. In the US, most people graduate from grade school about age 18. So, there is a three-year gap there. And young people in the US, some go to work, some go to the military, really the majority go to some version of college or university. And that’s part of the reason why then once they turn 21 or older and decide to try to become police, many of them have already had some amount of university, often a degree.

Will Brehm 7:18
And are the subjects that police officers study wide ranging, or are they concentrated in a few particular subjects?

Gary Cordner 7:26
They are wide ranging. And I am not aware of any police department. Again, how do you know for sure about 18,000 different agencies, but I am not aware of any police department that specifically requires a degree in a specific topic. Usually, if they require, let’s say, two years of college or a four-year university degree. Usually there is no specification of the major that the individual has to have studied. However, that said, what has become the most common university avenue to police work in the United States is what we tend to call criminal justice. In the US, you can get a university degree in criminal justice in hundreds, if not thousands of different colleges and universities. And that became the sort of “de facto” most common approach in the late 1960s and 1970s. I think for a variety of reasons that sort of coalesced around that degree in criminal justice.

Will Brehm 8:33
And in criminal justice, what would students be learning about?

Gary Cordner 8:36
Yeah, that is a very good question. And, once again, I apologize because I will probably over generalize a little bit because there are hundreds and thousands of those degrees, each creating their own curriculum. But in general, probably about one quarter of a university degree in criminal justice would be in courses that are focused on crime and justice, criminal justice, criminology, law, typically at least one or two classes about the police, but possibly also classes about juvenile justice, corrections, really a wide range of courses, typically, in today’s criminal justice curriculum. And I mentioned that typically, the degree in criminal justice would include somewhere around a quarter, maybe a third of degrees in criminal justice. The rest in US universities, is usually spread between what might be called general education and electives of various kinds. So, the degree in criminal justice is not a particularly narrow degree. You know, it is not exclusively focused on either police or even just crime and justice. The degree usually includes a wide variety of topics.

Will Brehm 9:52
And in these different topics -I understand it is difficult to generalize- but one of the things that has interested me of late is thinking about the history of police violence in America. And I wonder if in the criminal justice courses, do students learn about that history? Is that part of the training for potentially future police officers?

Gary Cordner 10:17
I would say in most criminal justice curricula, the answer would be yes. It is in there. You know, any introductory course about either policing or criminal justice would always incorporate some history. And race is a big part of the history of police and justice in America. So, I am quite confident it is covered. I’ve quite confident that it is in the textbooks, you know, that are usually used. And then in addition, it would be very unusual today for that curriculum in criminal justice not to include some kind of course on race, diversity, the experiences of all kinds of people sometimes, you know, differential experiences of all kinds of people at the hands of the police in the criminal justice system. So, they are covered. Now, I think you posed the question, “Do students learn about fill in the blank?” That is harder to say, isn’t it? They hear it. If they read the book, they read about it. How much they learn, and how much that sticks, how much that affects or changes the way they view, you know, world and society and its problems. I probably cannot but only hazard a guess about that.

Will Brehm 11:29
Has there been any studies that try to look at any correlations between level of education of different police officers and particular outcomes or, you know, the number of incidents, the use of excessive force or any sort of negative outcomes that police officers have been known to do in society? Or the opposite, or positive influences, good policing? Have there been any studies that shown correlations connected to education?

Gary Cordner 12:00
And the answer is yes. There have been literally hundreds of studies. I think over the years, among other things, it’s been a very popular topic for students taking graduate courses, perhaps doing their thesis or dissertation, you know, on the impact of education on police performance, police behavior, some version of that. So, all together hundreds of studies. The evidence is mostly mixed. That sounds like a cop out, but no pun intended. But I would say there is not any strong evidence that education separate from other factors significantly affects police behavior. There have been some studies, some individual studies that suggest that officers with higher levels of education might be less likely to use force, might engage in less misconduct, have fewer complaints against them. But those have not been big studies, they have been small. So, their generalizability is really sort of unknown. I would also say that one of the most common types of studies over the years has been surveys. So, it is, you know, a survey of hundreds, thousands of police officers on various topics. And among other things, of course, asking them about their level of education. And usually on those kinds of surveys, the impact of level of education is nil. It just washes out.

Will Brehm 13:22
Wow, wow. That is quite surprising in a way. So, I guess, you have been involved in various levels and sectors of policing for a very long time now, I think when I read your biography. How do you explain then the death of George Floyd, but that is it’s not a one-off event? There has been this long pattern as we have seen for perhaps 100 years. The whole history of policing. How then can we explain some of these, you know, racist, negative outcomes of policing?

Gary Cordner 13:55
Yeah, that is a big question. We would say that’s way above my paygrade. But I would be inclined to say the fundamental underlying reasons are societal. I think police reflect the society in which they grow up, live, do their work more than anything else. And the US, of course, has a history of slavery and segregation, and race continues to affect all kinds of processes in American society. And so, it would almost be a surprise, if it did not affect policing that police could somehow stand outside of, you know, the problems that we have in society at large sounds like making an excuse, I suppose. And I do not mean it to sound that way. But I think more than anything else, in other words, I am doubtful -and I do not think there is any real data on this- but I am doubtful that American police are any more racist. Or are any more likely to discriminate, any more likely to hold prejudices toward people of color, than society at large.

Will Brehm 15:00
But one of the big problem that was that the police officers have weapons and have the authority of the state to use violence. And so, they might reflect society at large, but most people in society are not in their position.

Gary Cordner 15:14
Yeah. Oh, I totally agree with that and obviously the consequences in some ways are most dire. You know, if a schoolteacher treats students of color differently in the third grade -the consequences, although significant- just not is in your face as they might be with police. Or, if the healthcare system treats patients of color differently, yes there is consequences, but they are probably not catch you on video and played on YouTube quite as often as when it is police. And your point is well taken. Police have guns and they can take people’s freedom away and they can use force against people. And those are obviously serious consequences So, I think it is rightfully a topic of great concern and attention. I just do not think -right now as you are well aware in the US, there’s all this debate about whether there is systemic or structural racism in the police. Well, my own belief is, and data are hard to pin down is, I would probably say no more so than in American society in general. And that is not to deny it, but it is a function of our society, I think.

Will Brehm 16: 29
Yeah. I mean, when I think of some of the structural issues that people have pointed to lately of structural racism, it’s things like a Supreme Court case that allows for this “objective reasonableness” that has been used often to get police officers to not get in trouble basically by the law after they kill particular Black people during various arrests, or confrontations. Or people talk about “union arbitration” as another structural issue that basically makes it almost impossible for reform minded police chiefs or mayors to fire police officers who have used excessive force. Or this notion of “qualified immunity”, that’s been an idea that has been talked about quite a lot, which is basically about how police officers are not liable unless they violate, quote, unquote, clearly established federal law, which can be quite problematic in some cases. So, would not those be structural issues that do impact the police and are partly to blame for what we are seeing today? And also, in the past?

Gary Cordner 17:43
I say yes. But there’s probably discussion to be had on each of those points that you brought up. On the issue, for example, of arbitration and the difficulty, as you pointed out correctly, reform minded chiefs have a really hard time firing officers who they believe have done something that is just not acceptable. And something around a half of those officers -it depends on, it is different in different places- they end up getting their jobs back. Imagine being the police chief that fires an officer and then an arbitrator tells you, you have to take them back. It is like holy cow. But sort of what is behind that, you know, police officers are workers, they have rights, they feel sometimes like they have a really hard job. And if they make a mistake, they are vilified and look and lose their job. And so of course, they organize as workers do in many different fields to try to protect their rights. And that is the origin of that. I do not think the origin is racist. I think the impact could end up sometimes having a differential impact by race. But the origin is working people wanting to protect their rights against their bosses, in which, you know, most “woke” people, most progressive people at first blush will say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good thing”.

Will Brehm 19:06
And I do as well. I mean, I am a proud union member myself here in the in the UK. So, it is interesting to think through what that actually means. And does arbitration actually give more power to the employee? And I guess in this case, it certainly does because employers are having a hard time firing employees who act badly.

Gary Cordner 19:27
I remember a book that I had to read when I was an undergrad student, which means it was a book that was written a long time ago, probably written in the 1960s or 70s. And it was one of the first comparisons of policing in the United States and in Europe, and the author, a guy named George Berkeley, a political scientist, among other things in that book argued that unionization of American police would be a good thing, or was a good thing, because it would help ally them with working people. It would give them more in common with other working people. It would have a kind of a democratizing impact, which in some ways, maybe it did. But obviously, there are also, you know, unforeseen sort of side effects that come along.

Will Brehm 20:13
Yeah, exactly. The international comparison is quite interesting. So, you know, living in London and you see police officers around, none of them carry weapons or guns, I should say. They carry other types of weapons, but guns are quite difficult and rare to see just sort of everyday on the street. It takes a particular type of incidents for that unit to be called out. Whereas in America, it seems like it is the military. You know, the weapons that police officers have on a regular basis and access to on a regular basis is, to be honest, it is a bit frightening to see photos of. And it does seem like a war zone and I know, how did that even come about? This seems like it is a strange problem. I would imagine some of my listeners who live not in America probably have a very hard time comprehending this notion of police officers with semi-automatic weapons.

Gary Cordner 21:09
It is interesting. I reflect back that I think, certainly when I started out policing, which again was decades ago. Police had a sidearm, a handgun, a pistol that they carried on their belt. And that was it. If they were in a patrol car, maybe there was a shotgun, you know, in the trunk. And that was pretty much the full extent of the armament that police carried back in the day. I do not think it changed much until after 9/11 in the United States. And I think after 9/11, the sense of a greater threat, I mean, with 9/11, it wasn’t a greater threat from our own citizens but this threat of international terrorism, I think, led to police carrying rifles, semi-automatic rifles, the switch to semi-automatic pistols, and the inclusion of even more powerful weapons in SWAT units and that sort of thing. I think before 9/11, I could be wrong about this, but I think before 9/11, we would had been more likely to see a police officer carrying a semi-automatic rifle in Europe than in the United States. And I do not mean to say that every officer in Germany or France, or some other European country was carrying such a rifle, but I know it was not that uncommon to see. But after 9/11, I think that flipped. And I think it was a pretty big shock at the moment to a lot of Americans. But already I think we have almost gotten used to it.

Will Brehm 22:37
Yeah, I mean, until there’s protests and you know, after George Floyd, and you see these military tanks almost, and these vehicles that are seem to be armored as if they are going into, you know, some battle. And so, it seems like, the pictures you see now seems to really be, police equipment seems to be coming through as being excessive, as being sort of over the top.

Gary Cordner 23:05
It does. And I think the first that I remember really being… the broad American public being hit with images like that was in Ferguson, Missouri, which I think that was now about five years ago, following, an officer involved shooting of Michael Brown, if I remember his name correctly. And then there was civil unrest for weeks in the aftermath of that, and there were armored vehicles and officers carrying big weapons and so on. And then as you are pointing out, we have seen that now, this past week or two, on the aftermath of George Floyd. By the way, we have not seen it in every city. That is one of the crazy things about the US is there have been some cities that have had big protests and have handled it almost exclusively with officers in soft clothes.

Will Brehm 24:02
Can you name an example? What city did that this recent round of protests?

Gary Cordner 24:06
Yeah, I know my own city, Baltimore City. I mean, it is a violent American city with over 300 murders a year. A city that had its own police involved killing four years ago and riots in the aftermath of that. But these past two weeks -knock on wood- big protests, plenty of police out on the street working the protest, protecting people, protecting businesses, but virtually no injuries. The vast majority of officers wearing their regular uniforms, talking to protesters, marching with protesters, taking kneels with protesters, reading aloud the names of individuals killed at the hands of the police with protesters. And I do not believe there was hardly any use of police in what we would think of as riot gear.

Will Brehm 24:57
So, why the difference, you know, from Baltimore compared to say, Minneapolis? I mean, that seems like a world apart then.

Gary Cordner 25:05
Yeah, yeah. I do not know that I do know the answer. That is a big question. It clearly – some of it, has to do with, not all of it- some of it has to do with the actions of the police and some to do with the actions of the protesters. I mean, if protesters start burning police cars, attempting to ransack police stations, looting on a large-scale businesses, the police seem compelled to act and it’s hard to deal with that kind of riotous behavior without being forceful. And I think that’s part of what happened in some cities, is a response to what was happening. But there is always a question of did some police action precipitate that in the first place, right?

Will Brehm 25:49
Right, right, yeah. “Chicken or the egg”.

Gary Cordner 25:51
Yeah, and obviously in the case of Minneapolis, that is where, you know, the terrible event had occurred in the first place. So, we might anticipate that emotions and anger would have been the strongest there of anywhere.

Will Brehm 26:02
Could it also be something to do with leadership and sort of the way in which the police force engages with the community they serve and protect?

Gary Cordner 26:11
I certainly believe that. In the case of Baltimore, where I am, again, they had an awful incident four, five years ago, but there’s been a really systematic effort since then, to try to re-engage with the community, to be more transparent, more open. I would say every reform that we have read about over the last week that police departments should adopt, they have already been adopted in Baltimore, you know a year to three years ago. And so, I would go so far as to say Baltimore has been trying to do at least all the right things for several years. In addition, the local community, including activists in the local community, still remember the riot four, five years ago, and the devastation that that caused in their own community. And so, I think there is a more mature, more focused, more deliberative, still very serious approach being taken by activists in Baltimore who want change, you know, on a social, societal level, fundamental structural change. But have concluded that burning the city down is not a useful step in that direction. So, I think it is a combination. I think the community has matured, and so has the police department.

Will Brehm 27:24
Right. And are there any particular reforms from Baltimore that you can point to that other cities -and municipalities in America that are thinking about reforming their police departments in the wake of George Floyd- that would be ones that would top your list so to speak.

Gary Cordner 27:41
That is so hard. Again, you know, in the news this last week, we have probably seen mentioned virtually everything that I could ever think of. I was struck by a video I watched just yesterday, made by a fella named David Couper. David is the former police chief in Madison, Wisconsin. He has been retired for 20 years, but still very active. And even 20 years ago, he was much more progressive than probably almost any other police chief in America. But in the video, I watched yesterday he was taking a walk in the woods. He is now by the way episcopal minister. But I think his was almost like a sermon, I suppose it was. He was walking in the woods. But what he thinks fundamentally has to happen is that the notion of “justice” has to be the prime motivator of police. Both why they join the police and the guiding light for how they behave as police. And in conjunction with that, his argument was it has to come from the heart. It cannot just be something they have a lecture on in the police academy. It cannot just be something that they sign the policies that says you know, blah, blah blah. It is really got to be internalized.

Will Brehm 28:53
So, in a way, the culture would have to change.

Gary Cordner 28:57
Yes, that is a good way of summing it up, is that the culture has to change. And if I could just say there is an argument to be made, it is often made, that the police culture in America is dysfunctional, you know, it is gone off the rails, etc. I think that is a gross overgeneralization. I’ve done some studies myself, I’ve been part of studies looking at officers across like 100 police departments, and at least based on what officers say in surveys in response to various kinds of questions, if that’s at least some indication of what the culture is like. It varies tremendously across police departments. There are police departments where officers, a vast majority will say, I do not trust my bosses. I do not trust the community. We have got to stick together because it is us versus them. And there are other police departments where practically nobody says that. So, you know, I do not personally think the police occupational culture writ large is as much a factor as the individual, I should say, organizational culture and the police agencies that officers work in. To the extent that that’s true, then it goes to leadership, of course, to the kinds of people that get hired in the first place, how they’re trained and socialized, the policies and other guidance that they get about how to do their job, all of which affects the culture.

Will Brehm 30:17
Yeah. And I mean, it makes sense then that this would be really difficult to reform given 18,000 police departments and potentially 18,000 cultures of policing.

Gary Cordner 30:29
I agree. And also, you know, I think highly unlikely that something that Congress or the President can do in Washington -that can somehow another significantly fix anything that needs fixing throughout the country. I think it has to come from within the profession of policing. And America has somewhere between 700,000-800,000 police. It is a big operation! There are thousands -if not hundreds of thousands- of really fine, upstanding, individuals in policing who I think have the capacity to raise their profession significantly, but it won’t happen.

Will Brehm 31:06
So, one of the ideas that is being discussed quite loudly, I should say now is this idea of defunding the police. And I think the idea here is to remove some of the budget from police departments and put more money into various social services like mental health services or social workers and sort of narrow the focus of what police should be doing in a city or in a municipality. What are your views on this notion of defunding the police?

Gary Cordner 31:38
I think we are still waiting to figure out what that phrase really means. You know, I think it is being used a lot right now. And I am pretty sure it means different things to different people. But that said, point that you made is, I think, absolutely an important one. And that I mean, many people within policing have been saying for years that they have been saddled with jobs that they are ill prepared to do. And I think that is true. I think it’s partly because in America for at least 40 years, the prevailing view, at least at the national level has been that government is bad, that the smaller the government is the better, and we don’t like paying taxes. You know, this is part of the American way. But the consequence of that is that the social services, the social safety net has just been decimated all over the country. You know, fewer social workers, fewer counselors, fewer everything you could think of to help people in need. And so guess what, it’s all landed in the laps of the police because at 11 o’clock at night or three o’clock in the morning, or, you know, in some really dangerous neighborhood, all you got is the cops and the police would rather not be doing most of those things, but there hasn’t been any choice in awful lot of places in America. So, to the extent that there is a serious willingness to rebuild some of those, you know, social services, and so forth. I think that would be a tremendous idea. Now, I am sure most people in policing would say, but not in our expense. You know, so something has to give, doesn’t it? Either the police slice of the pie has got to get smaller, or else the pie itself has got to get bigger, which would mean raise taxes.

Will Brehm 33:25
Yeah, raise taxes at the local level, or the federal government injects more money into states and local governments to pay for more social services.

Gary Cordner 33:35
Exactly. One way or another. It is either higher taxes or take some money away from, in this case the police and give it to somebody else. And that is a fight that- I think we are going to go through that over the next, you know, years. You know, I have a friend -he is actually retired now for about a year. But he was a police chief in a small town in Kentucky. And about five years ago, he convinced his city council to let him hire a social worker instead of a police officer. And this is again, this is a small agency, maybe 20 officers, something like that. That was kind of a crazy idea. It worked out so well that now after that, he hired a second one. And the cops love it because there is somebody with some actual skills in working with victims of crime, victims of domestic abuse, children in need, substance abusers, you name it. There is somebody to work with those people who actually knows what they’re doing. And the police officer does not have to do as much as previously. So, there have been little moves like that around the country, but not on big scale. And it would be really interesting to see if because of the times that we’re in right now, that kind of movement picks up steam. Now, let me just say one more thing. I mean, I live in a city, Baltimore that has 300 murders a year. A city of only 600,000 people. I mean, that is an extremely high murder rate. And Baltimore also has, I think, one of the highest robbery rates. Robbery being taking something from someone with the threat of force, often by sticking a gun in their face. So, it is a city with a lot of violent crime. It is not exactly clear to me, who is going to deal with that if it is not the police.

Will Brehm 35:19
Right. So, when it comes to violence and protection, there is a role for the police. But there’s all sorts of other issues that have fallen on to the police that there’s probably space to bring in experts, bring in people who have been trained to handle and manage and care for such issues in a community. What that looks like, of course, is sort of a big question mark. And will probably be dependent on the locality in which these police forces are located since it is so decentralized in America. But what’s interesting, I guess, hopeful, in a way to me, what you’re saying is that there actually almost appears to be a political coalition that would push for similar reforms that would include the police, rather than excluding them in the conversation.

Gary Cordner 36:09
Yeah, I agree, I agree. And right now, for people in the police, I am sure it feels like they are just being hammered from all directions, and they are being criticized. And I would say, in most instances, it is very unfair. I’d also say that at least up until two weeks ago, if you did surveys, nearly every neighborhood in every city if you gave them a choice, would you rather have fewer police in your neighborhood or more, they’d almost all say more. You know, they’ve done surveys in Baltimore over the last couple of years in a city with lots of problems, and residents were most likely to say, we’d like to see police more in our neighborhoods, and we’d like them to be more involved, become more a part of our community, as opposed, of course, to just sort of driving through or coming when there’s a big problem. So, I do not even think right now, once the emotion of what we are going through settles a little bit, I do not think most people are actually opposed to police helping them solve their problems. But I do agree with you, I have no doubt at all that we could do a better job of getting it right and divvying up responsibilities in a more sensible way. There might even be a financial advantage because believe it or not, police have become pretty darn expensive. Police salaries in the United States in conjunction with benefits, usually a pretty good pension, a lot of equipment, the individual police officer is costly. And I mean, I would not be surprised if you could afford two social workers for every one cop or something like that, you know. So, there might be some might be some advantages from that as well.

Will Brehm 37:43
Well, Gary Cordner, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, just really nice to talk to you and think a little bit more about policing and education of policing and re-imaging what a future of policing might look like.

Gary Cordner 37:55
It has been a real pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

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