NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Do we have a right to a well-trained police force?
The question is one we should be discussing in the wake of two recent developments in the 2020 shooting death of Breonna Taylor: an announcement that the federal investigation has led to indictments against four police officers, and the less publicized decision by a federal judge in late July to dismiss most of the lawsuit filed by Taylor’s neighbor, whose apartment was hit by the fusillade of bullets fired that night. Although the indictments are understandably the bigger story, the neighbor’s lawsuit might also point the way toward avoiding such tragedies in the future.
Taylor was killed when officers broke down the door of her apartment based on false (possibly fabricated) information that drugs were being delivered to her address. Her boyfriend, unaware that the intruders were police, fired what he described as a warning shot.
In response, the officers discharged 32 rounds, wounding the boyfriend and killing Taylor. A state inquiry was justifiably criticized for its leniency toward the officers involved; the subsequent federal investigation has now borne fruit.
Meanwhile, behind the headlines, neighbor Chelsea Napper sued both the responding officers and the Louisville Police Department. It’s undisputed that some bullets fired by police officers that night entered her upstairs apartment.
Although no one was struck, Napper alleges that she and her family “suffered invasion of privacy, unreasonable risk of death, excessive force and emotional distress.” And here’s the key: Her suit named as defendants not only the officer whose shots entered her home but also supervisors and the department itself on the theory that her civil rights had been violated because the police had been poorly trained.
The inadequate training claim is the part of Napper’s suit that the judge dismissed. That result was predictable, given that extant law sets an almost impossibly high bar for suits claiming that municipal employees were inadequately trained.
But at least in cases where the issue is the training of police, perhaps the bar should be lowered. It’s hard to see how else we can ensure that law enforcement officers get the training they need — and the citizens they serve deserve.
The police are law’s sharp spear. We rely on them to use violence when necessary to maintain social order. Yet we’re rarely willing to spend what’s necessary to help them do that part of the job effectively.
For instance, most police officers are poor shots. And when they’re under stress, they shoot even worse.
And few events raise stress more than facing an armed suspect. One study found that experienced officers who shot fairly well on the range rapidly lost accuracy when faced with instructors who returned fire — even though the “bullets” in the exercise were soap pellets. Facing live rounds, one would expect the loss of accuracy to be greater.
The same study reported that the more time the participants spent under fire, the smaller the effect of anxiety on their accuracy. The authors suggested that “training with anxiety” — that is, training that better simulates a real gunfight — could reduce inaccuracy even more.
Unfortunately, such training is increasingly rare. Recent years have seen a growing emphasis on paper learning — lectures and manuals and quizzes — with “shooting” often confined to virtual devices.
Experts have warned that training in anything but a realistic environment will make little difference. Yet to save money, many departments limit the number of training rounds officers can fire or prohibit practicing with the weapons they carry on the street. Never mind working through realistic armed-suspect scenarios.
Consider the night Taylor was shot. The police fired 32 rounds, of which six struck Taylor and one struck her boyfriend. That means that some 31 hit nothing they were supposed to.
Small wonder that an outside review of Louisville’s police practices, commissioned by the city following Taylor’s death, was scathing on the subject of how well — or rather, how poorly — officers were trained. Not only did the training spend little time on what to do when someone’s shooting at you; those who attended classes on the subject were not required to practice what they’d been taught.
The report recommended redesigning the way officers were trained to include regular scenario-based training and “establishing an outdoor, long-range shooting facility where officers can use on-duty ammunition during firearms training.” Good idea. And perhaps additional training could remedy an additional problem: that an escalation to violence grows much more likely when police interact with people who are black.
But additional training will be expensive, at a time when we already spend a lot on law enforcement. A Bloomberg CityLab study conducted after reports that Uvalde (population 16,000) spends 40% of its budget on police found the figure not at all unusual: In cities of similar size, an average of 32% of their budgets pays for policing.
And that’s low compared to what’s spent by many of the nation’s larger cities. According to 2020 figures compiled by the Vera Institute, Billings, Montana spent an astonishing 64% of its municipal budget on policing; Milwaukee, 58%; Kansas City, Missouri, 43%; Tampa and Phoenix, 41%; Austin, Texas 40%; Chicago 37% — just to take a few examples. (In Louisville, it’s 29%. In New York City, for those who might wonder, the figure is a mere 8%.)
A right to be policed by a properly trained force is bound to raise these figures considerably, at a time when budgets everywhere are being squeezed. Yet it’s hard to see the alternative.
The police deserve our respect, not our derision. They do a job so taxing that it significantly lowers their life expectancy. Unfortunately, it’s a job often done so poorly that bystanders wind up dead or wounded.
I’ve long argued that better training would reduce that danger. By allowing suits like Napper’s to go forward, the courts could help move us in the right direction.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.” © 2022 Bloomberg Opinion.