Law enforcement and elected officials told a presidential task force Tuesday that police need better training to improve community relations and defuse the sorts of deadly, racially charged confrontations that have divided the nation for months.
Such training is becoming more difficult in an era of budget constraint, they told the 12-member President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing at its first public meeting.
Though not a perfect solution, analysts said, more comprehensive training for police officers is, in the words of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, “a good start.”
Police “need to learn more than logistics of policing but also the broader significance of their role in society,” she said during one forum, held at the Newseum in Washington. Ms. Rawlings-Blake acknowledged in an era of fiscal belt-tightening that funding for police training has been trimmed.
“Our police commanders are constantly seeking more dollars,” she said. “If there is any place where the federal government and the Justice Department can produce a tangible difference for our officers, it would be to provide more resources in this area.”
Andrew Peralta, president of the National Latino Peace Officers Association, said that as budgets have been cut, training has dwindled to focus only on the life or death self-defense skills police might need in the direst scenarios.
“When you’re training’s all about shooting, handcuffing, the physical part — and not about the verbal part — it can create an imbalance,” he said.
An officer also needs training on dealing with community members in nonthreatening ways and better communication skills, he said.
“If he hasn’t been trained in that yet, he’s going to go straight to something he does know: handcuffing, defensive skills, shooting,” Mr. Peralta said.
Echoing the concerns over dwindling funds, Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, warned that there isn’t much money to give officers better training in community relations.
“The state of Florida right now authorizes $67 per officer per year for training,” Mr. Beary said. “That’s what we’re up against.”
The Justice Department’s own Community Oriented Policing Services — which is in charge of the task force — estimated that by 2011, a third of all police departments had trimmed their operating budgets by more than 5 percent. In that year alone, departments laid off an estimated 12,000 law enforcement officers.
That was the same year, in fact, when the COPS budget was trimmed by nearly $300 million, gutting many grant programs that help hire and train officers.
A 2013 study by the National Criminal Justice Association and Vera Institute of Justice found that Justice Department grants to local police forces had dropped 43 percent since 2010.
The results, the study said, were hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs and an inability to respond to many police calls that were not life-threatening.
Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said that training to change even the smallest police behaviors can have a positive effect — such as stopping police from using harsh or derogatory language when talking with the public or outright racial profiling.
“Disrespectful police happen all across this country, day in and day out,” he said.
Meeting officers on the street is a critical juncture for building trust, Mr. Walker said, because it’s often the first and most commonplace people interact with officers. Hearing an officer use a slur or swear word can give citizens a negative impression.
In 2013, 26 percent of all complaints sent to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department involved an officer being rude or using harsh language, Mr. Walker said, adding that as far back as 1968, federal commissions were finding that rude language from police was causing a problem.
“We did not fix the program back then, we did not fix this problem in the intervening 47 years,” he said. “We need to fix the problem now.”
The panel has been charged with providing President Obama with recommendations by March on how to improve community and police relations that have taken a hit over the past six months after a number of deadly confrontations between citizens and law enforcement, most prominently the deaths of unarmed black men and boys in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland and New York.
But law enforcement officers in attendance called much criticism of the police groundless. “The current smear campaigns aimed at law enforcement are unnecessarily placing our officers in jeopardy,” Mr. Beary said, comparing the climate to the treatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam in the 1970s.
Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the country needs to get away from “inflammatory rhetoric.”
“It is wrong to think that a criminal, because of the color of his skin, is a criminal,” Mr. Canterbury said. “It’s equally wrong to think a man is racist because of the color of his uniform.”
Civil rights advocates argued that criticism about certain police actions isn’t an attempt to attack the officers themselves.
“Acknowledging this problem does not constitute an act of war or hostility against the men and women of law enforcement,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Other analysts said changing hiring practices could help more unbiased law enforcement, and that departments should strive to have officers from all communities, both cultural and racial.