Soft Skills May Reduce Police Use of Excessive or Deadly Force
By Matthew Eldridge, Alumnus, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Civil unrest in the United States has again risen to a level of concern, leaving many questions and very few solutions. Recently, several high-profile killings by law enforcement officers of Black men have sparked national outrage, protests, civil activism, and even riots in several major cities.
While most of the protests have been peaceful, some have turned violent, which has led to extensive property damage, injuries, and even deaths. To further complicate matters, a global coronavirus pandemic which has caused the COVID-19 deadly respiratory disease has left many millions of Americans jobless and uncertain of their futures.
What Does That Change Look Like and How Is It Achieved?
Given the ongoing situation across the country, there is a need for change. However, what does that change look like and how is it achieved? As communities across the U.S. advocate for law enforcement reforms, supplementing existing hard-skills training with soft skills such as emotional intelligence training might greatly improve interactions between law enforcement and local communities.
Soft skills are often defined as people skills or skills, abilities, and traits that pertain to personality, attitudes, and behavior rather than to formal and technical knowledge.
These soft skills include emotional intelligence, which is generally referred to as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” This is not to say that hard skills such as firearms marksmanship, defensive tactics, or emergency driving are not essential, but rather that officers should also be better equipped to handle the situations they encounter on a day-to-day basis.
Most Law Enforcement Officers Will Never Use Their Firearm in the Line of Duty
The majority of law enforcement officers will never use their firearm in the line of duty. A recent study found that only 27% of officers have ever fired their weapon. Yet, according to a study by statistician Dr. Brian A. Reaves, law enforcement trainees in police academy spend an average of 71 hours on firearms training compared to 43 hours collectively learning “cultural diversity, human relations, mediation, conflict management, community partnership building, collaboration, and problem-solving approaches.”
Coincidently, if political leaders are struggling to identify and implement effective solutions to the systemic effects of racism, law enforcement leaders must support officer training and education to reduce needless deaths and abuse in minority communities.
A current review of how law enforcement academies conduct training suggests that paramilitary style academies no longer adequately prepare officers for the “emotionally challenging” work they are about to face.
The review suggests that paramilitary style police academies fail to prepare officers for community policing and do not consider the different learning styles of recruits. It was further implied in the review that police officers exhibit behaviors that are reflected in the training they receive. Adult-learning styles tend to produce officers who are “emotionally intelligent, effective communicators, and critical thinkers.”
Additionally, the study suggested that officers with four-year undergraduate degrees have greater “mental flexibility” and tend to use physical force infrequently. The evidence suggests that individuals who are emotionally intelligent cope with stress more effectively which, most importantly, can also be improved with training.
Four Categories of Emotional Intelligence Models
While there are different models associated with emotional intelligence, a widely accepted version is broken down into four categories: “perception of emotion, integration and assimilation of emotion, knowledge about emotions, and management of emotions.”
Current research suggests that individuals with higher emotional intelligence may have more success in their careers and that emotional intelligence is possibly a greater indicator of career accomplishment than IQ scores. A 2016 study concluded that training for law enforcement investigators should focus on “self-awareness, attention training, communication skills, and emotion regulation.”
Soft skills training after the academy is not a new concept. With the advent of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, however, law enforcement officers are exposed to skills that are quite different than those taught in many academies.
CIT is a 40-hour course that teaches officers “de-escalation and communication techniques” as well as providing them with knowledge of community-based resources for persons who are in crisis or suffering from a mental illness. A study on the effectiveness of CIT training found that officers who attended the 40-hour course improved their knowledge, attitude, and perceptions.
Despite the many non-violent protests and reactions to racial injustice, the disproportionate use of force on African Americans persists in many urban and suburban areas. While the larger issue of systemic racial inequalities may be beyond the scope of law enforcement’s ability to resolve, reducing excessive force and restoring trust within the African-American community might be possible by including into current academy and post academy curricula additional soft skills, such as emotional intelligence training.
This is in no way a suggestion that the learned hard skills should be reduced or neglected, but rather supplemented with additional training. This might mitigate occurrences when officers unnecessarily – and too often aggressively – employ these hard skills.
Law enforcement administrators have a unique opportunity to make unprecedented changes in how they train new officers and retain veteran officers. What leaders choose to do or fail to do in the coming months and years will have a lasting impact on not only the Black community, but on America as a whole. It is imperative that we act now so that all Americans can enjoy the liberties that are guaranteed to every citizen.
About the Author: Matthew enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating high school as an infantryman and re-enlisted as an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician. Matthew continued to serve after leaving the military as an emergency dispatcher for Radford University Police Department (RUPD); and upon graduating the New River Criminal Justice Training Academy, was sworn in as a police officer. Matthew now serves in the federal government as a Public Safety Bomb Technician (PSBT) and resides in northern Virginia with his wife and two children. Matthew earned a B.A. in criminal justice from American Military University and is currently pursuing a M.S. in explosive technology with Missouri University of Science and Technology.
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