Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem

Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem
Police officers stand guard during a June 3, 2020 protest against the police killing of George Floyd.Eduardo Munoz/Reuters REUTERS
  • Police training programs often have little basis in scientific research, and experts say misinformation runs rampant without anyone to regulate it.
  • According to the California-based Institute on Criminal Justice Training Reform, police trainings rely too much on assumptions, anecdotal information, and unverified information.
  • Bill Lewinski, who trains police officers and often serves as an expert witness in cases, has been criticized by experts for relying too much on studies that lack rigor.
  • Experts from the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing have called for a nationally recognized, independent, nonpartisan organization that could help provide resources to police departments across the US.

As Black Lives Matter protests continue to be held throughout the US following the death of George Floyd, many people are evaluating the role of policing in society.

Activists have since called for police departments to be defunded or abolished, and those calling for reform say use-of-force maneuvers should be banned and that police need more de-escalation training before they're allowed to patrol the streets.

There's also another issue that needs attention: Pseudoscience. Experts say beliefs falsely regarded as scientific are pervasive in the world of policing.


Renee Mitchell, an executive committee member of the American Society of Evidence, told Insider that every state has its own regulations when it comes to police training, but many academies lack empirical research when teaching new policies.

"Police don't do a literature review examining research before they implement policy or practice," she told Insider. "They do what's called best practice, which is essentially common practice. They call another agency to see what agencies do, but there's nothing that verifies whether that approach works or not."

The underlying issue, experts told Insider, is not only that there's a lack of science in police training, but there's also no one to regulate the spread of misinformation.


Police often rely on assumptions, anecdotal information, and unverified information instead of data when it comes to training

According to the California-based Institute on Criminal Justice Training Reform (ICJTR), police training programs often rely on assumptions, anecdotal information, and unverified information over scientific research when educating new hires.

As put in a 2008 study from the University of Emory titled "Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement: A User-Friendly Primer," law enforcement has "long struggled with the throne problem of distinguishing scientifically supported from scientifically unsupported practices."

Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem
HIDALGO, TX - NOVEMBER 05: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), agents in riot gear take part in a training exercise at the international port of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border on November 5, 2018 in Hidalgo, Texas. Days before, U.S. Army soldiers put up razor wire at the same location as part of "Operation Faithful Patriot."John Moore/Getty Images


"Police and other law enforcement workers, like individuals in all applied disciplines, must keep a watchful eye on pseudoscientific and otherwise unsubstantiated claims," the study said. "If they do not, they can end up making flawed decisions that result in confessions, erroneous convictions, confabbed memories of early trauma, and a plethora of other harmful real-world consequences."

The study's authors recommended that police go through training programs that would help them distinguish science from pseudoscience.

"By attending to the differences between scientific and pseudoscientific assertions, police officers and other law enforcement officials can minimize their risk of errors and make better real-world decisions," the study said.


A leading trainer in policing has become a controversial figure because of his data

One of the police industry's leading training institutions is the Force Science Institute, run by psychologist Bill Lewinski, who in 2015 was the subject of a New York Times article about his work serving as an expert witness for police in shooting cases.

Lewinski also hosts use-of-force and deescalation training courses for police, and much of his research looks into police reaction times. In one study, he argued that suspects can draw guns more quickly during the time it takes for an officer to draw their own gun, aim, and shoot. He has also studied how suspects can end up shot in the back by police officers and why officers "continue to fire 'extra' rounds in high-adrenaline confrontations, even after the threat has ended," according to the Force Science website.

In recent years, police departments in New York and Ohio have backed out of trainings with Lewinski, and his work has been criticized by Lisa Fournier, a Washington State University professor and an "American Journal of Psychology" editor.


Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem
NYPD police officers detain a protester as they clash during a march in Brooklyn, New York, May 30.REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

In an interview with Insider, Lewinski said his company does not teach pseudoscience, but did acknowledge that such practices are an issue in police training programs.

"In law enforcement, it is expert opinion that still drives much of training, and so our research started off by looking at the threats that officers face and the type of dynamic situations that they got into," he said.


Lewinski urged police academies to use more research in their courses and said officers should spend more time on science-based studies, de-escalation techniques, and communication while learning policing techniques.

"Most of the people who criticize us don't look at what the main purpose of our research is," Lewinski said. "You got to understand what the problem is, and nobody has researched that problem like we have."

Lewinski has a list of journals he has had studies published in on his website, and he also publishes findings in police magazines and his company's newsletter in hopes of reaching more of an audience in law enforcement.


Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem
A protester confronts police while rallying against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in PortlandReuters

Von Kliem, a spokesperson for Lewinski, told Insider that government agencies and police departments regularly rely on his work and that Force Science uses research-based methods to teach officers "to recognize and safely de-escalate threats before any force becomes necessary."

"Decades of research have gone into understanding force encounters so that officers are able to manage safer outcomes for all involved," Kliem said.


But Fournier told Insider that the work of Lewinski's that she has evaluated often lacked control groups, and drew conclusions without the support from data. She said she had issues with Lewinski's peer-review processes, and said she didn't believe enough scientists were involved.

"It's amazing to me that the Force Science Institute gets away with this stuff," she told Insider.

The 21-foot Tueller Drill is still taught as science, even though its creator says it shouldn't be

Randy Shrewsberry, the founder of the ICJTR, used the Tueller Drill as an example of a "junk science" self-defense exercise that police departments sometimes use to prepare officers for short-range attacks.


The technique was named after Salt Lake City Police Officer Dennis Tueller, who in 1983 published an article in SWAT Magazine about the "reactionary gap" that he said was needed for police to react decisively and effectively. The article said that if the suspect was any closer than 21 feet, the person could charge before an officer could unholster their gun. Many officers have used the drill as an argument to justify use of force.

In the years since, the Tueller Drill has been debunked by a number of publications, and even Tueller himself has said it's not a hard-and-fast rule.

But police training programs still teach the drill.


"What we hear daily is that it's not a rule — it's a guideline," Shrewsberry told Insider. "Dennis Tueller has come out and said 'This wasn't intended to be literal.' But it's taught all over, and it's used for justification for force all the time."

Shrewsberry called the drill "dangerous," and urged police training programs to stop teaching militarization concepts in which officers are told to put their own safety over the community's.

"If we train police officers to be soldiers, we dress them like soldiers, and equip them like soldiers, we can never be surprised that they act like soldiers," Shrewsberry said.


Tens of thousands of people across the US have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest militarization, brutality, and systemic racism within police departments. The protests emerged after the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he repeatedly said he couldn't breathe.

And while protests have focused on police brutality and use of force among officers, even some de-escalation techniques lack basis in research.

Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem
Demonstrators march during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., June 16, 2020.REUTERS/Brendan McDermid


Gary Klugiewicz, a former sheriff's department captain who now teaches courses at Vistelar, a conflict-management institute, told Wired in 2015: "Most of the stuff we have done and I've done is at a personal level. A lot of them use our own experience."

Insider reporter Rhea Mahbubani reported last week that implicit bias training used to address underlying racist attitudes don't even have evidence to back them up. Studies show that trainings meant to address implicit bias don't change people's behaviors.

Obed Magny, a Sacramento police officer with a doctorate in education who also works with the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing, told Insider that one of the main issues with police training is that much of it is based on the idea of "We've always done it this way so this is why how we're going to do it."


"I can give you eight billion examples of where that has actually caused people their lives," he said. "You can also see in some instances today where pseudoscience is literally eroding the trust and legitimacy of the institution of policing."

Experts think there should be an independent, nonpartisan body providing research and education to police departments

The past several weeks of protests have fostered a distrust toward police, and there have been several reports of police officers driving squad cars into crowds, shoving protesters, attacking people with pepper spray and batons, and shooting rubber bullets at journalists and demonstrators.

And the distrust in Black communities is especially high. A Black person is more than twice as likely to be fatally shot by a police officer than a white person, according to the Washington Post.


Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem
show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

Magny told Insider that unlike physicians and dentists, who have guidelines, research, and resources accessible to those in the industry, policing has "no such thing."

"Because you don't have anything like that, you have 2,000 police departments doing 18,000 different things," he said. "That's a problem. Because what happens is one agency affects agencies across the country. And if you don't have a uniform model, everybody's not speaking the same language."


Magny's colleague Mitchell agreed that there should be a nationally recognized, nonpartisan, independent body much like the American Medical Association or American Psychological Association that can have experts and research on hand to provide national policing recommendations.

She said that organization should be created alongside a college of policing, in which students can learn the skills they'd need to become police officers through education featuring both law enforcement officers and academics.

"And it's gotta be both — you can't just have academics in there telling cops, 'here's how to be a cop,' because the first thing they're going to say is 'You've never been on the street.' That's not how stuff works," Mitchell said. "I try to teach cops that yes, your experience is very important to add to the conversation, but you don't study what happens as a whole."


Magny said, however, that putting these policies in place could take time.

"Here's the biggest mistake we're making right now: Everybody things there's some kind of quick fix, you know, just a couple things here and there, then everything changes tomorrow," Magny told Insider.

He said that because of how institutionalized policing is, it could take years to make actual polity changes within police departments and police training programs.


"We need more science and we need more data. And we need evidence-based practices in everything we do," Magny said.