TUSCALOOSA, AL (WBRC) – In a classroom at the Tuscaloosa Municipal Airport, a couple dozen police officer trainees stand and read the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics in unison.
“They’ll get better, they’re still new,” said Captain Randy Vaughn, Director, APOSTC Law Enforcement Training Academy – Tuscaloosa.
At the end of their 13-week, 520-hour course, the trainees will be expected to memorize the code in words and actions, said Captain Vaughn.
“When you read over that code, everything those protestors are talking about, the rules are already there, the code is already there,” explained Captain Vaughn.
Following the killing of George Floyd, who died when a now-former Minneapolis Police Officer held his knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes, protestors are calling for, among several things, more training for police officers.
“This is one of those moments that takes a disjointed group of people that have all different interests and brings them into singular focus to accomplish a set of goals,” said Representative Chris England, D – Tuscaloosa.
State Representative England has seen similar protests before but calls the current movement, “a watershed moment,” where calls for police reform “must be answered.”
“As you see across the country, people are not taking no for an answer.”
He added, “Our officers, regardless of where they go [in the state], have to be trained to deal with each person individually without carrying a bias with them that could ultimately turn into a tragic situation.”
Every law enforcement officer in Alabama must be certified by the Alabama Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission, or APOSTC. There are ten training academies in Alabama, including the one in Tuscaloosa led by Captain Vaughn.
“They come here for their basic training, in other words, how to become a police officer,” said Captain Vaughn.
To become and remain a law enforcement officer in Alabama, APOSTC requires 520-hours of basic training, at least 12-hours of in-service training each year, and annual firearms re-qualification.
Over 13-weeks of basic training, trainees have nearly 80 different courses, including Patrol Techniques, Human Trafficking, Mental Health Awareness and History of Law Enforcement. The longest class, SSGT Vanguard (Level I & II), is 48 hours and is part of the “Offensive and Defensive Tactics” block of courses. Emergency Vehicle Operations is a 27-hour class, while Officer Survival, Firearms Qualification and the NHTSA Standardized Field Sobriety Testing Course are each 24 hours.
Currently, APOSTC does not require an implicit or unconscious bias course, but according to APOSTC, courses that specifically address bias and sensitivity include, Interpersonal Communications, Mental Health Awareness, Law Enforcement Ethics & Professionalism, and Officer/Violator Contact.
“A majority of our classes, even though they may not speak straight to personal biases, they are talking about equality, how are you doing this in a legal way, how are you doing this in a fair way, in an impartial way?,” said Captain Vaughn.
He added, “The law applies to everyone equally and what we try to understand is you cannot bring your personal biases to this job. Any mistakes that you make, it not only impacts you and your agency, it impacts me and my job, it impacts other officers.”
“What happened in Minnesota, impacts agencies throughout Alabama.”
While implicit or unconscious bias training is not required by APOSTC, several agencies have been teaching the course for years, including the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, and the Birmingham, Homewood and Oxford Police Departments. These departments also require additional training beyond the 12-hour APOSTC requirements.
Birmingham Police requires officers complete 60 hours of in-service training per year. Most Homewood Police Officers averaged 95 hours of training in 2019, according to a department spokesman. Mountain Brook Police do not require more than APOSTC, but Chief Ted Cook said most officers average more than 40 hours of training per year. Oxford Police Chief Bill Partridge, who is the Vice Chairman of APOSTC, said he tries to make between 40-120 hours of training available to his officers each year. Shelby County Sheriff deputies average at least 40 hours of in-service training per year, and each year, officers retrain on de-escalation.
Requiring mandatory de-escalation training is one of the changes #8CANTWAIT is advocating for nationwide. #8CANTWAIT is a campaign focused on police reform lead by Campaign Zero.
De-escalation is not its own class in APOSTC required curriculum, but the concept is taught in “several” courses, said Captain Vaughn.
“We have a use of force continuum, it starts with officer present, verbal commands and goes all the way up to firearms. So, wherever [the officer is] once the subject starts submitting, or cooperating, then they stop there and start working back down,” said Tommie Black, Deputy Director, Jefferson County Law Enforcement Academy (JCLEA), Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
“There’s no way to look at every scenario and say it’s the same, because the officer’s size, the subject’s size, there are so many things that come into play. The people around, who else is subject to get hurt or harmed.”
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office recruits are trained at the JCLEA, as are deputies from other departments in the area.
“[Basic training] is a minimum 600 hours and the additional training includes things that are specific to a sheriff’s office. Serving civil papers, jail management,” explained Black.
“So, when an officer leaves here, they have training in roughly 16 qualification areas.”
Like Captain Vaughn, Black said equal enforcement of the law is the basis of every course but training specific to bias and sensitivity is taught in Interpersonal Communication.
“[Trainees] are taught to learn to, hopefully hold their tempers, even if someone is yelling and screaming at them, and be able calmly find out what the problem is, paraphrasing is taught so that they can say, ‘I understand this is the way you feel, is there anything else I need to know?’ and these type things to help them in their careers,” said Black.
Black is currently working with her team to develop unconscious bias training after Sheriff Mark Pettway decided to make the course mandatory for recruits and officers.
“Sheriff Pettway’s plan in what we are implementing out here is trying to be proactive for everything,” explained Black.
She added, “We all have biases, the biggest thing is we have to recognize and admit them so they do not affect us.”
The unconscious bias class will begin in July and will also include a review of use-of-force, de-escalation, duty to intervene and criminal and civil liabilities curriculum, said Black.
Representative England supports the additional training and said he is working on legislation that would make it mandatory statewide.
“More specific and explicit training to help identify some of the problems that we see on the street,” said Representative England.
He added, “We want to make sure as lawmakers, when we spend money, it’s not just on new and shiny weapons and all other sorts of military style weaponry. We also want to spend money on programming that deals with the root of the problem and not the symptoms of the problems. We also want to spend money on de-escalates, teaches officers to de-escalate and understand different people based on their life experiences respond to situations differently, so they’re not necessarily divisive or combative, they just may be how they naturally express themselves and if you continue the conversation, you can get to a peaceful resolution without having to use force.”
Captain Vaughn added, “Officers have to be accountable for their actions. The public expects [that] and they should. They give us an amazing power to be able to help regulate and keep the peace, being able to protect their rights, even giving us the power where we have to restrict people’s rights in certain situations. The officers have to understand that that type of power, you have to be accountable for the way you use that power anyway.”