Police academy cadets undergo baton training at Golden West Community College's Regional Criminal Justice Training Center in Orange County in 2019.

George Floyd’s murder nearly a year ago is changing how California’s community colleges and state universities train and educate police officers with urgent emphasis on treating people humanely and using deadly force only as a last resort.

“Law enforcement recognizes that we can do better,” Timothy Vu, a former police chief who runs the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West Community College in Orange County said following the conviction last month of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s death.

Courtesy of Golden West College.

Timothy Vu, the former police chief of the City of Alhambra, is the Associate Dean and Director of the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West Community College in Orange County.

“Everybody’s seen it,” Vu said of video showing Chauvin’s knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. “They are images that I don’t think any of us will ever forget. I certainly hope that our police recruits won’t forget that.”

But controversial killings of people by police continue, raising questions about training and officer conduct. Among the most recent is the April 19 death of an unarmed 26-year-old Latino man in the city of Alameda that’s roiled the Bay Area.

Responding to a call of a man in a park who appeared intoxicated, police attempted to restrain him. Body camera footage shows officers knelt on Mario Gonzalez’s back for several minutes. Gonzalez became unresponsive and died. His family has called his death a murder similar to Floyd’s. Multiple agencies are investigating.

Nationwide, the focus has turned to whether changes are needed in how police are trained, what they are taught and even who can apply for the job. More than 11 months after Floyd’s death, those questions have taken on a renewed focus in California higher education, where thousands of police recruits and officers are trained yearly.

Across the state, there are 20 police academies on community college campuses run in conjunction with the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST. Many are adding new classes and training, officials said.

Once they are sworn in as police officers, many pursue college degrees in criminal justice and criminology, which are offered at 20 of the 23 California State University campuses.

One of the most significant changes occurred in June when Gov. Gavin Newsom banned police statewide from using and being trained to use carotid restraints, sometimes called chokeholds. They’re designed to restrict blood flow to the brain and render a person briefly unconscious. But they can turn deadly.

Last year, the city of Pittsburg in Contra Costa County settled a lawsuit last year for $7.3 million with the family of Humberto Martinez Sr., 32, who ran from police after a traffic stop in 2016. He died after an attempted carotid hold caused “extensive hemorrhages” in his throat, a coroner found. The officer involved said that he’d tried to cut off the victim’s airflow, not the blood flow to his brain, raising questions about his training.

State Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley called for rethinking of police training last year when he issued a social justice “call for action.” It resulted in an ongoing review of training curriculum to make sure that the experiences of people of color are prominently taught. Some schools like Fresno City College are considering course changes recommended by a local task force.

“It’s critical that we as educators of first responders examine our curriculum and ensure that it is culturally relevant and responsive to concerns about policing,” Oakley said.

Some of that is focused on teaching recruits to simply think differently. Vu has mandated that Golden West recruits visit Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance.  It’s dedicated to the Holocaust and combating “all forms of prejudice and discrimination.”

Police “have to understand that racism exists and what its impact is on society,” Vu said. “Exposing them to the harsh reality of racism is important.”

In addition to the community college academies, some officers are trained by large police agencies like police departments or county sheriffs and receive certification from POST after graduating and undergoing field training.

Teaching how to peacefully de-escalate encounters with people “will be a central piece in training moving forward,” Vu said.

Credit: Louis Freedberg/EdSource

Santa Rosa Junior College, Public Safety Training Center, one of 20 police academies in community colleges in California.

Officers trained in the post-Floyd era bring potential culture change to police departments, said Stanford law professor David Sklansky, co-director of the university’s Criminal Justice Center, a research institute in the law school.

“It means moving away from the message that police are warriors and that they need to be prepared to kill anyone they encounter,” Sklansky said.

Recruits must be taught that “police are guardians. It’s their job to make sure not just that they and their fellow officers go home safe at the end of their shift, but that everybody goes home safe at the end of their shift.”

California had already incorporated implicit bias and cultural diversity in its police training curriculum. Vice President Kamala Harris pushed for the training in 2017 when she was state attorney general.  “Every human being has implicit biases,” Harris said at the time the course was introduced after several years of being tried out in police agencies across the state.

Recruits getting more Taser training

Many of California’s standards of police training on the use of deadly force are set by state law.

In deciding what to teach new recruits, individual academies can add to POST’s basic curriculum of 664 hours of training. Most require another 216 hours that is decided at the local college and can be responsive to current events.

Brian Vizzusi, a retired police lieutenant who heads the academy at Yuba College, north of Sacramento, added training to address the Minnesota shooting death earlier this month of Daunte Wright, 20, by a police officer who claimed she was reaching for her Taser rather than her gun.

Police have a history of mishandling Tasers. At least 11 similar incidents have occurred nationally since 1999, including the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer in Oakland when Grant was handcuffed and lying on a train platform.

Taser training is done by departments after recruits leave the academy. Vizzusi recently devised a way to include it in the curriculum to help officers avoid fatal mistakes.

Cadets will be given a device similar to a stun gun to wear on their belt and a trainer will yell “gun” and “Taser” as the trainees practice drawing each weapon. That will “build muscle memory” to help the future officers avoid mistaking a gun for a Taser in a stressful situation.

San Joaquin Delta College also recently created new classes to have recruits “dive deep into cultures and have them get out of their seats and go out and interview people in the community,” said Tammie Murrell, a former officer who directs the college’s academy.  It will help new officers understand that relationships between police and some groups need to be repaired by “kind of a reconciliation.”

Requiring a four-year degree

As teaching materials improve, California’s requirement to become a police officer remains unchanged. All that’s needed is to be 18 years old and have a high school diploma.

Only a few states, including New Jersey and North Dakota, require bachelor’s degrees. Some mandate 60 hours of college credits or two years of military service.

In the wake of Floyd’s murder, the requirement should be raised, said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant-turned-academic who teaches at Emmanuel College in Boston. He’s the author of the book “Perilous Policing,” which argues for reforms in how police interact with marginalized communities.

There is long-standing disagreement, however, on whether requiring a four-year degree would improve policing. The idea was first proposed in 1967 by a commission President Lyndon Johnson appointed.

Nolan argues that Chauvin and other officers involved in unjust killings were “ultimately bad hiring decisions.” A four-year degree requirement might have weeded them out. Chauvin, according to news reports, has an associate degree.

College-educated cops “are likely to have the capacity for analysis in seeking solutions to problems,” Nolan said, “understand reasoned argument and perspective” and be able to “acknowledge racism, misogyny, homophobia, and discrimination in our criminal justice system and the larger society.”

Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, introduced legislation last year requiring future police recruits to have a bachelor’s degree or be 25 years old to become a cop. The bill remains pending in the Assembly. Studies have shown that being college educated helps officers better deal with stress and control their behavior. Opponents say the degree requirement narrows who can become an officer when communities are seeking to diversify their ranks.

Abdul Pridgen, the California Police Chiefs Association’s president, said neither a person’s age nor education level will show “whether or not a person has the mental acuity or maturity to be successful.” Potential officers need to be evaluated for employment on a “case by case basis,” said Pridgen, who is the chief in Seaside, Monterey County.

Requiring college-educated officers who view the world in nuanced ways would advance law enforcement as a profession, said James Binnall, a California State University Long Beach criminal justice professor who created a Critical Justice Committee at Long Beach following Floyd’s killing to improve criminal justice curriculums.

Binnall brings a unique perspective to his work: He spent four years in Pennsylvania prisons for being at the wheel in a 1999 DWI crash that killed his best friend.

“I’ve seen the system from both sides,” he said, a message he gives students, telling them “the people you are coming in contact with are human beings.”

Binnall’s optimistic that Floyd’s murder will result in American policing becoming more humane.

“I don’t think things are going to go back to the way they were,” he said. Some of the changes we are seeing right now are going to stick and become part of criminal justice curricula going forward.”

At Yuba College’s academy, 36 fledgling officers who graduated on April 27 seem to have gotten the message. Each class picks a motto, usually a military-type slogan like “iron forges iron,” academy director Vizzusi said. This year’s motto: “Be The Change.”

EdSource reporter Louis Freedberg contributed to this story.

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  1. Thomas Bertelsen 2 months ago2 months ago

    I found my real father was LAPD, had a college degree, it’s Two Tier now. The city is fallen. His son, my half brother became one of its victims. At 18 he killed a man with the last name Vu. They were targeting jewelry stores and people known to do a cash business. He is seven years younger than me, I can’t imagine the places when he came through. He is miracle in the end. … Read More

    I found my real father was LAPD, had a college degree, it’s Two Tier now. The city is fallen. His son, my half brother became one of its victims. At 18 he killed a man with the last name Vu. They were targeting jewelry stores and people known to do a cash business. He is seven years younger than me, I can’t imagine the places when he came through.

    He is miracle in the end. Not only surviving 30 years in the CDC but reforming himself, first by beating heroin on his own, now he teaches prisoners and runs groups inside prison while still a prisoner himself, but he is “free.” I know this because I never knew the kid who would think it’s ok to do these things. Ultimately it is Evil that wins. Everyone else loses.

    I hope they will parole him someday despite being given LWOP at 18. He can be an asset on the outside, he is smart, good athlete. As a young man LA sucked him in. Growing up the television desensitized people to violence. We should be worried as today’s content is deadly.

  2. Brenda Lebsack 4 months ago4 months ago

    Mr Vu, before I was a teacher, I was a Peace Officer for the Orange County Probation Department. I'm sure you're aware that, as of right now, 76,000 violent criminals are being released from California prisons. Additionally, Sen Weiner is trying to pass a bill to decriminalize the use of psychedelic drugs. Drug abuse increases crime. While our communities are becoming increasingly unsafe (thanks to our woke politicians) our law enforcers are being … Read More

    Mr Vu, before I was a teacher, I was a Peace Officer for the Orange County Probation Department. I’m sure you’re aware that, as of right now, 76,000 violent criminals are being released from California prisons. Additionally, Sen Weiner is trying to pass a bill to decriminalize the use of psychedelic drugs. Drug abuse increases crime. While our communities are becoming increasingly unsafe (thanks to our woke politicians) our law enforcers are being trained to check their implicit bias before reacting in a life or death situation. Do you think your trainings at Golden West College are going to save lives or cost lives?

    Replies

    • Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

      Unfortunately, it is still open season on our Black brothers and sisters. It has been this way for over 40 years. Police training is not sufficient. We must institute very strong accountability for police including the ending of Limited Liability for police actions that include murder. It is not a safe world for our Black brothers and sisters. It is most certainly time for powerful and entitled whites to wake up recognize our racist proclivities and … Read More

      Unfortunately, it is still open season on our Black brothers and sisters. It has been this way for over 40 years. Police training is not sufficient. We must institute very strong accountability for police including the ending of Limited Liability for police actions that include murder.

      It is not a safe world for our Black brothers and sisters. It is most certainly time for powerful and entitled whites to wake up recognize our racist proclivities and to act to end racism in all sectors of our society not only criminal justice.

  3. Brenda lebsack 4 months ago4 months ago

    As a teacher, I am very sad how the media has stereotyped and demonized our police force nationwide. Some of the best people I know are police officers and they put their lives at risk to keep our cities safe. Yes, changes are needed, but changes are also needed in the teaching profession. In 2018 one large urban school district (in Chicago) indicated there were 900 cases of sexual abuse and misconduct reported during … Read More

    As a teacher, I am very sad how the media has stereotyped and demonized our police force nationwide. Some of the best people I know are police officers and they put their lives at risk to keep our cities safe.

    Yes, changes are needed, but changes are also needed in the teaching profession. In 2018 one large urban school district (in Chicago) indicated there were 900 cases of sexual abuse and misconduct reported during a three month period, an overwhelming amount involved school personnel.

    I wonder what would happen if videos of sexual abuse by school authority figures were played over and over again on mass media? How would it affect the perception of teachers? Would the teaching profession be viewed with contempt and shame, stereotyped as children abusers? I had my own negative personal experience as a young teen girl in public school by a male teacher. Even with this horrible experience, I do not stereotype all male teachers as exploitive perverts. In the same way, police officers do not deserve this overgeneralization of being racist killers, as the media would have us believe.

    If the media is going to do this to one profession, then beware, no profession or people groups are exempt from their powerful influence over public perception.

    Replies

  4. Teri Filley 4 months ago4 months ago

    It sounds to me as if Timothy Vu has had an extra large drink of Kool-Aid. Where is the data to support these absurd recommendations? Sorry, but the data doesn't support the narrative and buying into this garbage is ridiculous. Just look at the cities that have "defunded" police. Their crime rates are soaring. I don't know why anyone in their right mind would go into law enforcement now. … Read More

    It sounds to me as if Timothy Vu has had an extra large drink of Kool-Aid. Where is the data to support these absurd recommendations? Sorry, but the data doesn’t support the narrative and buying into this garbage is ridiculous. Just look at the cities that have “defunded” police. Their crime rates are soaring. I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would go into law enforcement now. We should prepared for some real problems with the candidates law enforcement will not recruit.

  5. Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

    The criminal justice system is fundamentally racist. No amount of training will change a racist culture. Cops intimidate and kill and intimidate people of color because they can. Whites like that people of color know their noblesse oblige and of course tolerate the racist actions of police to protect their white entitlement and hold people of color down. It has been this way for 400 years. Technical training fixes will never address this fundamental racist … Read More

    The criminal justice system is fundamentally racist. No amount of training will change a racist culture.

    Cops intimidate and kill and intimidate people of color because they can.

    Whites like that people of color know their noblesse oblige and of course tolerate the racist actions of police to protect their white entitlement and hold people of color down.

    It has been this way for 400 years. Technical training fixes will never address this fundamental racist culture. A fundamental paradigm shift is required and that is not going to happen any time soon in a society where racism thrives in all sectors.

    Replies

    • BR 4 months ago4 months ago

      Just to clarify, Dr. Conrad, are you saying that any system that is inherently racist is incapable of shifting to being anti-racist and therefore must be abolished (not that you explicitly stated this, but it is alluded to)? I experience some cognitive dissonance with this idea because, if that is the case, then every system in the US would therefore be incapable of shifting to being anti-racist because, as we know from US History, … Read More

      Just to clarify, Dr. Conrad, are you saying that any system that is inherently racist is incapable of shifting to being anti-racist and therefore must be abolished (not that you explicitly stated this, but it is alluded to)? I experience some cognitive dissonance with this idea because, if that is the case, then every system in the US would therefore be incapable of shifting to being anti-racist because, as we know from US History, all systems in the US have racist roots (education, healthcare, etc.).

      • Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

        In order for a system to transform itself, it must first recognize the root cause problem. The major sectors of American society have not as yet recognized the root cause problem of racism. I worked in education for over 45 years, and this sector of society still treats racism as a special case phenomenon. Education has moved beyond racism and lives in a fantasy world of a post-racist world where a colorblind approach to … Read More

        In order for a system to transform itself, it must first recognize the root cause problem.

        The major sectors of American society have not as yet recognized the root cause problem of racism. I worked in education for over 45 years, and this sector of society still treats racism as a special case phenomenon. Education has moved beyond racism and lives in a fantasy world of a post-racist world where a colorblind approach to teaching and learning will alleviate any vestiges of racism within the system.

        You can find a different viewpoint in my book called the Fog of Education. I suggest that you read it. I can send you a free e-copy if you cannot afford the $5 Kindle fee.

        Our entitled and powerful white culture is tired of dealing with racism and rejects Critical Race Theory as a flawed view. Whites believe that the colorblind approach suffices to deal with the “vestiges” of racism within our society.

        Whites believe that it is only a few bad apple cops who treat people of color brutally. They do not believe it is a system problem. In reality, it is a system problem though.

        I believe that it is time to give up the notion that we can become an integrated society. Trump opened the racism Pandora’s box and we learned that about 1/2 the country is seriously racist.

        People of color will need to strongly advocate for solutions that they feel will work for them. They can no longer depend on a powerful and entitled white elite to come to their aid any time soon. They have been waiting for 400 years under brutal oppression.

        It is time that they work to save themselves sadly.

        Whites had better listen and become allies not hegemonic prevaricators.

        • Michelle Montero 4 months ago4 months ago

          In response to your “Whites had better listen and become allies, not hegemonic prevaricators.”
          I guess some whites will take this ever so dramatic rhetoric, and run with it.
          Some of us whites will simply leave it. But then again, I’m also Puerto Rican, so….
          Good day to you.