Training Police For Counterterrorism

How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam – Meg Stalcup and Joshua Craze.

Patrol officers should be cautious of the  counter-terrorism training they are exposed to. The article “How We Train Our Cops to Fear Islam” from The Washington Monthly, provides insight into how poor training makes it through the cracks.

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Meg Stalcup, is an anthropologist and writer at University of Washington. In the linked piece above, Meg and her colleague, Joshua Craze, expose the poor quality of the counterterrorism training that is available to local, state, and federal law enforcement.  While the article focuses on one trainer, in particular, Sam Kharoba, this subject is primarily used as an illustrative metaphor of a sociological story about how institutions come to make and recognize experts. In summary the problem is that persons with no prior law enforcement background, no direct background in counterterrorism practices (e.g. as operators, in intelligence, in analysis, etc.)  and no scientific credentials on the topics are able to  teach thousands of law enforcement officers questionable practices and provide dubious knowledge about terrorists and the Muslims.

The sociological take away is that there are few boundaries of entry to into the field of counterterrorism training. To legitimate counterterrorism practices and training requires little effort other than good marketing and charismatic presentations to police and federal agents. Best practices and  rigorous research into counterterrorist training, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) do not apear to be requirements for the acceptance of counterterrorism TTPs.

Further, it is difficult for Law Enforcement Agencies (LE) to determine whether or not someone is qualified to conduct training. So long as a trainer can successfully claim to be an expert to at least one LE, then it become difficult for other LE to discriminate the actual qualifications of the trainer. This is especially so if a trainer is picked up on the training circuit by any one of the many state and federal intelligence or narcotics task forces. More insidiously, the Anti-Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB), that claims to consecrate training as rigorous and accurate, is not a federally constituted organization nor are its practices vetted by organizations like the FBI, FLETC, or other Federal LE for scientific credibility.

Other gatekeepers, like the rigorous California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, provide some protection to the LE community but do not have the ability to dig deep into training practices themselves to vet them for quality and effectiveness. Meg writes:

Another theoretical gatekeeper to the world of training is at the state level. In many states, entities called Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) boards determine what should be taught both in basic training and in continuing education courses. However, POST approval does not entail evaluation of the content of each course. If an instructor submits a syllabus that lists appropriate topics and concepts, teaching accurate course content is that instructor’s job. Approval of the instructor, in turn, is usually done on the basis of a resume.”

More salient for those who do care about the rigor and validity of training practices is the fact that increasingly, training is provided free to LE through federally funded organizations like the HIDTAs (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Task Force). I, like many peace officers I know, are huge fans of the the HIDTA trainings we are able to attend for free in order to receive high quality training. However, as Meg points out, organizations that accept free training have to be careful in how they respond to poor training. The training organizations that provide free training, like the HIDTAs, often can refuse to have a questionable training take place, but complaining about or reporting bad training and trainers to the originating institution may be seen as risky. For example, to report bad training from another organization or task force is concievably tantamount to an insult to the organization that accepted poor quality training. So in order to continue being able to receive free training from sources around the U.S., organizations like the HIDTAs may have to tolerate poor training and unqualified instructors.

So what can the cop on the beat, who eagerly is seeking further free training to enhance his or her professionalism, especially during the recession,  do? My suggestion is to always do a quick web search of instructors for the courses you are interested in attending. While no guarantee, I tend to find that instructors with extensive law enforcement backgrounds are more reliable than those with none. Further, if the instructor has a degree, investigate whether or not the degree comes from an accredited university or college. Moreover, investigate the quality of that institution of higher education. The better the university the more likely that the instructor will have been held to higher standards of accountability for research originating during their advanced studies. Look to see if the instructor has published. Ask, “where did they publish?” You want instructors, especially those teaching on difficult topics like Islam, politics, etc. to truly be subject matter experts, and they should be publishing in peer-reviewed journals and demonstrating a thorough mastery of their knowledge through extensive references from other credible sources. None of this is a guarantee but it helps the individual officer determine whether training content and instructors are worth your precious time.

Be safe!

2 Comments on “Training Police For Counterterrorism

  1. Thank you for the review of our article. I’d like to make one clarification regarding the free trainings provided by federal funds. I think institutions such as the HIDTAs have no problem refusing bad trainings, by simply not selecting them to be offered locally. One place we highlighted in the article complained about a training via back channels, and NPR also reported that the deputy chief of the division of police in Columbus, Ohio stopped a training midway because it was “not accurate”. What both these examples point to is actually how difficult it is to know which trainers are unqualified ahead of time. I think the suggestions you offer officers about choosing courses are on the money. I also think states have a responsibility to set meaningful accreditation standards so that all your options are of reasonably good quality.

    • Thanks for your feedback. I have modified the feed to be more accurate. However, I do think the economics of police training is crucial and under reported. Mostly the underfunding of training is spoken about in terms of effects directly on officers and street level performance. But under funding of training also changes the dynamics of the realtionships between law enforcement institutions and, in terms of the ecology of policing, this is important.

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