No Experience, No Problem

In Arkansas and Indiana, you can become a police officer without any formal training.

Two gang and narcotics police officers.
It’s disturbing that police departments can grant people arrest powers, and arm them with guns, without putting them through the proper training first.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

On the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2012, a white police officer in the town of Alexander, Arkansas, shot and killed a 30-year-old black man named Carleton Wallace. The officer, Nancy Cummings, told investigators she had detained Wallace after noticing a pistol tucked in his waistband, which he threw into a wooded area upon seeing her. According to Cummings’ account, it was while she was patting Wallace down that her service weapon accidentally discharged and struck him in the back. Wallace was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Cummings, who was placed on administrative leave from the department and charged with manslaughter in connection with the incident, had joined the Alexander police force about eight months earlier. But as Alexander’s then-police chief admitted in an interview the week after Wallace’s death, Cummings had not yet received any training or certification from the state. She was not scheduled to attend the police academy until the following year.

How could the Alexander Police Department employ an officer who had not yet gone through any of the state-mandated training? Because according to Arkansas state law, it’s perfectly legal to do so. Specifically, said Brian Marshall, the deputy director of the Office of Law Enforcement Standards, Arkansas law states that a person can work as a police officer for up to nine months—with the possibility of a three-month extension in extraordinary circumstances—before she is required to complete the state’s three-month training course. And as long as the new recruit passes a 50-round firearms qualification test—that means hitting a target 80 percent of the time from 25 yards away—the department can legally arm her with a gun.

According to Marshall, the law was even more lenient until recently: Prior to a change in regulations last year, newly hired officers could go as long as 20 months before being certified, and they did not have to pass a firearm qualifications test prior to entering the academy in order to carry a weapon. 

Arkansas is not the only state in the country with such a policy. Indiana has a similar law, David Younce of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy told me: New officers must complete training and receive certification from the state before their first anniversary on the job. In order to carry a weapon they must pass a firearms qualification test similar to the one in Arkansas.   

The fact that it’s possible for police departments to grant people arrest powers, and arm them with guns, without putting them through the proper training first is especially disturbing at a time when the nation has been gripped by one high-profile officer-involved shooting after another. That includes an April incident in Tulsa, Oklahoma, involving an insurance executive who was working as a reserve sheriff’s deputy when he killed an unarmed man by reaching for his gun instead of his Taser, an act he’s described as a mistake. That case brought national attention to the widespread practice of law enforcement agencies allowing civilians with an interest in policing to volunteer as reserve deputies, often in exchange for donations. But at least reserve deputies are typically required to train for a certain number of hours before they’re put on the street. In Arkansas and Indiana, the law leaves open the possibility of people serving as actual—not volunteer—police officers for significant periods of time before they go through academy training and are taught how to do the job.

Fred Weatherspoon, the deputy director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, said the reasoning behind the Arkansas law has to do with logistics. Sometimes police departments need to hire someone quickly, he said, either because an officer has retired, or died unexpectedly. The timing of a job opening doesn’t necessarily line up with the prescheduled academy classes that are offered by the state.

“For instance, we got a class that started this past Sunday,” Weatherspoon told me. “If an applicant was not able to make it through their hiring selection in time to attend this academy, then through no fault of that agency or that officer … they wouldn’t be able to attend the academy until probably four, maybe five months later.”

Nancy Cummings, who left the Alexander police force after being charged, was found not guilty by a jury in October 2013. She is currently being sued in civil court by the Wallace family. A lawyer for Cummings, John Wilkerson, told me his client’s lack of training is not relevant to the case.

“She was put out on the streets per Arkansas law,” Wilkerson said. “I don’t want to speak for the plaintiffs too much, but from their perspective she wasn’t trained to go into the streets at all … but it’s irrelevant in that state law allowed her to be out there.” (I reached out to lawyers for the Wallace family but didn’t hear back.)

According to Wilkerson, the law is primarily designed to benefit small police departments, which he said have an especially difficult time with staffing.

“You get these rural departments, and they’re scrambling for manpower, so they do the best they can,” he said. “Police officers aren’t easy to come by. … You sort of get what you can get” and train them whenever you get the chance.

Sometimes the delay in training is the result of all the slots in the police academy being booked. “Our next class starts in July,” said Younce in Indiana. “It’s capped out at 150, and we have people on a waiting list, so some agencies have to wait a little bit before they can get their people in here. And that ends up being something [the officers] have to work through.”

A comprehensive picture of law enforcement hiring practices in all 50 states is hard to come by, so it’s unclear how widespread policies like those in Arkansas and Indiana are. If you know of another state where people can work as police officers before they’ve received training and state certification, email me and I’ll update this post.

As we’ve been reminded too often of late, even when police do receive training in the proper use of deadly force, they don’t always apply that training in the field. In light of that, it’s sobering to think that there are states where police officers can spend up to a year on the job without first receiving instruction in the life-and-death work of law enforcement.