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Cop-Turned-Ph.D. Explores Links Between Police Training, Confidence, And Excessive Force

Jeremy Butler of Bloomington is a seven-year veteran of the Illinois State University Police Department who just completed his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.
Jeremy Butler of Bloomington is a seven-year veteran of the Illinois State University Police Department who just completed his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.

Whether you work in an office, drive a forklift or teach kindergarten, the more confident you are in your training, the better you’ll perform. Confidence can make it more likely you’ll try harder or conquer adversity. A lack of confidence can make you skittish and impair decision-making.

It’s the same with police officers.

That’s the underlying theory of Jeremy Butler’s research. Butler, of Bloomington, is a seven-year veteran of the Illinois State University Police Department who just completed his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. His research focuses on the psychological impact of the physical training that officers receive—both as new recruits and while on the job. The thinking is, if departments provided training that better built up officers' confidence in their ability to safely control a suspect physically, that would reduce the likelihood of dangerous excessive force.

“A confident officer who is empathetic and skilled in conflict management, but also prepared to effectively control and subdue somebody when necessary, they’ll rarely need to use force at all,” Butler said. “That’s what’s behind this, to try and get to the point where we don’t have to use a lot of these skills on the physical side, and we can focus in on those verbal skills.”

Calls for reform

The death of George Floyd in police custody has sparked calls for reform in officer training and when force is used. In videos of his death, Floyd is shown repeatedly pleading that he cannot breathe as he is held down with a knee on his neck by a now-former Minneapolis Police officer.

Butler, who also is a trained martial artist, broke his research into two—one part focused on training of academy recruits, another on veteran officers. The veterans told him the two biggest barriers to them getting more training was the cost, and the risk they’ll be injured during the training itself—potentially making it harder to staff their departments. They also discussed the potential need to offer more incentives to officers to remain physically fit.

It’s essential for officers to be well-trained in reasonable control tactics, Butler said, especially if a confrontation turns physical on the ground.

“Officers having more training and control tactics, particularly with controlling a subject on the ground, has strong potential for reducing excessive-force situations,” Butler said. “Because if you have the ability to control a person using technique, you won’t have to resort to some of the other measures that officers have been forced to resort to as a result of them not having those abilities, in the area of excessive force, whether it be strikes or even having to resort to other tools on their belt.”

Butler, who is black, stressed that changes to physical training are just one small part of what's needed to repair relations between police and minority communities.

“It’s not as simple as, ‘Give them more training and we’re good.’ What needs to happen is a collaborative effort, from physical training to addressing social injustice. And I think actual police departments need to be advocates for this change as well,” Butler said. “When we tackle this issue on all angles is when we’re gonna see the change.”

More officers of color

Another part of that equation is hiring more officers of color, like Butler, so that police departments look more like the communities they serve.

Butler had a strained relationship with police as a kid growing up on the south side of Chicago. That grew into resentment as a teenager.

He never considered a job in law enforcement until a conversation with ISU’s police chief, Aaron Woodruff. They discussed the importance of increasing minority involvement in law enforcement. He’s worked for ISU Police since 2013. He teaches both verbal de-escalation and use of force/control tactics on behalf of his department.

Butler said being black influences the type of officer he is, just as anyone’s personal experiences shape the way they behave. Another priority in his life is community involvement. When he’s not working the night shift at ISU, or finishing his Ph.D., or raising his young family, Butler runs a nonprofit martial arts program at Western Avenue Community Center in Bloomington, where he teaches classes for youth and families.

“That (community focus) has carried over into my job. I’m definitely a more community policing-oriented officer in my approach to the job. That’s had a lot to do with my experiences with law enforcement from my childhood. When I became a cop, I said I want to be the type of officer I wish I would’ve seen in those areas I grew up in on the south side of Chicago,” Butler said.

After finishing his Ph.D. in kinesiology, Butler will now transition into academia. He's accepted an assistant professor position in Elgin. He wants to conduct research and advocate for training reform in the area of control tactics and physical conditioning.

“We have to build relationships with people in the community and gain their trust, because there is a lack of trust in law enforcement in a lot of these communities,” Butler said.

An excerpt of WGLT's interview with Butler.

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Ryan Denham started his career as a copy editor and later business and city government reporter at The Pantagraph in 2006. He later worked for WJBC radio in Bloomington. He now works in website development for Illinois State University and is a freelance reporter for WGLT.