Monday, May 09, 2022

Who's training your police? Some private trainers push extremist agenda in lessons, and states regulate them little

Some private police trainers have extremist political beliefs that color their lessons to local law enforcement across the country, but the lightly regulated industry hasn't done much to discourage it and states don't often have the bandwidth to do it, says an in-depth analysis by Reuters.

"Private trainers work in an unregulated industry that largely has evaded the heightened scrutiny of U.S. policing in recent years in the wake of high-profile police killings of civilians," Julia Harte and Alexandra Ulmer report. "Trainers like those identified by Reuters, a half dozen police-training specialists say, highlight a lack of standards and oversight that allows instruction that can often exaggerate the threats that officers face, making them more likely to respond with excessive force in stressful situations."

The story highlights Idaho-based instructor Ron Whitehead as an example of instructors with far right-wing beliefs. He began training officers in 1995, during his 25-year career in the Travis County Sheriff's Department in Texas. In the past few years on social media, "He has called for public executions of government officials he sees as disloyal to former President Donald Trump," Harte and Ulmer report. "In a post in 2020, he urged law enforcement officers to disobey Covid-19 public-health orders from 'tyrannical governors,' adding: 'We are on the brink of civil war'." Whitehead, who has taught at least 560 law enforcement officers in the past four years, also openly supports far-right anti-government groups the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, and follows the constitutional sheriff philosophy, which says sheriffs are the ultimate authority and should ignore any law they deem unconstitutional.

Whitehead "is part of a trend in pushing a radical-right political agenda to American police forces," Harte and Ulmer report. "He’s one of five police trainers identified by Reuters whose political commentary on social media has echoed extremist opinions or who have public ties to far-right figures. They work for one or more of 35 training firms that advertised at least 10 police or public-safety training sessions in 2021, according to a Reuters analysis of scheduling data from, the main site where local departments connect with trainers. The news organization also reviewed materials describing classes by specific training companies."

Whitehead and the other four trainers told Reuters their beliefs aren't extreme, and said social-media posts encouraging the overthrow of the government weren't meant to be taken seriously. They said they keep their personal politics separate from their lesson plans. However, Whitehead has frequently used racist and misogynistic material in his lessons, including one where he called a turbaned police officer a "towel head" and another in which he "teaches officers not to trust sexual-assault claimants if they use the word 'we' in referring to themselves and their assailant," Harte and Ulmer report.

Private law-enforcement trainers operate in a system with little oversight. Police academies in the U.S. often provide far less training for beginners than those in other countries, so police and sheriff's departments often pay private trainers to come in. Officers can also pay for the courses on their own to satisfy professional development requirements. State regulatory bodies set broad requirements for law-enforcement training but "have little power in most states to influence course content or set standards for private police trainers, in part due to budget constraints, Harte and Ulmer report.

Many community leaders don't realize that their own officers have been trained by Whitehead or those like him. The sheriff in Spokane County, Washington, criticized Whitehead during his campaign, but didn't realize until Reuters contacted him that his department had hired Whitehead to run 15 deputy trainings since 2015, Harte and Ulmer report.

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