What does police training look like in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

“I think that we should give police officers the tools and the opportunities to develop skill sets to help them deal with anybody in the community; different culture, different sex; giving them that knowledge and that confidence, that helps.” - Victor Ledbetter, Director of Kalamazoo Valley's Law Enforcement Training Center

The police have been the subject of public scrutiny since George Floyd was killed on May 25 at the hands of former officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, ideas on  what needs to be done with the police force have been varied: increase officer pay, defund the police, demilitarize the police, and even dissolve the force entirely. 

These ideas range from subtle to fairly radical, but one topic that keeps coming up time and time again is police training. If the public never wants to see another Derek Chauvin patrolling the streets then cultural competency training, racial bias training, and de-escalation tactics should be central to standard police training. However, no standard police training exists nationwide. Instead, requirements differ from state to state. Police training in Michigan is regulated by the Michigan Commission of Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES).


How do you become a cop in Michigan?


In Michigan, 594 hours of training are required to become a police officer. Before this training can begin, a cadet needs to meet the requirements to get into a police academy. A potential cadet needs to have at least an associates degree, or receive one by the time they graduate from the academy. Note, the education requirement is waived if a cadet has previous experience as a military police officer with arrest powers for at least 2086 hours. Two pre-enrollments tests are also required before being admitted: a reading and writing examination, and a physical fitness test

The law also requires that all law enforcement officials must be citizens of the United States, be over 18, have no prior felonies, have good moral character (as determined by a comprehensive background check), and be free of any physical defect and chronic diseases.  

If a cadet meets all state requirements and passes both tests, they may attend one of the 20 approved training academies in Michigan. As stated above, 594 hours are required specifically by the MCOLES at all police academies. Individual academies can add their own courses and hours in addition to the state requirements. The MCOLES break down how each and every hour is spent in the Basic Training Curriculum and Training Objectives Manual, but more broadly speaking the breakdown is as follows: administrative time, 31 hours; investigation 115 hours; patrol procedures, 65 hours; detention and prosecution, 15 hours; police skills, 265 hours; traffic, 70 hours; and special operations, 33 hours. 

From firearms to constitutional law, cadets must show their aptitude in all of these subjects through regular testing. Cadets must receive passing scores in performance exams for skills like fire arms, subject control, and first aid. Written examinations are given for every skills area as well. Cadets must earn a 70 percent or better on each of these exams. 

The final step in the process is to take a licensing exam given by MCOLES. This exam covers everything learned in basic training. Each cadet is given two chances to pass this exam. 


Kalamazoo Valley Law Enforcement Training Center Police Academy

Cadets are required by the Michigan Commission of Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) to have 25 hours of training in the “Ethics of Policing and Interpersonal Relations.” More specifically, eight of those hours are focused on cultural competency and sexual harassment. Individual police academies in Michigan have the power to add more hours of training into their curriculum, including time spent on cultural competency. Out of the 20 academies in the state of Michigan, only the Kalamazoo Valley Law Enforcement Training Center Police Academy has chosen to teach diversity with a large degree of hands-on participation from the community. 

In addition to the 594 hours of training required statewide, the Kalamazoo Valley Police Academy, directed by Victor Ledbetter, offers 136 more hours of training; a total of 730. Many of these extra hours come from what Ledbetter calls, “Diversity Week.”  At the start of the curriculum, a week is spent on topics designed to immerse cadets in diversity. Topics like LGBTQ awareness, autism awareness, cultural awareness, implicit bias training, and more are covered throughout the week.

“I realize that a lot of the candidates that we choose don’t have a lot of culture or diversity in their lives; not a lot of life experiences,” Ledbetter said. “Some people had never had any experiences with people outside their own race” 

Through this training, Ledbetter hopes that cadets will be able to build relationships with people in the community that come from different cultural backgrounds. Relationships are the key to better policing, says Ledbetter: “When you have relationships with people, you deal with people differently.” To build stronger community ties, Ledbetter has cadets participate in healing circles, led by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation team. The activity invites diverse members of the community and cadets to open up about their life experiences in a safe environment. For many white cadets, this is their first experience being a minority in the room, Ledbetter said.

The goal is for the conversations to not stop there. Ideally, cadets will build connections that last long after the activity is done to keep having these conversations while they are active in the field. 

Diversity week is not the only way the cadets are taught cultural competency. Being a Black man, Ledbetter brings his cultural background and life experiences to everything he does. Ledbetter says he gives his cadets an advantage since he sees everything through the lense of a Black man, and a police officer.

“I open myself up to them and they can ask me any questions concerning Black men and my culture, and I will give them honest answers,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter has not seen any other police academy in Michigan, or in the nation, teach diversity in the way his program does; by building relationships. This is not a surprise, since requirements for basic police training range widely from state to state. Some states, like Alaska, Idaho, Vermont and Tennessee, require field training hours while most states don’t. Hawaii doesn’t require law enforcement to receive training of any kind, according to the Institute of Criminal Justice Training Reform. Ledbetter would like to see this change, with the introduction of national policing standards. 

“I think policing done in Kalamazoo, Michigan should be the same policing that is done in Seattle, Washington, Hawaii or anywhere,” Ledbetter said.  

Diversity training needs to be part of these national standards. This diversity training should encourage officers to build relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, like the TRHT healing circles. To be truly effective, however, diversity training also needs to be reality based, says Ledbetter. Training should give officers practical experience communicating with people from different backgrounds, which they can apply directly to the field. 

“I think that we should give police officers the tools and the opportunities to develop skill sets to help them deal with anybody in the community; different culture, different sex; giving them that knowledge and that confidence, that helps,” Ledbetter said. 

At the end of May, public approval for the police force dove by 10 percent in a single week, according to a survey conducted by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape. It is only by renewing their dedication in diversity training, and by building relationships in the community, that the police force will begin to win back the broken trust of the community, said Ledbetter. 

Recent events make it unclear whether a reconciliation between the police and the public is possible. The entire world has seen the death of George Floyd at the hands of former Officer Derek Chauvin on video, and more recently footage of officers deploying tear gas on protesters. Some wonder if de-escalation and diversity training are enough to fix the problems they have witnessed with their own eyes. Still, Ledbetter encourages the public to look past the uniform; not to give their forgiveness, but to just give them the opportunity to prove themselves. 

“A lot of people have distrust of the police, and you can’t argue that, you can’t argue with people’s experience,” Ledbetter said. “But what I would tell people is that you do have people in the law enforcement profession who are caring, people who do want to develop relationships, who really take this job seriously and they want to make a difference, they want to serve. And I think people need to give people an opportunity to prove themselves.”

Pro-life vs. pro-choice, NRA supporters vs. gun control activists, mask-wearers vs. anti-maskers; when these groups clash at protests and demonstrations cops are always in the middle to separate the two. When the public is protesting the police, there is no one to stand in the middle. The polarizing nature of this issue makes standing in the middle to support both sides, seem impossible. Many activists say you can’t support the Black Lives Matter movement and the police at the same time. Ledbetter, who calls himself both Black and blue, would disagree. 


What would you like to see in police training and from your police officers in your community? Contact Public Media Network to learn how you can share your voice with the community.