The new Minneapolis police academy class will go on as planned, but most in-service training for officers has been canceled for at least the next two months out of fears of spreading COVID-19, department officials said.
Social distancing requirements have forced some changes in how academy recruits are trained, including banning both formation runs and the use of dummies to practice defensive techniques. The changes highlight the ways the pandemic is reshaping policing all over the country, police spokesman John Elder said.
"During these times, we are working to keep all aspects of the Minneapolis Police Department fully functional," he added.
While acknowledging that certain types of exercises are being put on hold, Elder said that officers still receive enough training for their jobs. State officials have pushed back the deadline for meeting minimum training requirements to next January, citing the uncertainty around the pandemic.
"Whereas this training is modified from previous years, we certainly feel that this training is very good," Elder said. "This continues to be proven in skills assessments in each block of training."
Despite COVID-19 fears, the current recruit academy class will graduate in June. But Cmdr. Katie Blackwell, who runs the department's training unit, said that extra precautions were taken to block transmission of the virus before the 30 recruits get ready to hit the streets.
Classes were moved to a large gym at the department's training facility in north Minneapolis, with recruits sitting at desks spaced 6 feet apart and instructors using microphones to be heard.
Recruits also are observing social distancing at the firing range and during physical training, Blackwell wrote in an e-mail: "No formation running, spaced out for sprints, no [physical training] that would require handing off equipment to one another."
The department so far has had only three confirmed cases, along with an unspecified number of employees who went into self-quarantine after possibly being exposed to the virus.
Part of the reason the department hasn't been hit as hard as other places, officials said, is because Minneapolis was already dusting off playbooks from past outbreaks by the time COVID-19 arrived locally in March.
The department convened an internal task force to guide its response and put out a series of slickly produced videos showing officers the proper way to put on masks and disinfect their squad cars before and after every shift. It also recently started screening all employees for symptoms as they report for work.
Some mandatory training is still going on, but it has been adapted to reduce exposure.
Blackwell said that for officers receiving instruction on using a Taser, class sizes are being kept smaller to give people plenty of room to spread out. The same is true of the rifle qualifying course, which also will limit the number of officers when those classes start later this month, she said. Both courses are required for officers and recruits alike.
Refresher courses for defensive tactics — which include elements of martial arts disciplines like judo, hapkido and jujitsu — have been pushed back until the fall. Crisis intervention training, which shows officers how to deal with mentally ill people through classroom lectures and mock scenarios, will pick up in August. When it does, officers will be wearing masks and following social distancing rules.
All nonmandatory training has been canceled until July, and officials have suspended any training-related travel unless "it is required for mandatory certification," the deadlines for which have been generally pushed back until the fall.
The academy graduation, which was expected to draw anywhere from 600 to 700 family members and friends, now will be closed to the public. The ceremony will instead be livestreamed, with the graduates spaced apart in a large room, officials said.
Erik Misselt, interim executive director of the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, which licenses law enforcement officers in the state, said that Minnesota peace officers must earn 48 continuing education credits every three years to maintain their licenses. The annual deadline always falls in June — or it did until Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order extending this year's deadline to Jan. 1 for officers as well as firefighters and nurses.
"So basically it gave the departments an extra six months to meet their educational requirements and renew their licenses," Misselt said.
Robert Taylor, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former cop in Portland, Ore., said the majority of local police departments across the country have cut back on in-service training and some are canceling academy classes because of the pandemic. As a result, he said, many places are "at a standstill in training and recruiting."
And while some departments have already gone to remote learning for certain disciplines, some things like firearms handling, driving techniques and defensive tactics can't be taught from afar, he said.
"That has to be face to face," he said.