Police Officer Training | 4-Part Series

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Do We Train to Assure Officer Success… 

or to “Check the Box?”

Part 1 of 4

The average U.S. law enforcement department spends approximately one hundred thousand dollars, from application to academy graduation, preparing officers for the multiple demands they will face on a daily basis while working the street.  They must know everything from Constitutional law to regulation violations; safe vehicle operation to communication and persuasion with an emotionally distraught individual; effective decision-making in time-compressed situations to the complete and accurate documentation of everything that occurred in an emotionally-charged altercation with multiple people; and effectively employing force, from arrest and control techniques to the use of deadly force.  Obviously, the above only involves a fraction of the knowledge, skills, and abilities an officer must master over a lifetime in law enforcement.

Academy training is the most expensive and most important aspect of this preparation process.   It is vital then in this era of evidence-based policing that we ask the question, “How successful is the education and training provided to professionally prepare officers for the challenges they will eventually encounter?”  How many officers have been in situations where they couldn’t recall the proper words to use or actions to take to resolve a situation?  How many feel confident or actually know that they could correctly employ all of the arrest and control techniques they learned in the academy?  How many feel that if they had a better grasp of these techniques, they could have possibly ended a difficult situation differently?  If the answers to any of these questions make the officers realize that they did not retain the training or techniques that would later be so necessary to help in the field, they are not alone.  In fact, a recent study completed by the Force Science Institute has uncovered a wealth of information as to why pre-service training, despite the best intentions of those providing it, may have failed the officers when they needed it most.

Police Training Lnowledge

Fundamentally, everything including academy training can be evaluated by its intentionality or purpose.

Is it designed to build the professional skills of officers that will be used and developed throughout their career? Is it provided because it is mandated by law or regulation, and therefore inoculates the department against liability related concerns? Is it to build professional awareness and analysis, maturity and judgement? What is the real purpose of the instruction provided in an academy?

Does the process by which the training is provided assist the academy in fulfilling its purpose?  Is it delivered in a fashion that allows the academy to “check the box,” or is it in a fashion that ensures professional functionality in a variety of skills, judgment, and even wisdom, or is it somewhere in between?

After decades of research and dozens of research projects and scientific journals and professional publications, Force Science is turning its attention to its primary, founding purpose.


This is the introduction to a series of articles on the implications of Force Science Institute’s research on an evidence-based assessment of pre-service and in-service training as it relates to the human performance elements of force by a trained law enforcement professional.  The focus of the Force Science Institute has been to conduct research to establish a scientific foundation for the behavioral science elements of human performance in high stress situations, including the requisite training for great decision making and performance.  Initially, FSI’s research involved video analysis of motion dynamics and the speed of assault. Now, decades later, FSI continues to conduct threat analysis using high-speed digital video-analysis studies as well as incorporating accelerometers and gyroscopes on the bodies and limbs of the research subjects acting as assailants. The results, not surprisingly, continue to inform us that assaults can occur very quickly and often without definitive pre-attack cues.  These studies have led to even more intriguing studies on how to prepare officers for effectively coping with these now well-defined and measured threats.

Studies Show Consistent Results

This research, and the studies conducted by Pinizzotto, Davis, Miller and others on the assailants’ analysis of officers and their tactics, informs us that officers must be better trained.  This means not just well trained tactically on force elements. They need to possess a full range of clinical skills from a variety of professions. This includes the ability to read and influence people and situations, engage in the strategic assessment of resources and challenges, as well as possess great clinical judgment.  Considering that two-thirds of the officers graduating from a U.S. law enforcement academy will not have a semblance of a supporting Field Training Program, this content must then be delivered in pre-service training.

This FSI series will report on the decades-long studies of the Force Science Institute on the training that is intended to develop these clinical skills.  It will do so in a four-part series starting with the problems FSI has identified and ending with principles and training techniques that FSI has measured and found effective in time and fiscally constrained training environments.

Behavior Analysis in Practice

The first FSI study was conducted as a comparative analysis of force training in three countries.  The latest study published this month in the scientific journal Behavior Analysis in Practice involved three years of study on force training in three state academies and the analysis of 10,000 videos taken on participants to document the acquisition, retention, and perishability of the police recruits’ skills. 

New Research Validates Previous Conclusions

Unfortunately, this research informs us that officers might not be as well prepared as they need to be as was previously thought. Regardless of the commitment and passion of the instructors, it appears that time, cost, traditional training delivery methods, and shortages of training personnel are so restrictive that they compromise the suitability and sufficiency of current force training. Though this study is groundbreaking in the researcher’s application of scientific methods to determine student learning and the level of skill retention and perishability, it’s not the first to suggest there is a need to improve police training. These studies consistently inform us that the average officer, within months of leaving an academy, will only be able to describe how a given suspect-control technique should be used, but the officer will have little ability to actually apply it effectively in “a dynamic encounter with a defiantly resistant subject.” Even simple skills like baton strikes may be ineffectively delivered in a static environment in as soon as two months after completing the training. Other clinical skills, including communication and decisions skills, taught in the same fashion, appear to deteriorate as rapidly.

These studies highlight that, apart from the content, significant problems exist in the methods of instruction used in many academies, not just in force but across the curriculum and across the models, whether it is in an academy or in a university setting. They also critique the foibles of replacing good training in skills and judgment with well-intentioned but irrelevant instruction.  Further, training police officers for today’s challenges is vastly different than it was decades ago, yet we still use many of the same techniques.  We need to understand how adults learn, elevate the trainer’s role and provide effective methods if we are to meet today’s expectations of serving the public and keeping the peace. 

Next Issue

Our next issue will reveal in-depth results from the first Force Science study on academy instruction.  It was a three-nation intensive study involving curriculum and training methods from multiple training academies.  This was a study on force instruction and examined the content and method of instruction. The fundamental question asked and answered was, “Are we teaching in a fashion that comports to modern instructional methods informed by research on how humans learn the material we are teaching?”  Stay tuned for the answer.  But here’s a hint, succinctly stated, it is a good thing we hire good people, because no professional tries so hard and does so much, with so little.

6 Responses
  1. Good afternoon. As a 25 year law enforcement veteran, former 14 year police academy instructor and current 16 year training consultant to law enforcement to include use of force instructor programs, Advanced firearms training programs, de-escalation training, active shooter training and scenario based training, this article series begins with some many spot on points. On my end and what we see as well is the following variables interfering with better officer results: 1. Accreditation: More focused on policy standards and “on line” training more than effective hands on practical training 2. Firearms use of force training-more time spent “getting the qualifications done over reminding of the important standards and laws that apply such as important case law of “low light” police involved shootings 3. Media- young and old officers taking a lashing from minimal but some times critical acts done by specific officers and the rest of us become labeled and not supported hence “do little as possible and I won’t get in trouble” 4. Cell phones- officers are rarely taught in training the “job comes first when you are at work and not the phone”. We are social media driven and limited FTO’s emphasize this aspect due to “feelings hurt” syndrome. 5. Agency liability of injuries: we see it all the time; “Jose is there a lot of physical portions to your training as we have officers hurt from slipping on ice etc, and we cannot afford to lose another officer to injury” This is just some of many things that lay on the plate that need to be addressed. There is something to be said about the old “hard wire” phones that allowed us to be hard wired in the brain to WANT to learn more. As a former instructor at the academy we went from “wash out the weak ones” meaning those who couldn’t handle a human being yelling at them for a mistaker to: “Jose you have to take it down a notch because we are dealing with more sensitive young people nowadays”. Looking forward to the next series.

  2. WarriorMonk

    Finally research on academy training and why it’s not effective ! Over ten years ago I was doing my own research as a police academy instructor to prove to my chain of command they were failing to train! I had all sorts of amazing data. We need more aggressive combative skills training hand to hand and shooting , and tons of scenario training ongoing throughout a career.

  3. Neil

    Budget, budget, budget . . .

    My experience has been entirely in California law enforcement. My agency at one time saw more regular hands on arrest & control, less lethal force training. That ended and we transitioned to the California POST minimum standard of once every 2 years for updated training. Clearly, that is insufficient to keep officers proficient in these techniques. Smaller agencies, I assume are more susceptible to budgetary constraints.

    Unless people keep up these skills on their own, they’re not going to be as skilled / confident as some would hope. But if they’re training outside in martial arts or the local MMA gym, what techniques are they bringing back and what might be the result in a use of force incident? In policy? Out of policy?

  4. Elondre

    The academy is a process of familiarization. You are a master of nothing at it’s completion and the process of mastery is to complex for the average LEO.

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