Policing is partly characterized by the specialized knowledge and practice that it brings to problem-solving, conflict resolution, and risk management. Policing borrows extensively from other disciplines, including law, psychology, social work, medicine, and motor learning. Maintaining possession of this specialized and integrated body of knowledge is challenging and requires the police to engage in extended practical instruction and frequent in-service training. Are we doing enough to prepare officers to meet this challenge?
Teaching Clinical Skills
To apply expert knowledge and skills in real-world (clinical) settings, the police must be proficient in varied and often changing situations. Like other clinical practices, policing involves the 1) expert assessment of relevant information within an incident; 2) evaluation or diagnosis of that information (clinical reasoning); and 3) the implementation of a prescription (response, treatment, solution, or referral).
Developing the expertise required to accurately assess, diagnose, and prescribe solutions in real-world settings first requires the effective transmission of relevant knowledge and skills. Sophisticated, integrated, and interdisciplinary training is critical to ensure that police can obtain, retain, and ultimately implement the required knowledge and skills. To reach the high standards that agencies and communities expect of their officers, it may be time to rethink traditional training methods.
Police training in the U.S. (from initial recruitment to certification) costs the average department approximately $100,000 per officer. Typically this pre-service training is covered in an academy, with some states supplementing this training with post-secondary education. In the U.S., the average time in the academy is about 840 hours or 21 weeks.1 Considering that two-thirds of officers do not participate in a formal Field Training Program, the academy remains the primary training source.
How Police Training Stacks Up
Policing requires complex skills to manage everything from mundane report writing to conflict resolution to unpredictable life-threatening challenges.2 So how does the average 840-hour (21-week) academy stack up against other occupations? Consider that Petco requires the completion of a 20-week course to become a certified dog groomer.3 In most states, barbers and cosmetologists are required to complete twice the amount of classroom work as pre-service police officers. Many must complete an additional 1,300 hours of in-service or professional practice before becoming eligible for their license.4
Illusion of Training
In 2018, researchers published Police Academy Training, Performance, and Learning (the O’Neil study). During the O’Neil study, 10,000 video recordings were used to capture officers’ skill acquisition and perishability during and after the academy. This study confirmed what other researchers had observed. Within months of leaving an academy, the average officer might be able to describe how a suspect-control technique should be used but will have little ability to apply it in “a dynamic encounter with a defiantly resistant subject.”
Notably, as soon as two months after training, even simple skills like baton strikes delivered in a static environment were judged as ineffective. Similarly, when taught in the same fashion, complex clinical skills like communication and decision-making can rapidly deteriorate.
Lack of time, high costs, ineffective training methods, and personnel shortages routinely compromise police training. The result is that police training may create the illusion of learning and skill acquisition but not the knowledge or competence we might expect.5
Next Level Integrated Training
Studies highlight that time limitations and ever-increasing curriculum are not the only challenges facing police trainers. Arguably more important is that the methods of instruction are inadequate and create significant problems across the entire police curriculum, regardless of whether that training is occurring in an academy or university setting.
Traditional pre-service police training usually involves classroom instruction followed by multiple-choice testing. This style of instruction may be necessary to establish a base of knowledge, but how this knowledge is integrated into decision-making remains the more pressing challenge. Consider, for example, that for appropriate use-of-force decisions, it is critical to first understand and then integrate federal and state law, human performance limitations, and de-escalation strategies.
To address integration challenges, it has been encouraging to see progressive instructors incorporate both video simulators and realistic role-playing scenarios into their training. Like those offered by VirTra, well-designed simulations have begun to integrate de-escalation, law, and human performance into their scenarios. Force Science has enjoyed working with VirTra whose technology allows them to develop virtual scenarios that incorporate realistic human performance capabilities and limitations. Instructors using VirTra training simulators can present overlays that compare student performance to Force Science and other industry research.
Simulations can provide safe and convenient opportunities to expose students to various situations that challenge their decision-making and performance. This repeated exposure can be an essential first step in developing expert decision-makers. However, it is important to note that learning about a decision process or experiencing only a few decision-making scenarios is unlikely to develop great decision-makers. Instead, under stress, with limited information and time constraints, great decisions are more likely the product of officers having developed a tremendous reservoir of experience. Simulations can be a valuable way to begin this journey before moving on to clinical (real-world) experiences that involve supervised assessments, reasoning (diagnosis), and responses (prescriptions).
Beyond the sheer repetition that clinical experiences can provide, there is immense value in experiencing first-hand the emotional intensity, confusion, and confused and disorganized thinking that is often present during crisis interventions. While simulations can begin to expose students to these realities, de-escalation and crisis intervention training without real emotion is like use-of-force training without resistance. Neither should be expected to create expert decision-makers and performers.
Active Learning and Clinical Training
One of the most important skills an academy can develop in their students is active participation in that student’s learning. Active learning is said to be at the heart of professional training. It involves deliberate self-evaluation and a collaborative approach to learning.6
Clinical training approaches can be built around active learning. Immersive training that involves observing experts at work, context-driven training, tabletop exercises, and self-analysis in realistic congruent scenarios all build active learning skills early in the learning process.7 The clinical training of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and dental technicians affirms these recommendations. By placing students in practical situations and encouraging them to engage in active learning (reflection and analysis), they are likely to identify for themselves those areas where they need to build skill proficiency. Importantly, they will also identify where they need to develop social and emotional awareness—attributes that are critical to interpersonal communication, de-escalation, and persuasion.
Lecture as the Beginning, Not the End
Progress in police training is the expected result of an institution driven by constant and never-ending improvement. While change frequently involves increased training hours and additional curriculum, progress requires implementing sophisticated training methods that will develop resilient, flexible, and insightful officers. What may have traditionally been attempted through lectures will now require creatively applied, modern training and learning principles. Leaders hoping to raise the standard of modern police training should be looking to adopt the interdisciplinary, integrated, clinical training practices of other highly-skilled professionals.
- Reaves, B. A. (2016). State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies (2016). U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, 20.
- Academy training is expected to prepare officers with working knowledge and effective skills in an ever-increasing range of subjects. These topics frequently include Constitutional law, state statutes, local ordinances, emergency vehicle operation, communication, de-escalation, and persuasion. Officers are taught to manage emotionally distraught individuals, engage in decision-making in time-compressed situations, and write reports to document everything from the most mundane theft reports to rapidly evolving critical incidents involving multiple people. Officers are expected to learn how to effectively assess threats, manage conflict, and employ force ranging from arrest and control techniques to deadly force. Following the academy, officers are expected to have learned how to earn the trust of domestic violence survivors, de-escalate rioters, and prevent suicides.
- Petco.com. (2020). Petco Dog Grooming: Dog Baths, Haircuts, Nail Trimming & More. https://www.petco.com/shop/en/petcostore/s/dog-grooming
- Police Education and Training Revisited- Drawbacks and Advances Institute for Justice. (2021). License To Work: A national study of burdens from occupational licensing (Publication 2nd Edition). https://ij.org/report/license-work-2/ltw-occupation- profiles/ltw2- barber/
- O’Neill, J., O’Neill, D. A., Weed, K., Hartman, M. E., Spence, W., & Lewinski, W. J. (2018). Police academy training, performance, and learning (pp. 1–63).
- Gonczi, A. (1992). Developing a competent work force: Adult learning strategies for vocational eductors and trainers. National Center for Vocational Education Research Ltd.
- Falender, C. A., & Shafranske, E. P. (2011). Getting the most out of clinical training and supervision: A guide for practicum students and interns (1st ed.). American Psychological Association.