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Professional Police Training

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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.

Traditional Training

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. 

Beyond Simulations

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.

  1. Reaves, B. A. (2016). State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies (2016). U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, 20. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Petco.com. (2020). Petco Dog Grooming: Dog Baths, Haircuts, Nail Trimming & More. https://www.petco.com/shop/en/petcostore/s/dog-grooming []
  4. 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/ []
  5. 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). []
  6. Gonczi, A. (1992). Developing a competent work force: Adult learning strategies for vocational eductors and trainers. National Center for Vocational Education Research Ltd. []
  7. 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. []
6 Responses
  1. Great article and so very well said. Training, does not make perfect, perfect training makes perfect. It is every law enforcement agency’s responsibility to make sure their personnel are properly trained. If an officer cannot maintain a certain level of proficiency in the required training, it is time for separation. I have heard this on numerous occasions from administrators after being told that an officer is failing,” I don’t care just get him/ her through it.”

  2. Lt. Todd Spencer

    Many agencies are unfortunately, just checking boxes when it comes to training. I, fortunately, work for an agency that is truly invested in our officers and has built in training days. (four, 8 hour days, 32 hours per year.) Not nearly enough but better than many. When Covid hit we came up with the idea to have day shift attend from 8-4 and night shift attend from 4-12, to reduce the number of participants in the classroom. My Chief went for it and we have continued on since. It effectively cuts our students per class in half and increases our instructor to student ratio allowing us to run our officers through more reality based scenario training. Most officers are getting 8-10 use of force/de-escalation/decision making scenarios per year. It’s a burden on the instructors, who frequently work double shifts to accomplish the task, but I’m blessed with a great group of trainers. Enough can’t be said for quality training and it can be difficult if your trainers aren’t trained properly themselves.. I know of many agencies that have little to no in-service training and just do an annual firearms qualification (not training) just to check the box.

  3. AndyM

    While I agree with the need to improve training methods, it also illustrates how woefully undertrained law enforcement is. Not only undertrained on the academy level, however also on the continuing education part.

  4. Don Black

    Nice article. It tells us exactly the kinds of things that police instructors have been telling police administrators for about fifty years. It is naive to think that police training will improve. The basic training that the officers receive, particularly in use of force, amounts to about half of what is needed to give officers even basic skills. Those skills are not reinforced in any meaningful way. As Robert Koga said, training should be proper (right kind). adequate (enough), consistent (not constantly changing) and regular (repeated often) to be effective. In todays environment, you would think that the police administrators would get the word. They don’t change. They are simply keepers of the status quo. They will, however, make sure the officers take the mandatory bias. and diversity classes to make it look like they care. It should be remembered that police administrators came up through the same system and cared more about politics than learning the job. They are poorly qualified to pick “best practices”. Nice article, though. I agree. It should be done.

  5. Aaron

    Completely agree. I am a police trainer and I am very pro-police. I believe that our officers are being set up for failure. The current system fails to adequately train them for the highly dynamic use of force incidents that they face every day and then punishes them when they perform poorly. A related article: Police Reform – Reality Based Use of Force Training. https://www.iadlest.org/Portals/0/Oct%2020%20Nwsltr%2010-2-20.pdf?ver=YbH8VaJpwaK0VV-v5dR09A%3d%3d

  6. Contemporary times demand contemporary training. Training in “Decision Making,” and all that goes with it, is so important. Leaders and trainers alike must understand the dynamics involved in the mind and body connection. Split-second decison making is not a choice, it is an all too often reality for many officers. Real-time, active clinical simulations with accurate assessment by educated trainers are needed in order for the officer to be more successful in the field. The demands on today’s professional police officers are higher than ever. It is our responsibility to provide them with the best training possible. This article is not to be dismissed.

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