A report issued in November 2022 by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an independent organization that examines significant issues in policing, revealed that there are significant disparities in how police in the U.S. are trained in comparison to their counterparts around the world. The report, entitled Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles, found that training standards for the 18,000-plus police agencies in the U.S. are generally outdated and inconsistent, and often whatever training is provided is too brief, primarily emphasizing weapons and tactics, with too little concentration on decision-making, effective communication and other critical thinking skills that law enforcement officers should be regularly employing. The PERF report asserts that “Almost every major aspect of policing has fundamentally changed in recent decades, except for one: how we train officers.”Police Executive Research Forum, Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles. policeforum.org/assets/TransformingRecruitTraining.pdf.
There are currently just over 3,500 police academies operating in the U.S. However, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), just under 60,000 recruits received basic training instruction from 681 state and local law enforcement training academies, while there were close to 90,000 total recruits hired during the same year. The average length of the core basic training program was just over 800 hours. Half of these recruits learned through a model that employed both stress training — such as military or paramilitary styles — and non-stress models, which are more academic learning modes. Nearly all recruits received instruction in report writing, defensive tactics, firearms skills, ethics and integrity, and nearly all were instructed using at least one type of reality-based scenario, defined as utilizing tools, techniques, technologies or methodologies meant to approximate situations that might occur in an operational setting.Emily D. Buehler, Ph.D., “State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2018 — Statistical Tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2021. … Continue reading
Many police practices taught in training are not evidence-based or supported by empirical research.
All states maintain Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) boards or similar agencies. However, no national governing body enforces nationwide education and certification standards for peace officers. In addition, only 12 states require update, refresher or advanced training for first-line officers, and just five states require such training for supervisors. Instructors are certified in 37 states, but only 39 states have minimum standards that must be met by local government jurisdictions.National Conference of State Legislators, “Law Enforcement Certification and Discipline.” ncsl.org/labor-and-employment/law-enforcement-certification-and-discipline Most police departments in the U.S., over 80%, require at least a high school diploma or GED, and only 1% of police departments require a four-year degree. According to a study conducted by California State University Fullerton and the Police Foundation in 2017, about 52% of sworn officers in the U.S. have at least a two-year degree, 30% or so have at least a four-year degree and 5.4% have a graduate degree.Lynn A. Tovar, “Should we require the police to have a college degree?” Research in Higher Education Journal, Volume 43, 2002. However, there do not appear to be any requirements for those degrees to be specifically focused on law enforcement, criminal justice or any such related concentrations.
The previously mentioned BJS study found that about 4.5% of U.S. state and local law enforcement training academies were operated by a state POST commission. It also found that academies run by state POST agencies and colleges or universities were more likely to use a “non-stress” training model, which is based primarily upon academic achievement, physical training, and a more relaxed and supportive instructor–trainee relationship, as opposed to a “stress” training model, which is more of a military-style training protocol based on intensive physical demands and psychological pressure. Academies run by police forces are more often are based on a stress model.
The previously mentioned PERF report suggests that the culture of a police academy has ramifications beyond what happens during the initial training. All too often, academy training creates a “silo” mentality, as if the participants are similar to military combatants who need to learn how to dominate others, and if the academy culture is demeaning and controlling, then new officers may be more likely to model those traits in the community after they graduate. However, if the academy’s culture is supportive and reflects the concepts of procedural justice, then it would seem more likely that officer graduates will be supportive and behave more justly with the community.
Unlike soldiers, police officers spend most of their time on their own, without immediate direct supervision, and they possess enormous discretion when faced with the myriad circumstances they may encounter in even a single shift. As such, officers need to develop skills beyond understanding the rules and following the orders of their superiors; they need to know how to think and act on their own, they need excellent communication skills and they need to know how to be problem-solvers in order to defuse tense situations. They also need to view the community as allies, not the enemy.
According to a PBS Frontline report, “How States Are Moving to Police Bad Cops,” in some states, police officers are required to undergo continuing education, or “in-service training,” that is reported to and tracked by the state certifying body.Sarah Childress, “How States Are Moving to Police Bad Cops.” Frontline, 2016. pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-states-are-moving-to-police-bad-cops. Experts favor in-service training because it offers police officers insights on newer research and best practices. However, in some states, in-service training requirements are minimal and are frequently only delivered online rather than in person. Also, in some states where continuing police education is required, funding for such trainings and the procedures for tracking compliance and completion are minimal or absent. For instance, Massachusetts requires police officers to undergo 40 hours of in-service police training each year, which is among the nation’s highest requirements, but there is no statewide body overseeing compliance, and a recent state auditor report indicated that as many as 30 police departments in the state might be out of compliance with the mandate.
In addition, police training in the U.S. has often been plagued by pseudoscience, junk science and questionable science, with various common elements of police training often filled with misinformation, unsubstantiated claims, assumptions and anecdotes.Scott O. Lilienfeld and Kristin Landfield, “Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, Volume 35, 2008. Many police practices taught in training are not evidence-based or supported by empirical research. For example, the “21-foot Tueller Drill” is based on the assumption that if a suspect is any closer than 21 feet, the person could charge before an officer could unholster their gun. However, this is not scientific, and even its creator has said the drill should not be taken literally. Nevertheless, the drill is still commonly taught in police training as a science and has even been used as an argument to justify police use of force. The American Society of Evidence-Based Policing and other experts have proposed evidence-based policing and the creation of an independent, nonpartisan body providing research and education to police departments based on rigorous evidence.Kelly McLaughlin, “Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem.” Business Insider, June 17, 2020. insider.com/police-training-programs-have-a-pseudoscience-problem-experts-say-2020-6.
According to a Police Foundation paper on the subject, evidence-based policing is the use of the best available research on the outcomes of police work to implement guidelines and evaluate agencies, units and officers.L.W. Sherman, “Evidence-Based Policing.” Police Foundation, 1998. ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/evidence-based-policing. It suggests that just doing research is not enough, and that proactive efforts are required to push accumulated research evidence into practice through national and community guidelines. Until then, it appears that the general state of officer training in this nation is considerably behind the more rigorous and evidence-based approaches that have been adopted in many
As seen in the January 2024 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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|Police Executive Research Forum, Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles. policeforum.org/assets/TransformingRecruitTraining.pdf.
|Emily D. Buehler, Ph.D., “State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2018 — Statistical Tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2021. bjs.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh236/files/media/document/slleta18st.pdf.
|National Conference of State Legislators, “Law Enforcement Certification and Discipline.” ncsl.org/labor-and-employment/law-enforcement-certification-and-discipline
|Lynn A. Tovar, “Should we require the police to have a college degree?” Research in Higher Education Journal, Volume 43, 2002.
|Sarah Childress, “How States Are Moving to Police Bad Cops.” Frontline, 2016. pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-states-are-moving-to-police-bad-cops.
|Scott O. Lilienfeld and Kristin Landfield, “Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, Volume 35, 2008.
|Kelly McLaughlin, “Police training programs have a pseudoscience problem.” Business Insider, June 17, 2020. insider.com/police-training-programs-have-a-pseudoscience-problem-experts-say-2020-6.
|L.W. Sherman, “Evidence-Based Policing.” Police Foundation, 1998. ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/evidence-based-policing.