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January 2023 | Volume 16 | Issue 1

Recruitment is a hot topic in police departments across our nation. Attracting the best people for today’s departmental needs and community expectations is of utmost importance to every law enforcement leader. But once the candidates have signed up, how they are trained is essential to having the best people for the job.

In Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) new publication, Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles, Chuck Wexler, PERF’s Executive Director, writes that the nation’s police academies have traditionally followed a paramilitary, bootcamp–like model that emphasizes discipline, following orders, and a strict hierarchy where recruits are on the lowest rung.

But he notes that when those elements overshadow actual training, they can undermine the academy’s mission and the department’s goals, which are to prepare new police officers to serve and protect with compassion, humanity, and intelligence.

The American public has vociferously voiced its desire that the old warrior model of policing be replaced by a more flexible, personal, and humane approach. Moreover, today’s police are called upon to be creative problem solvers and community partners as well as enforcers of law and order.

Revamping today’s training to align with today’s policing

Collaboration, strategic thinking, good communication skills, and other such personal attributes are critical to the success of the new officer and their department, as well as to the safety of the community they serve.

To inculcate these capabilities, Wexler believes that American policing needs to reimagine and retool recruit training. This report—a part of PERF’s Critical Issues in Policing series, which the Motorola Solutions Foundation has supported for the past two decades—is a blueprint for fundamentally rethinking the current way we train new police officers, beginning with what and how recruits are taught.

As the report emphasizes, policing has changed dramatically and in important ways in the past 10 years, and if training is to be worth the time and effort, it must be aligned with present needs in the following areas:

Crime fighting. Effective strategies for controlling and preventing crime are based on partnerships with the community and other stakeholders, collaborative problem analysis and solving, and effective use of technology and outside resources.

Technology. Police today can access sophisticated records management and data analysis systems, powerful mobile radio and broadband networks, ballistics and other forensic applications, gunshot detection systems, and artificial intelligence and virtual learning.

Diversity. Police agencies are more diverse than they have ever been, including persons of all races and members of the LGBTQ community working at all levels of police agencies.

New roles. Officers are increasingly expected to provide support to people who have mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness issues, which require specialized training and partnerships with service providers.

An example of these changes is the outdated “21-foot rule,” which is counterproductive given the de-escalation, tactical communications, and repositioning tactics used today. If an academy is still teaching this practice, agencies will have to re-train their new officers to un-learn it.

Based on input from 401 experts in the field

To create this report, PERF developed and fielded a survey to 401 leaders of law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, conducted extensive research, and interviewed numerous subject matter experts including academy directors and training personnel.

Based on their findings, PERF developed this comprehensive guide to improving academy training. It is divided into five major areas of focus, each of which contains evidence-based recommendations accompanied by practical suggestions for implementation and examples from the field.

These recommendations take the form of 40 guiding principles, which are discussed in detail in the following five areas of training.

1. Academy organization, operation, and philosophy

Among the principles discussed here is the need for training to be centered on critical thinking and values-based decision-making and reinforced in all lesson plans. But there must be a balanced approach that augments the academic adult-learning principles with appropriate stress-based learning.

Another recommendation is that national standards for recruit training be developed and implemented.

It also suggests that academies be open and transparent, building trust by welcoming community leaders, residents, and the news media into their facilities and encouraging community participation in curriculum development.

2. Overhauling the recruit curriculum

Among other things, this section recommends that training focus on the activities and tasks that police officers are engaged in on a day-to-day basis as well as on the high-risk encounters that officers may face.

Another suggestion is that recruits and experienced personnel train together and that the academies participate in Monday morning quarterbacking by reviewing videos of real-life past incidents to learn from them.

To keep training relevant, academies should continuously review and update their curricula using data and research. Students should be given the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their class content and instructors, and individuals who drop out of the academy should be given exit interviews.

3. Expanding and professionalizing academy leadership and instructors

One of the guiding principles in this section is that academies should not overlook hiring professional educators to teach classes in areas that do not require specific law enforcement experience.

They should also evaluate instructors regularly to ensure they are up to date on policing issues and adult learning principles and rotate sworn officers back to the field to keep their skills fresh and their knowledge of agency practices up to date.

The report also suggests employing teachers from non–law enforcement backgrounds or a visiting professor program such as the New York City Police Department’s, which hired instructors from New York University and other institutions to teach courses such as report writing and psychology on a temporary basis.

4. Upgrading technology and physical facilities

Among the principles outlined in this section is the suggestion that agencies using body-worn cameras equip recruits with them for use throughout their academy and field training.

Academies should invest in technology that promotes collaboration and distance learning but not become overly reliant on training simulators. Live, in-person scenarios play a critical role in recruit training.

They should monitor developments in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) training applications and be prepared to implement them when they become available.

5. Ensuring continuity between academy and field training

These principles stress that academy and field training should be developed in tandem to help ensure continuity between the two.

Most importantly, agencies should have a formal and rigorous application process to become a field training officer (FTO) and should offer incentives to attract high-performing officers to the role and establish a formal process for monitoring and evaluating FTOs.

This section also includes examples of agencies that have developed alternative approaches to integrating academy and field training.

A comprehensive guide to training the next generation of officers

The overarching takeaway from this report is that hiring those who possess the “right stuff” is not enough to ensure agency excellence—recruits must be trained in the skills and approaches they need for the challenges of providing police services in increasingly diverse and demanding communities.

As Wexler states in his introduction, training in firearms skills, defensive tactics, and other “hard” skills is an absolute requirement, but communications, de-escalation, crisis intervention, and other “soft” skills are equally important to today’s officers.

He urges law enforcement leadership to give a lot of thought to the following challenges:

  • How academies are operated and staffed
  • What the recruit curriculum contains
  • How the training is delivered and by whom
  • How to use reality-based scenario training more broadly and effectively
  • How recruit training integrates with field training once recruits leave the academy

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