Recruit Training: Are we preparing officers for a community oriented department?

photo of become a police officer signAs many law enforcement agencies embrace the community policing philosophy and continue to strive to achieve the goal of full implementation, they may want to examine how their academies are preparing their new recruits. Are they developing collaborative problem solvers? Or, are they creating obstacles to their community policing efforts? Are they creating barriers to bringing their customers, the citizens they serve, improved quality of life by addressing crime and public order problems through partnerships with community stakeholders? Some recruit training programs may actually be creating impediments to success.

Police recruit training is generally found to be based on one of two models—stress or non-stress——with a range of variants drawing from both models. Stress training is modeled after a military boot camp, characterized by paramilitary drills, daily inspections, intense physical demands, public discipline, withholding privileges, and immediate reaction to infractions. Non-stress recruit training is associated with a more relaxed academic or collegiate atmosphere, characterized by emphasis on academic achievement, a relaxed instructor/trainee relationship, and administrative disciplinary procedures.1

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Report on State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies (BJS Report), the majority of police recruits receive their training in academies with a stress-based military orientation. 2 This begs the question; is this military model—designed to prepare young recruits for combat—the appropriate mechanism for teaching our police trainees how to garner community trust and partner with citizens to solve crime and public order problems?

Some believe that certain benefits may be derived from the militaristic stress environment, e.g., self-discipline, self-confidence, and command presence to name a few. However, the warrior-like orientation seems antithetical to a community oriented policing philosophy that is grounded in trust building, partnering, and developing and sustaining positive relationships with citizen stakeholders that are integral parts of community oriented policing.

photo of police officers standing at attentionQuestions surrounding the efficacy of stress training for police recruits are not new. From 1967 through 1971, Assistant Sheriff Howard H. Earle conducted an experiment on stress vs. non-stress training in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Academy. Though dated, his findings could be relevant to the development of today’s police officers—officers who are expected to work collaboratively with citizens in their communities to identify and solve crime and public order problems.

Earle found that “non-stress trained subjects performed at a significantly higher level in the areas of field performance, job satisfaction, and performance acceptability by persons served.”3 Higher levels of performance in all of these areas are attributes that can lead to improved relationship building and collaborative problem solving with community stakeholders.

In the wake of police recruits’ widespread kidney problems, resulting from physical training in a “stress” training environment at the Agawam Police Academy in Massachusetts in 1988, then Governor Michael Dukakis commissioned a panel to investigate recruit training and make recommendations. The panel found: “The so-called drill instructor approach to training that includes indiscriminate verbal abuse, debasement, humiliation confrontation, harassment, hazing, shouting, and physical exercise as punishment has no place in police training.”4 The panel further found that this type of training was counterproductive and that it is “not conducive to training men and women in a manner that will best enable them to serve society.”5

“…paramilitary stress academies produce defensive and depersonalized officers, while collegiate non-stress training models, a small minority in American policing, have no such consequences.”6

More recently, some scholars have said “that the high stress paramilitary model of training results in police practices that are contrary to democratic governance and that a structure utilizing university connections, experiential learning, and critical thinking would be significantly more effective.”7 A stress academy’s structure and culture does not always lend itself to the philosophical underpinnings of community policing, even when there is an effort to incorporate community policing and collaborative problem solving into the curriculum. The paramilitary training format can help to establish esprit de corps and discipline, but it may be at the expense of isolating officers from the citizens they serve.8 This type of training does capture the attention and enthusiasm of the predominantly young and easily influenced recruits, however, emphasizing the crime fighting and action-oriented aspects of policing often thought of as “real policing.”9

As recruits embrace the paramilitary trappings of a stress academy and become more socialized into the police profession, they tend to identify more and more with their peers and separate themselves from “outsiders.” This may become a barrier to effective partnership building required in collaborative problem solving.

It has also been said that “paramilitary stress academies” that apply pressure to recruits to produce a response to said pressure “socialize recruits into maladaptive coping strategies.”10 Maladaptive coping strategies can also act to further distance officers from citizen stakeholders.

All of this should come as no surprise as the stress training is built on the military model and the military mission is generally to work within a close knit team to achieve an objective through the use of force and violence. This is contrary to the role of a police officer in the context of a community oriented department, which is to develop relationships with citizens that lead to collaboration in identifying, addressing, and solving crime and public order problems as their primary objective.

“Expertise, rather than the symbols of power and coercion will be the basis for partnerships in community outreach. . . .Traditional policing that emphasizes top-down authority relations, where police have ‘ownership’ over crime problems, needs to give way to community involvement and partnerships. Success will depend on training that teaches and demonstrates how to share power and authority, how to gather information and suggestions, how to work through conflict to build consensus, and how to cooperate and coordinate with others.”11

Another unintended consequence stemming from a stress academy approach may be the loss of good police recruits who have a knack for community policing but who are uncomfortable with a militaristic boot camp environment. There is some evidence that a more collegial training environment increases the graduation rate of recruits, particularly female recruits.12

photo of officers being sworn inPredominantly, stress training academies in the BJS Report had a completion rate—recruits making it to graduation—of 80 percent. Those training academies that were predominantly non-stress environments produced a completion or graduation rate of 89 percent.13

For female recruits the challenge of a predominantly stress focused training academy are even greater. The completion rate for females in a predominantly non-stress training environment was 89 percent in the BJS Report, the same as their male counterpart. However, the completion rate for female recruits dropped to 68 percent for those in a predominantly stress-focused academy setting.14

Departments that are struggling with full implementation of their community policing plans, or having trouble in the development of problem solving partnerships in some neighborhoods, may want to take a look at their recruit training. Are those who are coming out of their training academies truly ready and equipped to handle the challenges of community policing, or are they potential barriers?

Karl W. Bickel
Senior Policy Analyst,
The COPS Office

1Reaves, Brian A. 2009. State and Local Law Enforcement Academies, 2006. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice, p. 10.
3Earle, Howard H. 1973. Police Recruit Training Stress vs. Non-Stress: A Revolution in Law Enforcement Career Programs. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, p. 145.
4Massachusetts Governor’s Board. 1989. Report of the Governor’s Panel to Review Police Training Programs. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, p.72.
6Conti, Norman. 2009. A Visigoth System: Shame, Honor, and Police Socialization. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (May).
7Conti, Norman. 2010. Weak Links and Warrior Hearts: A framework for judging self and others in police training. Working Paper 24, International Police Executive Symposium, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
8Sgambelluri, Robert. 2000. Police Culture, Police Training, and Police Administration: Their Impact on Violence in Police Families. In Domestic Violence by Police Officers, ed. D.C. Sheehan, 309–322. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
9Chappell, Allison T., Lonn Lanza-Kaduce. 2009. Police Academy Socialization: Understanding the Lessons Learned in a Paramilitary-Bureaucratic Organization. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (December 29): 22.
10Conti, Norman. 2009. A Visigoth System: Shame, Honor, and Police Socialization. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Sage Publications (May).
11Chappell, Allison T., Lonn Lanza-Kaduce. 2009. Police Academy Socialization: Understanding the Lessons Learned in a Paramilitary-Bureaucratic Organization. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (December 29): 21.
12Reaves, Brian A. 2009. State and Local Law Enforcement Academies, 2006. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice, p. 11.

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