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Back to Archives | Back to November 2008 Contents 

Rethinking Police Training

By John Connolly, Chief of Police, Manchester, Missouri

During the 2008 midyear meeting of the IACP Education and Training Committee, significant discussion took place on the status of police training in the United States. Committee chair Ed Flynn, chief of police, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tasked several members of the committee with exploring the concepts discussed and with preparing an article for the Police Chief.

Participating with Chief John Connolly in developing these concepts were the following committee members: Patrick Bradley, executive director, Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, Sykesville, Maryland; Lee Colwell, associate director, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (retired), Pegasus Research Foundation, Little Rock, Arkansas; Clifford Cook, chief of police, Vancouver, Washington; Lex Eckenrode, chief executive officer, Virginia Police Chiefs Foundation, Richmond, Virginia; Gary Maddox, director, Law Enforcement Institute, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, Missouri. The article is a compilation of views and does not necessarily reflect those of the committee.

asic police recruit training has been an unsettled topic for many years in the United States. Historically, in many states, the issue has been to provide more training for recruits. Yet, in recent times, special interest groups have made their ways into academy curricula, due to the timeliness of their advocacies. Racial profiling, cultural diversity, mental health, and domestic violence are several of these areas. As a result of these training topics and other task-oriented subjects, some recruit training programs exceed 1,000 hours. That would mean that recruits are in a classroom for about half of their first year. This extended training commitment certainly is at odds with the desire of many agencies to deploy new officers expediently. Many agencies are wondering if there is a more efficient way to get their recruits the training they need.

20th-Century Police Training Model

Ever since the U.S. Congress passed the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which provided substantial federal assistance to local law enforcement agencies for training, basic recruit peace officer training has been a significant and ongoing issue across the country. Even before the passage of that act, John Sullivan, in his book Introduction to Police Science, published in 1966, observed,

While a physician may change his diagnosis or prescription, a lawyer may amend his pleadings, and a judge may take days or weeks to render a decision, when a peace officer makes a decision, it frequently must be instantaneous. Therefore, in order to cope with the many complex emergency duties and responsibilities that confront a peace officer in his/her role, the officer cannot depend entirely upon native ability. Instead he or she must be expertly trained to function effectively as an integral part of today’s modern mechanized police force.1

Almost a decade later, former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark also commented on the need for increased police competence by noting, “To be truly professional, police must have high standards of education and personal competence in a wide range of subjects with continuous development and training.”2

In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals strongly recommended that every state should require all sworn police employees to complete a minimum of 400 hours of basic training to enable all peace officers to perform their roles effectively.

Even a study prepared by the IACP in 1977 demonstrated that in the mid-1960s, the average police officer in the United States received less than 200 hours of formal training—whereas the 1973 National Advisory Commission reported that physicians received more than 11,000 hours; lawyers, more than 9,000 hours; teachers, more than 7,000 hours; embalmers, more than 5,000 hours; and barbers, more than 4,000 hours.

Yet, ironically, records and research clearly show that as late as 1967, police recruit basic training practices did not even exist for up to 32 percent of the law enforcement agencies within municipalities and counties with populations of greater than 10,000.3 For many agencies, recruit training was almost an afterthought.

For example, in 1975, with a degree in criminal justice administration, Gary Maddox became a police officer. Maddox, now director of the Law Enforcement Training Institute for the University of Missouri–Extension, says it never occurred to him at the time he was hired that it would be a year before he would receive any formal training for the job; then, when he did go to a training academy, it was only 320 hours—eight weeks’ worth. Yet from the time Maddox took his oath, he was expected to make informed, split-second decisions regarding such issues as use of force and constitutional law without a speck of training on which to rely.

By the early 1980s, basic training for peace officers in the United States had finally become mandated in every state. However, this training ranged from as little as 120 hours to as much as 1,000 hours or more, depending on each state’s respective statutes, police agencies, and academy directors. And much of that recruit training was seen as inadequate, because in many instances, the instruction bore little relationship to what was actually expected of peace officers. In the absence of any guidelines that truly related to an analysis of police experiences, instructors and trainers were left with only the formal definition of police authority and other vague, nebulous, and abstract concepts to communicate to peace officer trainees.4

These observations are not meant to discredit or belittle the usually well-intentioned and sincere efforts of police trainers and training administrators to provide job-relevant training at the time. It should be remembered that the role of police in contemporary society has never been clearly defined or universally adopted.

Defining the Role of Police: Importance for Training Purposes

To understand completely the role of the police in today’s world and to ensure that cognate basic recruit training programs are the rule rather than the exception, a framework has always been necessary for viewing the police function so that training planners include within any given training program all of the actual activities in which police become involved during their daily tours of duty, based on the realities of police work. As such, officers all across the law enforcement community embarked on their respective job task analysis efforts in agencies’ attempts to define exactly what basic training was important and how much of it was needed in any given area of the job. For many peace officer standards and training (POST) units, this has proved to be a very fluid process, which means that job task analyses must be reevaluated to stay up to date with what is happening in the society at large at any given time.

Nevertheless, while it seems that even though no one questions the importance of local policing to U.S. society, the law enforcement community still has no accepted statement that specifies the nature and boundaries of the local policing task. All that really can be stated accurately is that most local law enforcement agencies seem to perform approximately the same job. They provide benevolent community services; respond to complaints; and investigate, arrest, and process cases through court. They also enforce traffic and other laws, respond to emergencies, and attempt to settle disturbances. Consequently, many police administrators and other decision makers have consistently argued over the years that the same subjects should be taught in every recruit basic training program and academy; however, the problem with such logic is that the problems of individual communities, states, and their respective law enforcement agencies are not always the same.

The following questions, then, become important:

  • Who should decide what is and what is not included in a basic recruit training program?

  • How many hours of basic recruit training really are enough for a new recruit to be issued state certification, to be allowed to take the oath, to be sworn in, and to go to work?

  • How does the profession know that it takes two hours of training—or four, or eight, or 24—in a given subject or task area to prepare a recruit properly for service?

  • Is it possible that basic training has become training for training’s sake and the assumed “value-added” component to the training product causes the whole effort to become watered down, stale, vague, too lengthy, too expensive, or just simply not particularly relevant?

  • Why do training administrators or law enforcement executives make the ongoing leap in logic that if 600–800 hours of required basic training is a good thing, then 1,000–2,000 hours of required basic training is a better thing?

  • How does the profession respond when state general assemblies, through their own initiative or as the result of strong lobbying from a special interest group, continue to mandate additional basic training hours in topics that are societal problems now but may abate after a period of time?

Need for Change

There must be ways to provide necessary basic recruit academy training and then allow recruits to begin their duties as well as continue their training, in public and while serving that public, at the same time. One means of striking this balance is to utilize a staggered agenda, along with mandated step-by-step certification levels. Texas has used such a system over the past decade to develop personnel expertise while satisfying the interests of specialized interest groups and legislated training mandates. Chiefs, academy directors, and POST commissions can and should provide recommendations regarding line personnel training issues as well as a supervisory curriculum that reflects a step-by-step, progressive education program. There has been considerable discussion in several states regarding “cafeteria”-style training programs. Such programs offer both mandated training topics as well as discretionary training preferences within defined timelines. Both limit impact on staffing and agency training costs. Such a system could provide the framework in which special interest, legislated, and profession-preferred training programs would be limited without adversely affecting basic training academy timelines.

Chiefs are all too aware that the young officers hired today are different from the average recruits of 20 or 30 years ago. Young people today are accustomed to studying and learning online, and many are hired with a college degree. While some training topics are indigenous to policing, such as firearms, defensive tactics, and emergency vehicle driver training, other academic topics could possibly be studied and learned outside of the academy environment, prior to and as a prerequisite to hiring.

Constitutional law, cultural diversity, keyboarding, language and speaking skills (to include basic Spanish), and motor vehicle codes are all topics on which instruction is available through other avenues, such as community colleges, tutorial DVDs, and online sources. Young people today are used to working on the computer, researching information, and using the Internet. Many of them prefer this type of learning to a classroom lecture. Brad Naples, who is working on the IACP distance learning project, calls these people “screen people,” because they are accustomed to using handheld devices such as cellular telephones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), and a lot of what they do revolves around a “screen” through which they stay informed and/or obtain relaxation and entertainment.

Improved In-Service Training

In-service training is expensive. The most expensive component in nearly all in-service or professional development training programs is the collective salaries of the personnel being trained. These costs can be multiplied by a significant factor if officer-students’ positions are being temporarily backfilled by colleagues working overtime to fulfill an operational requirement. Good fiscal management demands a measurable positive return on the training investment.

The traditional in-service training program is designed around an eight-hour classroom day, composed of 50-minute classes and breaks. Course topics are selected either by the agency’s administration or by the training staff. Although participants might be asked to indicate their areas of interest for future training programs, their input is rarely seriously considered.

It is time for police academies and other training centers to reexamine how they conduct business. The model proffered here has three revolutionary components:

  • Critical topics addressed in critical time

  • A self-directed training program

  • A shortened training schedule

The traditional training schedule of 50-minute classes followed by 10-minute breaks should be examined. First and foremost, many of the selected topics do not require 50 minutes to convey the essential information or achieve the objectives of the training. Instructors therefore resort to “filler” to absorb the remainder of the session. It may be interesting or even entertaining, but filler is still filler. Some trainers will simply finish the necessary instruction and then mercifully excuse the class for an extended break. In many training environments, however, there is unfortunately nowhere to go and nothing to do until the next class is scheduled to begin. Such “favors” equate to a waste of time and are often resented by officer-students, who would prefer to get back in class, finish the training, and go home. To address this, the academy should limit the training delivery time to precisely the minimum length required to deliver the requisite information and not a minute more. Subsequent class instructors should be “on deck” before the end of the preceding class and should begin without an interim break. Breaks should be scheduled for midmorning and midafternoon only. Instruction should be rapid, dynamic, and energized. (Note that nothing in this model precludes participative learning strategies, application exercises, or other adult training practices. It simply focuses on effectiveness and efficiency.)

The next innovation calls for officer-students to preselect at least part of their training program themselves. Agencies could design a roster of potential classes and package them in full- or half-day groupings. Mandated topics would be delivered separately. Officers attending the mandated sessions would then register for additional training from the “elective” training course catalog (possibly including courses on advanced crime scene processing, case preparation from the defense perspective, introduction to undercover, gangs today, vehicle accident reconstruction, psychological approach to interviewing and interrogation, and so on). Adopting a collegiate model, popular courses would be scheduled for multiple offerings; under-registered courses would be dropped. Although the scheduling logistics might initially seem insurmountable, the return is well worth the effort. Officers would be attending classes in which they are actually interested and/or that could lead to career advancement, specialized assignment, or personal performance enhancement.

The final consideration invites a reappreciation of the physical and mental fatigue attributed to eight hours of instruction with little break time. Without specific reference to the adage “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure,” one in-service evaluation asked the simple question, “What do you think we are really learning after two or three o’clock?” In most jurisdictions, every officer attends the agency’s in-service course. Therefore, any benefit tied to a shortened training day would be universally applied. With these thoughts in mind, the standard training day can and should be abbreviated.

Benefits to Agencies

With the adoption of the modifications explained in this article, agencies will benefit in the following ways:

  • Training is compacted into digestible lessons, packed with essential information focused specifically on mastery of the course outcome objectives.

  • Attendees are highly motivated to attend training on topics in which they have personal interest.

  • In light of the increases in the quality and quantity of training delivered as well as the interest of the officer-students, agencies can reduce the training day without any loss in the level of instruction received. Morale will improve in a training atmosphere that understands and supports officer-students.

The best measurement of an effective in-service training program is not the number of attending officer-students or even the collective grade point average of attendees. The best barometer is the response to a simple question put to attendees and their supervisors: “Did we make good use of your time?” ■


1John L. Sullivan, Introduction to Police Science (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 225.
2James L. Munro, Administrative Behavior and Police Organization (Cincinnati, Ohio: W. H. Anderson, 1974), 151.
3Stanley Vanagunas and James F. Elliott, Administration of Police Organizations (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1980), 179–180.
4Arthur Niederhoffer and Abraham S. Blumberg, The Ambivalent Force: Perspectives on the Police (Waltham, Massachusetts: Ginn and Company, 1970), 91.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 11, November 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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