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Back to Archives | Back to November 2010 Contents 

Transforming a Police Agency by Connecting Training, Performance, and Assessment to Promotion

Don Zettlemoyer, Director, The Pennsylvania State University Justice and Safety Institute, University Park, Pennsylvania; and Rick Jacobs, Professor, Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

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ith a population of 1.3 million, the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago maintains a diversified economy. Energy is the primary economic driver, but the nation actively seeks to expand the economy both in terms of size and underlying structure to assure long-term economic sustainability that will improve the standard of living for all citizens. Finding the right mix of new opportunities and how they might be developed remains a matter of debate. While many avenues are being pursued, one undesirable means emerged: the nation’s proximity to South America has drawn the drug trade. The islands have become a transshipment point for narcotics, with negative side effects that include an increase in crime—much of it gang driven.

The nation is served by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS). The TTPS has a current strength of 6,400 sworn personnel. Agency ranks are divided into two divisions: the 1st Division, which represents senior leadership; and the 2nd Division, which represents front-line officers (constables) and front-line supervisors (corporals, sergeants, and inspectors).1

Recent years have seen a sharp and continuing spiral of violence, with increases in homicides, robberies, and other crimes against persons proving particularly challenging. Much of the citizenry feels unsafe, and public confidence in the TTPS has significantly eroded. There are also concerns among potential visitors that travel and tourism may be best in other island destinations, which compounds the serious threat to economic growth.

In 2005, the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security tapped the Pennsylvania State University Justice and Safety Institute (Penn State JASI) to join an ambitious, multifaceted initiative to transform the TTPS. Penn State JASI was tasked, under contract, with developing a training strategy that would support the improvement effort within TTPS.

Penn State JASI conducted an on-site job study that quickly indicated a widespread lack of accountability and, hence, direction throughout the TTPS. A majority of the problems could be attributed to structural issues, such as the limitation of the commissioner’s powers in regard to hiring and discipline. The recognition of crime, its underlying causes, and the potential solutions resided within the TTPS, but the manpower, planning, basic human resource processes, and general authority over personnel were governed by an agency outside of the TTPS, causing a problematic disconnect.

Front-Line Training

As would be true for any large, complex organization, it was clear that substantive change would take significant time and effort. The primary concern was to put, to the degree possible, the appropriate tools in place that would allow for change over time. With this in mind, Penn State JASI proposed to place the primary emphasis on training front-line supervisors. Senior leadership was also provided with training, but the bulk of activity was directed toward supervisory personnel.

Between 2005 and 2009, TTPS members were exposed to a wide variety of training programs, including supervision for front-line leaders; change management and strategic planning for senior leaders; train-the-trainer for personnel charged with training at the basic and in-service levels; field training officer program; media relations; and customer service. All programming was customized specifically for Trinidad and Tobago, and most included the creation of training videos with TTPS personnel acting out the roles in various scenarios. In all, more than 2,700 personnel were trained with the bulk being from corporal to inspector ranks of the 2nd Division.

While training often energizes and educates members of an organization, training by itself will not result in any deep transformation. It is important to note other equally ambitious efforts led by other domestic and out-of-country entities. George Mason University, for one, led a model stations initiative designed to promote more proactive modes of policing within the TTPS and provided guidance in developing and updating policies and practices for the agency.

Sustained progress and ultimate success in transforming a large agency takes time and committed, skilled leadership that permeates all leadership ranks. The commitment to transform a police agency is more often than not generated by the fear of crime by the public. To ease public fear, time is necessary to accomplish sustained transformation, but time is not something granted by a fearful public demanding change. This places tremendous pressure on those leading the effort to change. One sure way to resolve this dilemma is to provide clear, consistent, and almost constant communication to the public that demonstrates the challenges being addressed and the successes along the way.

The Police Reform Act

In late 2006, the Trinidad and Tobago parliament passed the Police Reform Act. This act was designed to address many of the obstacles that hindered the agency’s ability to move forward and respond to the changed policing environment. One key element of the act was granting the commissioner of police greater authority over personnel matters. Another key element changed the manner by which all sworn personnel were promoted, in particular to and within the 1st Division (senior leadership).

Performance appraisal and independent assessment. The legislative language covering matters of promotion provided the opportunity to move the organization further toward transformation. For the 1st Division, promotion was to be determined based on performance appraisal (weighted at 25 percent) and an independent assessment process (weighted at 75 percent). The legislation also stipulated that an independent firm, experienced in assessment for promotion of police, would be contracted to conduct the process. The firm would also be responsible for creating the eligibility list based on the compilation of performance appraisal and assessment scores. The process was stipulated to include written and oral assessments.

In 2007, Penn State JASI was awarded a contract to conduct the first assessment under this new process and partnered with a comprehensive promotion testing service firm in the design and administration of the oral assessment process.

Materials, principles, and information that had been delivered through Penn State JASI training were the primary basis for assessments. Personnel were assessed on their ability to demonstrate knowledge and mastery of the material in writing and their ability to apply that knowledge in a controlled setting during an oral assessment. It is worth noting that assessment problems personnel faced increased in difficulty as the ranks ascended.

This was a visionary and measured approach on the part of Trinidad and Tobago for maximizing the opportunity for lasting change in the organization. The government invested in ensuring that personnel, on a broad scale, were given access to and instruction on modern principles of police management and supervision, and that the ability to demonstrate understanding and application of these principles and practices, through performance appraisal and oral assessment, would be the basis for advancement through senior ranks. The results would not be instantaneous, but the wheels were in motion for the transformation of TTPS through the integration of training and the selection of those individuals who through training and their experiences could demonstrate their readiness for the next level position.

Program approach. Merit-based leadership is a fairly universal principle behind effective organizations; however, it is not successful without considering the circumstances and the national culture of the organization. A one-size-fits-all solution does not exist. Organizations must customize the principle to adapt specifically to their unique situations and cultures. A core concern of the TTPS was that any process be fair and transparent.

All members of the TTPS eligible for promotion to and within the 1st Division were provided with a complete set of source documents on which the assessment would be based, along with a detailed explanation of the processes to be used in the assessment program. The legal notice underlying the promotion process stipulated distribution of all study materials within eight weeks of the written assessment. The materials were distributed much earlier than that requirement, providing candidates for promotion with ample time to prepare.

Distribution of source materials took place at an orientation session led by the executive leadership of the TTPS and Penn State JASI. The new system was a dramatic shift from the previous method of promotion; this session was designed to familiarize the candidates with how the new system works and provide an opportunity for open dialogue.

The orientation session was followed by regular, structured sessions in which the modalities of written and oral assessment were explained. Samples of written questions that might be used, as well as how an oral assessment would proceed and be measured, were presented. The sessions also provided the opportunity for attendees to practice each of the assessment methods. Although attendance to the program was voluntary, the number of personnel in attendance was strong.

During the orientation session, Penn State JASI and the promotion testing firm conducted on-site meetings to assure stakeholders that the assessment problems were consistent with issues, concerns, and conditions confronting the TTPS. The stakeholder groups included members of the public, the business community, the Ministry of National Security, and various elements of the TTPS.

The matter of transparency was identified as a particularly important concern and active steps were taken to mitigate those concerns. Following the written test, each candidate was provided a copy of their completed bubble answer form prior to leaving the testing site. At the end of the process, Penn State JASI offered review sessions. Candidates could compare their answer forms to the master answer form to check the score they received on the written portion of the assessment for accuracy.

Assessor training. In addition to the assessment exercise development and the vetting within the project group, the on-site oral assessment process required considerable preparation and logistics. Specifically, the process had to accommodate the assessment of up to 200 candidates and the travel for 30 assessors and staff and ensure that the exercises were meaningful and measurable. This in turn required active assessor involvement and training. For economy, the on-site process had to be conducted during a calendar week that would include both assessor travel and training.

Involved assessors were accomplished law enforcement leaders from Canada, the Caribbean, and the United States. Many of the assessors would meet for the first time during this process and none were familiar with the promotion testing firm’s assessment methods. Prior to the assessment, a full day of training was conducted, covering items such as performance measurement, assessment questions that would be presented, logistics, and the role of assessors and center administrators. Remaining on schedule required a great deal of attention to the precision of logistics.

As TTPS personnel moved through the process, their comfort visibly grew. Open review sessions of the previously conducted written assessment were held throughout the week, giving personnel the opportunity to compare their answers to the master answer key. These sessions were conducted by a Penn State JASI administrator so that questions could be asked and concerns expressed.

During oral assessments, assessors not only scored each individual relative to behavioral anchors specific to the problems, but also recorded areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. In the end, each candidate received scores—an eligibility ranking combining the written portion, the oral assessment, and the performance appraisal—and feedback regarding performance during the oral assessment. In addition to assisting in the development of the person and organization, this combination of feedback helped to ensure the transparency of the process. The Order of Merit (eligibility list) was computed and presented by Penn State JASI, further demonstrating transparency.

In 2007, the TTPS began to promote personnel to and within the 1st Division using the Order of Merit established by this assessment process. In late 2008, the TTPS repeated the process for the next round of promotions within the 1st Division. This not only confirmed the acceptance of the process within the organization, but firmly planted a merit-based system into the human resources processes, creating greater confidence with the TTPS and among the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. It is anticipated that the system will be used in the future as the transformation of the TTPS moves forward.


Although assessment centers and written tests in law enforcement have been around for many years, few applications so clearly connect the processes of training, promotion, and organizational change while using a third party to ensure the objectivity of assessment and the absence of bias. The effort here identified the necessary behaviors and skills, trained personnel in those behaviors and skills, and promoted based on the demonstration of those skills and behaviors during the assessment process and in the workplace. The bulk of the weighting of scores for promotion relied upon the written and oral assessment process, which was administered by an external organization and designed to measure critical job components. This substantially removed the potential for bias and assured transparency in the promotion process.

Some of the key lessons learned follow:

  • In cross-cultural initiatives, “universal” is a relative term. Great care must be taken to ensure that principles and problems are applicable and acceptable to the local environment. Reaching this point is a process of discovery for everyone and requires a great deal of dialogue among anyone who is part of the process.

  • A common cultural element in the law enforcement community is a core commitment toward crime fighting as a vehicle to prevent human suffering. It’s cross-cultural and, when both parties are from law enforcement, can be an accelerator for problem solving.

  • Opportunities to reflect the diversity of the population served should be actively sought.

  • For efforts requiring significant offshore activities, over plan and expect the unexpected. For example, while the administrators thought that bubble answer sheets were ubiquitous, they quickly learned that this was an erroneous assumption.

  • It is impossible to overcommunicate. Frequent and candid dialogue and communication with those impacted is integral to the effort. A principal concern is the fairness and openness of the process.

  • Everyone must be given access to the materials used in developing the assessment instruments.

  • The environment and conditions of the assessments must be strictly controlled to ensure that measurement is comparable and consistent. ■


1Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, “Badges of Rank,” (accessed September 29, 2010).

Please cite as:

Don Zettlemoyer and Rick Jacobs, "Transforming a Police Agency by Connecting Training, Performance, and Assessment to Promotion," The Police Chief 77 (November 2010): 54–56, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 11, November 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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