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Back to Archives | Back to October 2005 Contents 

21st Century Issues Related to Police Training and Standards

By Patrick L. Bradley, Executive Director, Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, Sykesville, Maryland, and First Vice President of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training

aw enforcement in Western culture is already several centuries old. Even the most causal reflection will identify the magnitude of change over the years. Police museums are populated with mannequins wearing tricorn hats and buckskins, high crown helmets, and greatcoats. Modern uniforms are produced from fire-retardant fabrics with cargo pockets and packets for bullet-resistant vests. In the near future these fabrics will be weather-responsive, self-cleaning, and protective against a score of biochemical hazards. Firearms for police have evolved from cap-and-ball revolvers to today's semiautomatic weapons with high-capacity fast-loading magazines. Handguns now have night sights, lasers, and a multiple safety devices. Police weapons with neurological disrupters and muscle immobilizers are entirely predictable for the next generation of officers. Reporting technology has advanced from the snub pencil to preformatted paper report forms to online computer-based reporting from mobile digital terminals. Information about crime and criminals is available on handheld personal data devices. The wanted poster has given way to Amber Alert electronic billboards. Gone are the days of three-by-five cards and pin maps as crime mapping and geographical profiling comes of age. DNA "fingerprinting" and universal access to databases will dramatically alter the investigative skills and resources for the 21st century police detective.

For all these material and technical advances, the essential component to any successful law enforcement operation that has gone fundamentally unchanged over the years is the police officer. Under the uniform, behind the weapon and the technology, is the man or woman selected to ensure public safety in America's communities. It is time to reexamine the processes employed to ensure that those who are willing to be police officers are also capable of protecting our lives and property, securing civil liberties, and exercising the authority entrusted to them.

Across the United States, in nearly every state and commonwealth, the task of determining the suitability of police officer candidates has been delegated to a particular committee, council, board, or commission. Generally made up of police executives and sheriffs, academicians, and elected or appointed officials, these peace officer standards and training groups, or POSTs, are responsible for determining the eligibility criteria to be a certified law enforcement officer in their state. In many jurisdictions the POST also sets the training standards for recruits as well as requirements for ongoing professional development courses. This article explores the challenge to the American POSTs as they contemplate the demands on the 21st-century police officer.

Standards for Certification
Every POST has identified basic standards for certification as a police officer. The IADLEST Reciprocity Handbook, published by International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), consolidates police officer employment requirements gathered from all 50 state POSTs and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The updateable document contains reciprocity provisions of states for officers who received training elsewhere, addresses, and phone numbers in all 50 states and the minimum basic training hours for each state.1

Citizenship: A near-universal criteria for certification as a police officer in any state is U.S. citizenship. Either by native birth or naturalization, candidates have expressed or are assumed to have an abiding appreciation for, and understanding of, the U.S. Constitution, civil liberties, and fundamental freedoms. In view of the accelerating rate of immigration and the desire of many jurisdictions to have their police force reflect the diverse populations of their communities, is this criterion still essential? The absolute requirement for citizenship has already been challenged by some police agencies and compromised by a few POSTs.

Age: In some jurisdictions the minimum age requirement to be a police officer is linked to the statutory minimum age to possess a firearm. In most, however, it is a contrivance for assessing emotional development. The real underlying question is whether the candidate has the mental and emotional maturity to perform the essential tasks of a police officer in the operational atmosphere of their community. By all accounts, psychological assessment is a better barometer for this characteristic than chronological age. Then why do states continue to rely and insist on a chronological age standard? Tradition? Ease of administration? Cost of psychological testing and evaluation? Or is the reason a lack of confidence in psychological assessment? As the 21st century progresses these considerations will be eclipsed by the need for a better measurement of maturity than the age of the officer-candidate. At what point does the POST institutionalize the requirement of an actual assessment of the candidate's emotional development?

Education: Like age, education at a high school (or equivalent) level is a very common requirement for POST certification. Like age, there is a general appreciation that a candidate who completed high school possesses all of the essential mental preparation required to learn the job. This precept is as valid, or invalid, in the 21st century as it was for the last 50 years. That is, the value of the high school diploma is and has always been a product of the school's educational environment, graduation criteria, and the student's actual performance. What is unassailable, however, is the requirement that the applicant have the mental preparation (study habits, learning skills, and intellectual discipline) to learn to be an officer. As the essential tasks for law enforcement evolve, the capacity for the candidates to learn the underlying policing knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) will also change. POSTs must continuously examine how well the states' secondary education system is meeting these needs.

Not all American high schools have been successful preparing officer-candidates with the reading, science, and math skills necessary for police work. It is entirely predictable that the century ahead will witness significant advances in computer-based technology in law enforcement. Candidates will need fundamental math and science skills, not only for detection and investigation of crime but also for communication, data analysis, evidence collection and processing, and case presentation. More sophisticated job application testing is likely to supersede the high school diploma requirement as a better measurement of the candidate's readiness for the next step of preparatory training. Aptitude testing, as adopted in other professions as a criterion for training enrollment, may serve POSTs as a better indicator of the officer-candidate's capacity to learn police-related KSAs than a high school diploma.

In this century it is highly likely that all police officers will be encouraged to have a college-level education. While this standard is laudable, it is unlikely that the POSTs will universally adopt this standard for two reasons. First, POSTs set absolute minimum requirements for law enforcement officers' certification. They defer to the individual agencies or jurisdictions to expand these requirements to better address their local interests and capacities, including the requirement that officer-candidates have varying levels of college experience. Second, a college degree is no guarantee of the learning skills necessary for training. Diploma mills surfaced in the 20th century, awarding college credentials with little or no real value. The 21st century has already witnessed the emergence and proliferation of degrees-by-distance-learning universities. While some are more creditable than others, all are different from the traditional learning experiences of the previous century. A whole new evaluation of the real value of college credits in the résumés of officer-candidates must include the source, the format, and, most important, the end result of college-level education.

Physical Requirements: Another time-honored criterion for police certification has been the capacity for physical strength and agility. As evidenced by the number of litigated cases, few requirements for certification have been as troublesome for POSTs as the determination of the minimum physical performance requirements to be a police officer. The strength and agility requirements to perform the tasks of the 21st century police officer will differ from those of their predecessors. These tasks will predictably be more intellectual and scientific and less involved in brute strength. The capacity to lift a spare tire and loosen lug nuts becomes irrelevant when vehicles are equipped with run-flat tires. Overpowering the resistance of suspects with the assistance of neutralizing chemicals or stunning devices will render hand-to-hand tactics and martial arts skills less meaningful. Over the next 95 years there may be only a few essential policing tasks that will retain a requirement for a minimum capacity for strength or agility. The POSTs are obliged to ensure that these and only these justify the continuance of this certification element.

Character: Generally the rest of the common criteria for POST certification can be drawn under the heading of character. POSTs strive to ensure that the men and women authorized to enforce the law of their jurisdiction are made of the right stuff. In an effort to give some definition to such a nebulous term, POSTs have identified several measurements that they have deemed as indices of character. Among the more common measurements are school and military behavior records, endorsements from prior employers and associates, criminal histories and traffic records, credit ratings, and prior drug use.

Many of the component indicators of character are long standing and well accepted. Others, however, fluctuate as the mores and tolerances of the community change. POSTs will need to maintain an acute sensitivity to the true indicators of character while also monitoring the expectations of the community as to what kind of persons it wants as its police officers. Without a doubt each law enforcement agency and POST would like to set character standards similar to the requirements for sainthood, or at least scouting honors. Practicality must, however, be considered. Police salary levels, rotating shifts, unstable leave, and the inherent job dangers do not attract every desirable applicant. POSTs, together with their communities, must determine which characteristics are absolutely essential and which are appreciated.

One of the more troublesome components of an applicant's character is their prior experience with controlled dangerous substances. When all of the potential criminal aspects of drug use are considered, it is generally acknowledged that only a tiny fraction of the wrongdoing ever comes to light in the form of arrest or prosecution. If prior drug possession, use, or sale is measured only by arrest records, applicants with significant drug experiences will easily pass unnoticed. The alternative is self-admission. To avoid blatant deceit, these declarations must be verified.

But what of the standards themselves? What is an acceptable level of complicity in the possession, use, or sale of drugs? What is youthful indiscretion? What is experimentation? Alternatively, what is a pattern or lifestyle of deliberate actions in violation of the criminal codes?2 Across the board zero tolerance for all controlled substance categories was never the popular POST standard for police certification in the 20th century. As Americans become more comfortable with the casual use of recreational drugs, the prohibitions against these indulgences are likely to diminish. As the Ritalin generation matures, the acceptability of persons who have had drug use in their background will be more common. The standards regarding prior drug use will undoubtedly evolve during the 21st century. Because the underlying judgments and behaviors are so intrinsic to the practice of law enforcement, POSTs will need to be particularly sensitive to the changes in community acceptance of this character component.

Standards for Training
The second major category of standards for certification is training. Depending on the jurisdiction, the POST may be responsible for setting the training outcomes, composing the required curricula, and presenting the actual recruit level course. Related responsibilities may include approval, certification, and licensing of instructors, academies, and alternative programs.

Just as the standards for certification must reflect the characteristics required to be a police officer, the standards for training must reflect the minimum knowledge, skills and abilities to perform essential law enforcement tasks. It is axiomatic that, as the tasks change, the minimum training requirements must change. Again, the POSTs must be responsive. The motivation to be proactive in this area should be tempered with the purpose of the POST agency-to set minimum requirements. Design of training to address projected or potential needs may not be compatible with the regulatory authority of most POST agencies.

The evolution of law enforcement tasks will come on a variety of timelines. The transformation of policing duties has occurred as gradually as the adoption of the automobile as a patrol transportation mode, and as instantaneously as a reaction to the threat of international terrorism. From the interception of railroad mail cars by outlaws on horseback to the interception of data transmissions by identity thieves nearly a hundred years later, evolution in technology inevitably requires a responsive change to law enforcement skills. From lifting of latent fingerprints to the collection of DNA materials, investigative strategies have likewise motivated changes in fundamental police training. The constant question for the POSTs, however, remains unchanged: what are the fundamental KSAs required for officers to perform their essential job tasks?

The definition of essential job tasks was determined by POST committees, councils, boards, or commissions as they emerged during the last century. Each generated its own standards for its own police forces. Affiliation and communication among the POSTs, facilitated by IADLEST, has increased awareness that there is little difference in the essential tasks of state and local law enforcement officers in the United States regardless of jurisdiction. Form and format aside, policing skills are remarkably similar to skills applied by police officers throughout the United States. The initiation of the 21st century invites the POSTs to amalgamate their rosters of essential job tasks in a single national listing. IADLEST is well positioned and ideally suited to be the platform for this project. Such an enterprise will have a revolutionary and evolutionary impact on 21st century policing.

Recruit-level training is designed to ensure that the officer-candidate has mastered the KSAs to perform essential job tasks. To the extent these tasks are universally adopted by POSTs across the country, the referent curricula are also adaptable. With modest modification to allow for local nuances, lesson plans, supportive audiovisual programs, and education aids would be suitable for open exchange among POSTs. The benefits are obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is the potential for enhanced reciprocity among the POST agencies when considering the credibility of recruit level training already completed by an officer-candidate while a police officer in another state.

Collectively, or individually, POST agencies must continue to work closely with elected officials, academicians, social scientists, community leaders, and others to identify new duties and responsibilities for police as they emerge. A potential checklist could include the following:

  • What is the community's expectation of its police force?

  • Do these tasks involve the statutory authority to make arrests or otherwise provide services that are uniquely police functions?

  • Are these tasks to be performed by every officer or are they to be delegated to specialists?

  • Is performance of these tasks dependent on the actions of first responder officers?
    Throughout the 21st century, the responses to these questions will assist the POST determine if the task is essential and whether the training to master the task should be delivered to every officer or reserved for advanced and specialized training. Some changing tasks may also have an affect on the characteristics required to be a police officer and thus change also the standards for certification.

In-Service Training
Reviewing the evolution of law enforcement practices over the last century belies any thought that the profession is static in nature. The dynamic changes to the roster of essential tasks, fueled by revised expectations, demand requirements for retraining. POST training standards cannot end with entrance-level courses. Professional development training is critical to being responsive to change.

There are inherent challenges to establishing annual in-service training requirements and the largest challenge is cost. In nearly all on-duty training environments, the most expensive component in the classroom is the cumulative cost of the students. This cost is exacerbated when critical posts are backfilled by overtime officers while on-duty officers attend training.

During the closing years of the 20th century, POSTs got their first taste of a potential, cost-effective solution to this challenge with the emergence of distance learning technology. Internet-supported courses, produced by credible public or commercial sources, can economically deliver a wide variety of training topics. This training can be distributed to individual specialist officers or entire squads. Delivery, through the Internet, may be directed to the academy, the officers' stationhouse, or their homes. Alternatively, scheduled training transmitted from a central location to outlying receivers has many of the same cost saving benefits.

While not a panacea, particularly for skills-based training, these innovations will change the platform for in-service police training in the 21st century. POSTs, cognizant of the availability of these resources, should not shy away from their responsibility to adopt professional development training requirements as a condition for retaining certification. Additionally, POSTs with the authority to approve instructors and courses need to expand their traditional thinking and allow developing technology to participate in the training processes. Such open mindedness will set the stage for the inevitable: virtual instruction, hologram imagery, and a host of 21st-century forms of training support.

The Future
Each POST agency, in cooperation with and supported by community leaders, elected officials, professional law enforcement administrators, academicians, and the directors' association, has established a standard that each officer has passed. These standards are not arbitrary, not based on lore, supposition, or wishful thinking; rather, each required characteristic has been identified and validated as predictive of the officer's capacity to perform the job's essential functions. The characteristics are also such that any member of the community who genuinely reflects the values of the community can be a police officer. The ability to perform those same essential job functions serves as the basis for the officer's initial training. Career-long mastery of the evolving requisite skills is a POST requirement for certification. Each community can look upon its police officers with a sense of security and confidence, knowing that each officer has been certified by their POST agency.

As the community changes, either due to global or local alteration, the POST is responsible for ensuring the required characteristics for new members of its police force are adjusted accordingly. This goes for the training requirements as well. Changes were slow when the 20th century began. Now, five years into the new millennium, changes come quickly. POSTs are obliged to keep up. The local communities are counting on it. ■   

1 International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, IADLEST Reciprocity Handbook, August 22, 2005, (
2 The consideration of prior drug use as an assessment of character does not conflict with the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Character is not an evaluation of the addictive properties or physiological effects of controlled dangerous substances, but of the underlying judgments and decisions of the officer-applicant to participate in criminal activity, albeit self-admitted.
POSTs, through the authority to approve instructors and courses, need to expand from traditional training and develop a process to certify developing technology such as elearning.
The purpose of the POST agency is to set minimum requirements; individual agencies can expand these requirements to better address their local interests and needs.



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 10, October 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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