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Back to Archives | Back to September 2006 Contents 

4 Questions for Return on Investment: Choosing the Right Training

By Scott Brown, School Director, General Instructor Training, North Carolina Justice Academy, Salemburg, North Carolina.

olice chiefs have a vested interest in ensuring proper training for their employees. Considering the need to carefully manage the available resources to offset the time officers are away from their duties and the actual cost of the training program means that the chiefs and the department managers have to make tough choices about what training their officers will attend. With hundreds of training opportunities available to law enforcement officers every month, knowing which programs are worth the expense is difficult. However, the following four questions act to vet any training event to help decide the training's expected value—or the return on investment.

Question 1. What does the training attempt to teach?
To discover what a training event aims to teach requires more than just reading the title or even the short description announcing most training opportunities.

Quality training is based on solid learning objectives. Objectives should at least indicate what the students will be able to do (as opposed to what they will know) when the training is completed. Ideally, the objectives should indicate what level of mastery and under what conditions the students will be able to complete the task. For example:

Learning Objective: In an arrest scenario, the students will demonstrate the ability to properly search an individual, identifying and removing all contraband hidden on his or her person.

This learning objective states clearly what the student will be able to do: "…conduct a search for contraband..." It also indicates what degree of mastery the student will achieve: "…identifying and removing all contraband…" Finally, the objective clarifies the conditions: "In an arrest scenario…"

A poorly defined objective is written like this: "The students will learn to properly search an arrestee." This poorly defined objective leaves questions unanswered: how will the instructor know whether the student has learned to search an arrestee, under what conditions the student will prove that knowledge, and how well will the student be able to search the arrestee.

Well-written learning objectives indicate—but do not guarantee—the training program will achieve the department's expectations. Poorly written learning objectives—or no learning objectives at all—warn that the training may not be well organized, conceived, or likely to impart the skills being sought.

Question 2. Is the skill being taught needed?
No matter how well done the training is, it is worthless if the officer will not use it. Self-initiated training requests by employees often identify opportunities to better prepare officers for their current jobs. At some other times the motivation may be questionable, such as when employees identify potential training programs that will build skills for a perceived future need or that will stimulate their intellectual thirst, or even just to get time away from normal duties, or to build skills to use in part-time work or in future employment. All of these waste the agency's valuable training resources.

When the request for training is either self-initiated by the officer or identified by the department management, requiring the details in a two-step evaluation will ensure that the officer will use the training.

Step one is to require a detailed explanation how the agency will benefit from the officer's improving or gaining the skills through the training. The description should clearly link the training's goals and its learning objectives and the employee's job responsibilities and/or the department goals.

Defining the benefits of training in clear terms—rather than vague catchphrases—ensures the training will help the students' day-to-day work effort. It also reinforces that managers expect results, if not improvements, from the training once the employee returns to work.

If the training's value cannot be articulated, the training is probably not the best use of scarce training resources.

Step two in the vetting process is the training debriefing policy. Before the training program, work with the attending officer and determine the best way to pass on the training's benefits to the student/officer's colleagues. The returning officer should at least take a few minutes at roll call to brief the work unit on what he or she learned in training and how it applies to the agency.

Training debriefs have a dual purpose: encouraging the student to take on the role of teacher and ensuring that the whole work unit gains some benefit from the officer's training experience.

If the training had little value, the officer must be free to report that fact. Knowing what training to avoid is as important as what training to attend. If the first officer who attends alerts managers that the training is poor or off target for the agency, the agency will save valuable training resources by not sending other officers to the same training.

Another benefit of training is networking. Certainly, the networking that happens in training is valuable and can benefit the agency and the officer. Being able to remove bureaucratic barriers through contacts developed at training opportunities is a benefit, however, the main reason for training should always be to improve an employee's performance and further the organization's goals.

Question 3. Will the officer be able to use the new skills soon after training?
A primary fact of the adult learning process is that adults will quickly lose any new skill that they do not use soon after learning. Therefore, the training event should allow for plenty of practice time, but the practice has to continue once the employee returns to the workplace, or the skills will fade quickly.

Ideally the "just in time" training event meets this need by providing training just before the employee needs to use a skill, allowing him or her to implement and practice the training. For example, sending an employee to a class on the new report-writing software that will be implemented in six months only gives the employee six months to forget the training. Instead, training should occur just before the new software's rollout.

Officers must remain proficient in many skills that their chiefs hope they will never have to use such as firearms skills, CPR, and self-defense techniques. The best way to increase the likelihood of officers retaining those skills is through refresher training and informal practice. Arranging access for officers to a firearms range or a gym to practice techniques or having CPR instructors give brief reminders about how to check for breathing or the compression-to-breath ratios in shift briefings aid in maintaining these skills. These practice sessions will not—and should not—replace the formal training, but the practice will help keep up the officer's skills.

Question 4. What is the True Cost?
Tuition costs are just the tip of the iceberg for training costs. Lost time, travel expenses, books, and equipment all add to the overall expense of training.

Lost time includes more than the employee's salary for the time off the job. The true time costs also include the cost of the employee's benefit package; replacement cost (the cost of paying someone else to cover the employee's duties while in training); organizational overhead cost; and the cost of maintaining the empty office or vehicle during the training absence. These factors should be figured in the time away from work related to the training in arriving at the actual cost.

Travel expenses include transportation considerations such as airline tickets, rental cars, mileage or the use of the agency's vehicle, as well as lodging, meals, parking, and tips.

Some training programs may require particular textbooks or specific equipment brands that include in the equation. Find out early on from the training providers exactly what is included in the price of the training, and what will be an extra expense.

Table !
Table 1 illustrates the total costs for sending an officer making $35,000 per year to one day of training with tuition of just $299.

The Bottom Line
Once the real costs of training have been determined, decide if the expected benefit is worth the cost. In some cases, that benefit can be quantified monetarily, however, law enforcement training is often measured in terms of lives saved or cases cleared, benefits that are not easily quantified. When that is the case, chiefs must simply ask the tough question, "Is the possible benefit worth the total cost?"

Protecting the agency's training resources is not only a wise move; it is a chief's responsibility. Training decisions should not be taken lightly. Quality training can be the salvation of a well-run police department. The officers and the community depend on the chief to find the best training that the department's budget can provide. Thinking about these four questions when making decisions about training opportunities will help to ensure that employees are well trained without wasting those valuable resources. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 9, September 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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