John Sloan is Professor Emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham whose research interests include police recruitment, training, and ethics.
Gene Paoline is Professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and former Chair of the Division of Policing for the American Society of Criminology whose research interests include police culture, use of force, and training.
The trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on charges of second degree murder in the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 has brought into sharp relief the training U.S. police officers receive. Evidence presented to date in the trial shows that Chauvin misused physical constraints officers are trained to use when responding to someone who is resisting arrest. The prosecution claims Officer Chauvin’s purposeful misuse of the constraints directly resulted in Mr. Floyd being asphyxiated.
The killing of George Floyd is but one in a long series of well-documented incidents over the past decade where unarmed citizens in the U.S., disproportionately people of color, experienced excessive – including deadly – force by police during the encounter. As a result, heated debate continues in the U.S. over policy responses to police violence. Some critics have opined the only option is to abolish the police and replace them with other systems of public safety. Others have urged defunding the police and redirecting that funding to other areas such as mental health, housing, and other programs. Still others have argued what is needed is “reimagining” police training by completely overhauling it.
Questions about the training of U.S. police officers are not new. During the 20th century, for example, at least three major commissions were created to reform the police and included a focus on police training. The most recent example of such a commission was the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing convened by the Obama administration and which focused a great deal of attention to perceived deficits in both basic law enforcement training (BLET) for new hires as well as in-service training for officers on the job. Among others, the Task Force recommended the federal government partner with training facilities to promote consistent standards, establish training innovation hubs involving universities and police academies, and create a national postgraduate “institute of policing” for senior-level police officials that would include a standard curriculum preparing them to lead agencies into the 21st century.
The problem as we see it, is little research has been conducted on BLET and most of what has been done has focused on basic training occurring at a few academies. In fact, a large portion of BLET research involves case studies conducted at a few academies. To our knowledge, no national-level studies of U.S. police training academies – where most BLET occurs – have been published since the 1980s. To remedy this, we have been examining the structure and organization of BLET using data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from the population of U.S. academies offering such training in 2011-2013, the third wave of data collection (a fourth wave of data has been collected and is currently being prepared for public release). The BJS census compiles information on the number and type of staff employed, academy budgets and sources of funding, number of officers trained and their demographic characteristics, policies and practices, and training curriculum.
To understand the importance of BLET, it’s important to place it into a larger context relating to how new officers are exposed to and begin the process of socialization into their occupation. For example, in America, these individuals have been recruited into policing and gotten through a rather extensive hiring process that includes civil service tests, background checks, drug tests and polygraph exams, and one-on-one interviews with department officials in charge of hiring. Another major hurdle is completing BLET at a police academy.
New hires are typically “sponsored” by the hiring department and while technically they can attend any of the approximately 600 accredited academies operating across the U.S., they usually attend an academy preferred by the hiring department, often one the department operates. And while one can classify academies any number of ways, we suggest there are two basic types: law enforcement agency academies (LEAAs) operated by or formally affiliated with municipal, state, or county police departments, and academic institution academies (AIAs) operated by or formally affiliated with two-year or four-colleges or universities or with local public school systems through “career centers” or similar operations. About 56% of U.S. academies are LEAAs and 44% are AIAs.
On average and regardless of which type of academy attended, new recruits will be required to complete about 837 contact hours of BLET – about 21 weeks of eight-hours-per-day, five days a week – which, in its own right, is impressive and suggests new officers are not being rushed to the streets. Most of the contact hours (about 680 hours on average) consist of training in the BLET “core curriculum” that includes six substantive areas that in turn are comprised of specific topics: operations (seven topics), weapons/defensive tactics (three topics), “special topics” (16 topics), self-improvement (six topics), legal issues (three topics), and community-oriented policing (COP) (four topics). Using various methods including lecture, scenario-based training, and adragogy (adult focused learning), both full-time and part-time academy instructors deliver the training and evaluate recruits’ performance using different tests, including written, oral, and skills- or competency-based.
Research we’re conducting on BLET curricula at U.S. academies reveals several interesting patterns. While between type-of-academy differences exist, we nonetheless find striking similarities:
- About 54% (~369 hrs.) of total core basic law enforcement training hours are devoted to just two areas: operations (33%; ~225 hrs.) and weapons/defensive tactics training (21%; ~144 hrs.). More specifically, training is devoted to topics involving patrol tactics and procedures (25% of operations hours) and criminal investigations (21% of operations hours), along with firearms skills (47% of weapons/defensive tactics training) and defensive tactics (42% of weapons/defensive tactics training). Only about 6% (~42 hrs.) of total core training hours are devoted to COP and topics like cultural diversity and conflict management;
- About one-quarter (24%) of total training hours in the core area of “special topics” are devoted to the use of force. The remaining 15 topics comprise the rest of the training hours;
- Just over one-half (52%) of training hours in self-improvement are devoted to physical fitness. The remaining hours are devoted to five topics including communication, professionalism, ethics & integrity, stress mitigation, and the basics of a foreign language.
- Overall, approximately three-quarters (74%) of the total BLET hours are devoted to just 13 (of 39) topics, all of which seek to develop in new officers skills largely associated with “traditional” aspects of policing like use of (lethal) weapons, emergency vehicle operations, criminal investigations, report writing, traffic enforcement and accident response, patrol tactics, and criminal/constitutional law.
To be clear, we are not suggesting topics such as patrol tactics and criminal investigation should no longer be included in BLET. However, as Sue Rahr and Stephen Rice have cogently observed, “fueled by post 9-11 fear”, American policing “veered away from Sir Robert Peel’s ideal that ‘the police are the people, and the people are the police’ and toward a culture and mindset more like soldiers at war with the people [the police] are sworn to protect and serve”. Rahr & Rice also argue “The seeds of [the warrior mindset] are planted during recruit training, where some recruits are trained in an academy environment modeled after military boot camp”: a model that produces a warrior ready for battle and to follow orders and rules. The problem is while patrolling, most of the time no supervisor is present to “give orders” to officers. Rather, they are largely on-their-own to decide how to respond to myriad situations encountered when interacting with members of the community who are often people of color who neither look like the officers, or come from similar backgrounds.
To Rahr & Rice’s point about the academy “sowing the seeds” of police-as-warriors, if one assesses the proportion of time allocated to traditional policing functions – compared to training hours in non-traditional areas such as communication, cultural diversity, ethics and professionalism, and stress management – the scales clearly tip in the direction of the former. In fact, hours allocated to all of the “non-traditional” topics are less than the hours allocated to just firearms skills training or to just defensive tactics involving exerting physical control over people who are resisting officers’ efforts to arrest them.
Over 80 years ago, the American police reformer August Vollmer bemoaned the lack of personnel standards relating to officers and available training for them. Since then various commissions – convened to investigate allegations of inappropriate police behavior (individually or organizationally) and identify best practices for effective crime reduction, while building and preserving community trust – have either indirectly or directly focused their attention on the importance of police training, including that received at police academies. Thus, for nearly a century, police scholars and practitioners alike have argued the nation’s police officers should receive either more training, better training, or some combination of the two. Few of these assertions, however, have been buttressed with empirical evidence.
Our ongoing research into BLET finds that police recruits do not seem to need more training: on average, basic training involves more than five months of full-time activity. Rather, what is needed is providing recruits with different training. However, achieving that goal necessitates a complete reorientation of the BLET curriculum to deemphasize traditional aspects of policing like operations and weapons/defensive tactics geared toward teaching recruits about and preparing them to “go to war” that is too often waged disproportionately against citizens of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This new curriculum would instead emphasize to recruits the need to develop skills in communication, stress management, building partnerships with the community, and problem solving. Recruits would also internalize mounting evidence that procedural justice is inexorably linked to police legitimacy, especially in communities of color; understand that greater diversity brings strength, not weakness, to the ranks; and learn how to make ethically sound decisions while simultaneously advancing professionalism within policing. While this reorientation will likely encounter resistance, if American policing is to survive current existential threats to its continued existence and rebuild the trust that has been lost in so many communities, the choice seems obvious.
John J. Sloan, III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Eugene A. Paoline, III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida
Photographs courtesy of authors and 88192456@creativecommonsstockphotos|Dreamscape.com