As we celebrate POLICE Magazine's 40th anniversary, it's time to look back and see how these four decades impacted police training. This ruby anniversary article is about more than the transition from mimeographed handouts to PowerPoint presentations. Since 1976 law enforcement training has seen many changes as well as challenges, and it's interesting to chart that four-decade-long evolution.
Real Cop Training
The late 1980s to the early '90s was the great firearms transition era. During that time most agencies wanted to transition from revolvers to semi-autos. Today, the vast majority of American law enforcement officers carry semi-auto handguns. But the small wheel gun is still one of the more popular off-duty and back-up options.
Additionally, after the Columbine school massacre, the North Hollywood bank robbery, and the 9/11 terror attacks, agencies started to introduce the patrol rifle into the hands of primary responders. Back in the day, the only rifles in law enforcement were issued to SWAT, and the lonely but reliable pump-action shotgun was the only long gun street officers had. Today, several departments have transitioned some shotguns to less-lethal options, so now there is a selection of shoulder weapons. A few decades ago if you had told officers that soon they would be issued semi-auto pistols and carrying M4 carbines in their cars, they would have laughed. Now these weapons are the norm.
How we train with firearms today is really high technology compared to what we had in the good old days. I'm talking about the Motorola Teleprograms Inc. training films of "Shoot/Don't Shoot." My generation of officers recalls the clicking 8mm film projector in the back of the classroom during firearms training. You stood there with a revolver filled with blanks, and when or if you fired the instructor had to shut off the projector to critique you. Today, we have interactive simulators with countless options, views, and scenarios that let trainers instruct students more precisely and give students a more realistic training experience.
Force-on-force training, too, has evolved from the days when we pressed wax bullets into .38 casings. Training with wax bullets (globs) was extremely messy but it worked. Today, we have less-lethal training ammunition and weapons to take training to new heights.
I did speak of less-lethal, which is another transition story to tell. I was first issued a canister of Mace and later we transitioned to OC (oleoresin capsicum), which was more training fun. We also began to embrace less-lethal tools like bean bag rounds and ECDs (electronic control devices) to create more safe working distance and compliance of resisting subjects. It is difficult to estimate how many officers' and suspects' lives have been saved and serious injuries avoided since the adoption and deployment of these tools. While some critics and some media would not agree, ask any old retired coppers for their opinions. The old guys will reiterate that lives could have been saved and injuries could have been reduced back in their days if they had had these tools. Forty years ago many of us only had a straight baton or a leather sap. Now expandable batons and other less-lethal weapons are utilized, reducing the risks of yesteryear.
In response to defending against litigation and intelligent application of the use of force, we have changed through the years. Once it was taught that if a suspect does this, you do that. Now we teach constitutional application of the use of force with court decisions as the teaching points. Officers are now taught to write complete reports on these incidents. Back in the day it was believed that the more you disclosed, the more you could get into trouble. Our report writing skills have also soared to new levels. The days of skimpy reports that read essentially "saw suspect and arrested same" are over.
Driving training has evolved from the days when we watched driving fast films and practiced skid control to today's training with total Emergency Vehicle Operations Courses (EVOC) that include safe/defensive driving. I recall my first emergency vehicle course involved driving like hell and spinning out on a skid pad coated with oil and water and that was about it. Now law enforcement driving training consists of hands-on driving, classroom education on the legal aspects of safe responses, and maybe some time on driving simulators with analytical printouts of your driving skills. The new driving simulators can add the cockpit distractions of the radio, mobile data terminals (MDTs), and all of the other things that capture our attention while operating vehicles. The technological advancements in law enforcement vehicle training are great, but still we lose a great number of officers to patrol vehicle accidents. So there is work still to be done in improving officer driving skills.
The 1970s saw the advent of the professional model of policing; we were trying to raise the bar to where this was indeed a profession and not just an occupation. Then as the mid '80s rolled around we began to address other causative factors that feed criminality and "quality of life" became an everyday term. It's in this era that community-oriented policing (COP) and problem-orientated policing (POP) began and the face of policing changed.
We started by bridging the gaps to our communities and often realized that we were the sole source provider of many services to our customers. Yes, great strides were made and then they eroded away, along with the grants to fuel this process.
The true days of quality COP work are over; it was labor intensive, expensive, and required longterm commitments. But we no longer have that flowing stream of grants and with cities' crumbling budgets, away went the extra manpower and all too often it only lives in name only. The COP/POP days did enlighten us to the needs of the community and made governments aware of gaps in service delivery to its constituents. Then the compstat and intelligence-led policing led us to number crunching. Now we train our officers to always check their area for cellphones, cameras, and the whole world is watching. Which brings up the body camera era of policing.
Longer academy sessions and more complex academy curriculums have evolved to encompass the newest topics and vast variety of requirements for today's officers. Stop and compare the 1976 police academy curriculum to today's curriculum. The worrisome thought is how some states have not really increased the hours but added so many topics. Some topics now are only a blush whereas we would consider extending certain topics due to their importance. Several states have increased their academy hours; many have nearly doubled.
Courses and skills that were never thought of in the 1970s such as NIMS/ICS, terrorism, hazmat, domestic violence, mental health/crisis intervention, and community policing have been added. One thing I expect to see in the future is more training in using technology to its full potential. We are now learning to work smarter and with the information age we are in, all of the applications of technology will allow officers to work faster and safer, and increase production. The future will have great potential for all. I foresee a day when police academy students will be issued a smart pad with all of the academy material and references at their fingertips.
Still, the fight is with administrators who do not see the value of the enhanced curriculum; sadly, many feel that the student-contact hours from their academy experience is still valid. "What was good enough for me is good enough for them" is extremely flawed and nearly criminally dangerous.
Many academies now are also adding or are requiring online or outside study courses for students as a way of keeping the academy hours down. It is my hope that they get their thinking toward properly training their officers rather than holding down their training budgets. You cannot solve tomorrow's problems with yesterday's thinking. Our newest officers will be facing a career of new challenges that we do not even foresee at this time.
I foresee the future as one of instantaneous information flow for officers and investigators. Gone will be the days of a "cold contact." We will know more about the incident and its participants before the first contact. The cartoon strip of Dick Tracy and his space age gadgetry comes to mind. We already have talking watches so this is not far off. The application of information and technology will be another area that training will have to adapt to. As the technology changes, its applications and the skills of people who need to use it will forever be in an update mode. And of course, agencies will have to balance the public's fear of "big brother" and its rights with the same public's demand for more informed decisions from us.
As I look back at my career from the training perspective, it has spanned a period of major transition. I only wish the old commanders of the '70s would visit today's academies. What they would notice rather than curriculum additions and technology applications would be the students.
Are today's students any smarter than we were back then? In some ways, yes. This generation possesses far more technological savvy, as they grew up with computers at their fingertips for their entire life. But they are still made like we are of blood, sweat, and the desire to make a difference in their DNA. I think this vocation is going to be all right into the future and I can't wait to read the golden anniversary issue of POLICE in 2026.
William L. "Bill" Harvey is a 35-year police veteran now serving as a chief of police in south-central Pennsylvania. He is on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and is a POLICE Magazine advisor. He can be reached at [email protected].