Earlier this week, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a new report—entitled Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles—stating that the way in which new recruits are presently trained for their career in law enforcement presents an "immediate crisis for policing."
The authors opined that "while policing has changed dramatically in the last few decades, the way in which police recruits are trained has not fundamentally changed all that much" and that many—if not most—of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the country should seriously rethink how they train new recruits for the job.
In the report's introduction, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler lamented that many police academies in the United States continue to utilize a "paramilitary, boot camp-like model that emphasizes discipline, deportment, following orders, and a strict hierarchy where recruits are often on the lowest rung."
Wexler went on to suggest that an alternative model might be found overseas—specifically, at the Scottish Police College at Tulliallan Castle in Kincardine—where recruit training emphasizes communications skills in the classroom, in scenario-based training, and "even in the halls of the academy."
Of course, there are myriad differences between policing the 5.5 million good people of Scotland and policing an unwieldy—and sometimes unruly—population of 332 million here in America. For starters, the homicide rate in the entire United Kingdom is one per 100,000 people annually—that stat in the States is seven times higher.
The 78-page report is well worth reading in its entirety—trainers and administrators can take from the "40 Guiding Principles" what they choose for further deliberation and later action, and leave other elements entirely aside.
In the meantime, here are a few recommendations upon which there is likely to be fairly widespread agreement and approval.
Aligning Academy & FTO
Several of the "guiding principles" address field training. Among those elements worthy of serious contemplation are suggestions that "academy and field training should be developed in tandem, to help ensure continuity between the two" and that there should be "comprehensive training" for FTOs "that includes periodic refreshers on what is being taught to recruits in the academy."
This seems like such an obvious "fix" but in altogether too many places—and among a certain, specific subgroup of officers—a culture persists in which one of the first things an FTO says to a rookie cop is, "All that stuff you learned in the academy? Forget it. I'm going to show you how things really work."
There is absolutely something to be said for the perspective of the seasoned street cop who has for years put into practice what is dutifully described in classroom lectures, but undermining the entire academy process is unnecessarily and unhelpful.
By more closely integrating the continuing education of FTOs with academy curriculum, a more seamless transition to the street can be made for the next generation.
Embracing New Technologies
Several of the "guiding principles" examine the increased use of available and emerging technologies that "promotes collaboration and distance learning" as well as enables the adoption of new "developments in Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) training applications."
Perhaps the only positive educational outcome of the entire COVID-19 pandemic was a collective realization that online learning platforms—particularly those that include interactive distance learning—can allow educational institutions to incorporate into their training cadres subject matter experts from anywhere in the world. Any academy in America can now add blocks of instruction on topics that—while potentially critical to improving officer performance—often fall outside of the purview of the instructors on staff.
Further, through the use of emerging VR and AR platforms, scenarios can be built that very closely simulate real-world events. VR and AR technology can allow instructors to "flex" the direction of scenarios—both "everyday" and high-risk situations—in real time so myriad different outcomes can be presented and different approaches can be practiced.
The PERF report correctly cautions that academies should "not become overly reliant on training simulators," noting that "live, in-person scenarios play a critical role in recruit training."
Encouraging Officer Wellness
Several of the "guiding principles" stress the importance of officer health and wellbeing, noting in particular that "a culture of wellness should be established within the academy beginning on the first day" and that "physical fitness should be incorporated throughout recruit training, and it should be treated as part of a career-long focus."
It's fun to make fun of firefighters for their annual "beefcake" calendars full of muscled young men (and sometimes women) dressed in only half of their turnout gear, but those physiques are the outcome of an ethos that encourages being physically fit.
A growing number of agencies across the country are adopting policies that set aside "on-duty" time for working out in the company gym. This should be a more universal—no pun intended—practice, beginning with the academy and going through an officer's entire career.
Even more importantly, academies should place increased emphasis on raising awareness of—and teaching the ability to recognize signs of—stress, cynicism, anger, and burnout. Recruits should be given the tools to ensure their own emotional survival before they begin a career that is 100% sure to present them with untold psychological and emotional trauma. Recruits should also be given insights into how to successfully provide emotional support for a fellow officer in need of help.
The PERF report correctly contends that "the reality of officer suicide must also be part of the wellness training provided to all recruits."
Rethinking "Reimagining Policing"
The PERF report suggests that police leaders and trainers should reconsider:
- What recruit academy curriculum contains
- How academies are operated and staffed
- How the training is delivered—and by whom
- How to more effectively use reality-based scenario training
- How recruit training integrates with field training
Among the other "guiding principles" in the report are also concepts such as:
- Training centered on critical thinking and values-based decision making
- Hiring/utilizing instructors outside of the law enforcement profession
- Developing and implementing national standards for recruit training
- Substantially increasing the financial investment made in police training
- Encouraging community participation in curriculum development and review
Some of this stuff has real merit—some is plainly pablum meant to placate police critics.
The term "reimagining policing" has been hijacked—for mostly nefarious purposes—by individuals and groups whose real objective is to disrupt, dismantle, and/or destroy the profession and remake it in an entirely different form.
The report's conclusion that we "rethink—and remake—the system for how new police officers are trained" is only half-right. Giving careful consideration to new ideas and approaches (rethinking) is an appropriate activity in any endeavor, but a total system rebuild (remaking) is neither necessary nor even achievable.
If police trainers can examine—with an objective and critical eye—some of the suggestions made in the new PERF report on recruit training, a great deal of good can potentially come of it for officers, agencies, and the communities they serve.