Police training, particularly that which is delivered to recruits, is designed to impart the knowledge and skills officers require to adhere to departmental procedures, policies, and practices. As such, basic training is a fundamental component of efforts to reduce excessive use of force and racially biased policing, ensure respectful and constitutional behaviors on the part of officers, and build community trust and police legitimacy. Yet far too often decisions about whether and when to invest in certain trainings are guided by the latest trends and premised on assumptions that training will be effective. It is crucial that research on the content, duration, and modality of both basic and in-service trainings guides police departments' decisions about their allocation of scarce training resources.
- Police officer training in the U.S. varies significantly across departments, is relatively limited in duration, and is not well-aligned with what’s known about effective training principles from other professions and countries.
- U.S. police officer training curricula should dedicate more time to acquiring communication skills, learning de-escalation tactics and principles of procedural justice, and handling scenarios that officers are most likely to encounter.
- Police training should comport with a resiliency-based approach, which teaches officers to recognize stress and self-regulate their responses to it, rather than the more typical “stress-oriented” military training approach, which involves intensive physical demands and psychological pressure.
- Officers should be subjected to periodic recertification that includes not just firearms training, but also other core topics.
- National standards on training and certification would ensure that all officers, regardless of jurisdiction and agency size or location, receive a sufficient level of exposure to key concepts, skills, and tactics. Federal leadership could promote and incentivize learning hubs and innovations in training delivery.
Current Practice and Research
Despite the critical importance of police officer training to the onboarding of new recruits, there is very little evidence about its effectiveness. The scant research that does exist is not promising, with studies finding that any improvements gained from training are not sustained over time, do not consistently increase self-reported police integrity, and may even reinforce racial and gender stereotyping, potentially discouraging women and people of color from entering the field. The decentralized nature of policing in the U.S. may contribute to these sobering findings, owing to the notable variation that exists in the duration, content, and delivery of police officer training.
According to a 2013 census of law enforcement training academies nationwide, the average number of hours for basic training of entry-level recruits in municipal police departments is 936 hours, or about six months. This average masks considerable variation by state. While all states have their own police training standards and certification requirements, typically governed by a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board or similar entity, basic training requirements range from 404 hours in Georgia to slightly more than 1,000 in Hawaii. Moreover, each POST organization can determine its own guidelines, leading to differences in the processes used to review training curricula and award educational credits. For field training, which involves patrol or other community-based policing in partnership with a more senior officer, the average number of hours is 630. Officers also take in-service trainings periodically, with the average number of in-service training hours at 21 hours per year, ranging from no hours at all to 40 hours per year depending on the agency.
Police officer basic training in the U.S. is of limited duration compared to other developed countries. For example, basic training duration lasts about 18 months in Estonia and Croatia, and up to 30 months in Germany. Officers in Finland and Norway are required to attend three-year police universities. In these and other countries, prospective officers may be required to pay for their own academy training while in the U.S. the training is free to those individuals who are accepted into the academy. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the number of hours a U.S. recruit is required to train prior to being sworn in is so much lower than that mandated in other comparable countries. Also striking is that within the U.S., the number of hours associated with police certification pales in comparison to minimal training requirements for other professions. For example, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia require licensing for barbers and cosmetologists, pest control applicators, and water well drillers, with an average of one year of combined training and apprenticeship for each of these professions. Plumbers must complete an apprenticeship that can take up to five years before becoming fully licensed.
Police officer basic training in the U.S. is of limited duration compared to other developed countries. For example, basic training duration lasts about 18 months in Estonia and Croatia, and up to 30 months in Germany. Officers in Finland and Norway are required to attend three-year police universities.
While there is little evidence that longer police training translates into greater benefits, research from other fields finds that longer trainings are more likely to yield their intended impacts. For example, a meta-analysis of diversity training found positive outcomes as a result of longer-duration trainings. Similarly, research on continuing education training for healthcare workers supports the hypothesis that communication skills improve with additional training hours. However, a study of in-service procedural justice training of police officers that varied training duration yielded mixed findings; one outcome improved more after a six-month training while another was more favorable with a three-month training duration. The extent to which longer-duration training requirements would improve policing outcomes remains an open research question, and duration effects likely interact with the content of the training.
An examination of the content of police training in the U.S. illustrates a greater focus on physical and technical skills than on human interaction skills, such as verbal communication, de-escalation, and crisis intervention. A Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) member survey from 2015 found that the average academy provides ten hours of training on communication skills, eight hours on de-escalation, and eight hours on crisis intervention, compared to 80 hours on weapons training and 49 hours on defensive tactics training. As illustrated in Figure 1, the 2013 census of law enforcement training academies found that the average academy offered 71 hours of firearms skills, 24 hours of basic first aid, eight hours on ethics and integrity, and six hours on stress prevention and management.
According to the 2013 census of all police academies, about half of police recruits were trained with a stress-oriented approach, while about one in five (18%) were trained in academies with “non-stress” models, which permitted a more relaxed relationship between instructors and recruits.
Figure 1: Major subject areas included in basic training programs in state and local law enforcement training academies, 2013
As with training hours, the U.S. differs from other countries in terms of basic training curricula; in other nations, there is relatively less content focused on weapons training (as well as significantly lower rates of gun ownership and community gun violence). For example, in Norway, the first full year of training is dedicated to the social role of police and their ethical obligations. In Germany, firearms training focuses on avoiding use, and in Spain, police are trained to “provide verbal cautions and warning shots before resorting to deadly force." In Japan, police are discouraged from using firearms and trained to employ martial arts as an alternative. The focus of U.S. police training content on weapons usage is reinforced through a “stress-oriented” military training approach that involves intensive physical demands and psychological pressure. According to the 2013 census of all police academies, about half of police recruits were trained with a stress-oriented approach, while about one in five (18%) were trained in academies with “non-stress” models, which permitted a more relaxed relationship between instructors and recruits.
The remainder were trained under a hybrid approach. The stress-based model is in stark contrast to the messages delivered through de-escalation, procedural justice, and mental-health trainings and can result in officers adopting maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with stress. Conversely, research has found that resiliency-based training, which teaches officers to recognize stress and self-regulate their responses to it, results in officers reporting lower stress, fewer negative emotions, and less depression. Relatedly, some experts recommend that training content should focus on strengthening officers' critical thinking, communication, and emotional intelligence skills. These skills are arguably more aligned with the typical scenarios that officers are most likely to encounter on their beats. While there is no rigorous evidence that examines the current composition of policing training content in the U.S. compared to potential alternatives, there is some evidence that training that enhances human interaction skills may improve officer-civilian interactions and reduce use of force.
Variations in training among U.S. police departments also apply to how training is conducted and who delivers the instruction. A comprehensive review of the police training literature found very little rigorous evidence on particular training modalities in policing contexts. Rather, research to date has been largely qualitative, with a focus on whether "best practices" in theories of learning are employed. For example, some experts have promoted the concept of “cognitive load theory,” which purports that people can only absorb so much information at any given time and therefore it is best to deliver content through repeated exposure. While no evaluative literature exists on the value of repeated exposure in the policing context, cognitive psychologists have produced a large body of research demonstrating that such spaced repetition is effective for knowledge retention. Similarly, two studies of booster training conclude that they may be effective in promoting better content retention, although neither study rigorously evaluated the independent impact of such refresher trainings. Social psychological research on implicit bias training in general (not specific to policing) suggests that longer-duration and more intensive interventions, including those that focus on repeated practice, may prove more effective.
Some research has found that it is critical to select trainers from within agencies who have considerable tenure and standing within the agency. Such “credible messengers” are particularly useful in delivering “charged material,” such as implicit bias training and curricula designed to increase officer awareness of historic and present-day racial biases in policing practices.
In terms of training modalities, education research emphasizes the value of autonomous learning activities rather than lecture-based approaches. Some researchers believe that such practical application and problem-based interactive teaching could be effective in policing. In addition, continuity between what is learned in the academy and in field training has been cited as important in connecting classroom instruction to real-world application, and supervisors in particular are believed to play a key role in making this connection. One of the few studies of the efficacy of different training modalities in a policing context examined whether trainees responded differently to a problem-solving approach versus a lecture-based approach. Researchers found some indication that self-reported critical thinking skills may respond more favorably to a problem-solving approach. However, officers were not randomly assigned to treatment or control conditions, rendering these findings less definitive. In terms of who should deliver police training, some research has found that it is critical to select trainers from within agencies who have considerable tenure and standing within the agency. Such “credible messengers” are particularly useful in delivering “charged material,” such as implicit bias training and curricula designed to increase officer awareness of historic and present-day racial biases in policing practices. In addition, there is some evidence that supervisory coaching can be an effective strategy for officer learning. Owens et al. (2018) assessed a Seattle Police Department intervention for which supervisors reviewed high-priority encounters involving officers who had been identified through an early intervention system as being at high risk for future adverse events. The intervention involved the supervisor meeting with the officer to discuss a recent high-priority event in a respectful manner that invited personal reflection. Researchers found positive impacts in reducing the number of arrests per incident as well as in reducing the volume of use-of-force incidents, although these impacts diminished somewhat over time.
Certification and National Training Standards
Certification is a relevant but distinct part of the process an individual must complete to become a sworn police officer. At the state level, the POST or a similar state entity certifies prospective officers and deems them eligible to serve based on their meeting certain training and/or educational standards. National standards for police certification and associated training requirements do not exist and, as a result, certification requirements vary widely across states. Certification entities may mandate education requirements, background checks, and in some instances a psychological evaluation. The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) recommends a set of minimum certification standards that include a state and national criminal background check, a General Education Development (GED) certificate, human relations courses, and training on the “ethical use of discretion." A similar proposal came from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which recommended federal support for “training innovation hubs” to promote consistent standards for high-quality training and innovation in training content and delivery.
Critical Policy Elements
- Police academies should dedicate the majority of training hours to teaching officers how to respond to the scenarios they are most likely to encounter. To achieve this, academies should reduce (if necessary) training hours on content related to rare events and topics that could be taught in less time without significantly compromising officer performance or safety. They should place a much greater focus on communications skills.
- The Department of Justice should develop national police training standards and create incentives for agencies to comply with such standards. Training on critical elements such as constitutional policing and de-escalation should be consistent across departments nationwide. However, communities should retain discretion to decide some types of training content in accordance with their size, composition, needs, and resources.
- Based on research on adult learning, police training content should be delivered through a mix of lectures, videos of real-world examples, scenario-based role playing, and group discussions.
- Training on issues of race and reconciliation for past harms should be delivered by veteran officers in partnership with residents from Black communities and other marginalized populations (e.g., the LGBTQIA community).
- First-line supervisors can play an important role in training officers by modeling good policing practices and holding officers accountable. However, in order to serve effectively in a training or coaching role, supervisors must be trained and supported by leadership. More research is needed to identify the content of such supervisor training and coaching.
- Train-the-trainer models can be an important component of effective training, making it crucial that standards for trainers be rigorous. However, smaller agencies with fewer personnel and financial constraints may have limited options in terms of who conducts training and the extent to which they themselves are formally trained.
- Routine recertification training should be mandated and cover a wide array of content beyond firearms training, to include refreshers on communications skills and de-escalation tactics.
- Efforts to increase or improve police training in the U.S. should consider the associated costs and the source of those resources. Requirements for training expansion and enhancement should not be unfunded mandates.
- Even if training programs are grounded in research and have been proven effective, training alone is not sufficient to prepare officers to police in a respectful, constitutional manner that comports with agency policies and prioritizes the preservation of life. Training should be accompanied by clear, detailed written policies and buttressed by engaged supervisors who model practices in accordance with training principles and agency policy – and hold officers accountable when they are out of compliance.