Police training is a process by which teachers communicate to police personnel job-related knowledge and skills and assist them in mastery of the material. Training occurs at recruit, field, and in-service levels. Sworn police personnel, nonsworn personnel, or police psychologists, who have special knowledge of police behavior, present the training topics. Psychological knowledge, in part from experimental, social, heath, clinical, industrial-organizational, educational, and sport psychology, has informed police recruits and incumbent officers in three general topical areas of training: wellness, information and skills, and supervision and management. Training sometimes crosses over all three areas. Police trainers make informed decisions about the effectiveness of training when they evaluate police performance and training curricula. Psychological knowledge has provided trainers an understanding of the conceptual grounding and application of evaluation methods at the individual officer level and at the training program level.
Recruit, Field, and In-Service Police Training
Agency-affiliated, regional, and college-sponsored police academies provide recruit (or basic) training. Large municipal and state police agencies usually establish agency-affiliated (or individual) academies. Regional (or statewide) academies typically provide basic training for local city and town police recruits. In some states such as California, some individuals interested in becoming police officers attend college-sponsored police-training academies, where they take part in basic police training and earn college credit. Among academies, the length of training time varies. Some recruits receive as little as 8 weeks of training, whereas others receive as much as 32 weeks. State Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) commissions set the minimum length of recruit training time. Police academies may add training time to the minimum required by state POST commissions. Generally, agency-affiliated training academies require more hours of training than do regional or college-sponsored ones.
When police recruits graduate from basic training, most of them enter Field Training Officer (FTO) programs implemented by their agencies. FTO programs have recruits—now field trainees—ride along with incumbent officers who have formal training in teaching established program curricula and evaluating trainee performance in actual work conditions. Police trainees learn agency-specific policies and practices and work-area-relevant information. The duration of their field training and evaluation period may be as little as 10 weeks or as much as 24 weeks.
Once police trainees complete their FTO programs, they receive periodic in-service (or refresher) training during which they relearn, practice, and correct acquired job-related knowledge and skills. In-service training aims to reduce forgetting and performance deterioration, which naturally result from the passage of time. It sometimes involves acquiring new knowledge or specialized skills. Some police agencies require officers from all organizational levels to participate in in-service training. Some agencies excuse their executive officers (e.g., chiefs) from having to participate in some types of in-service training, such as self-defense tactics, because executive officers rarely respond to calls for service that have a potential for violence. The length of in-service training varies among police agencies. It sometimes depends on the minimum standards set by state POST commissions. Often, training time is a function of departmental fiscal budgets, legislative mandates, and union contracts. The content of in-service training curricula also varies among police agencies: Some include only subject matter that is legislatively mandated (e.g., firearms training); some include a variety of topics, such as domestic violence, use of force, and diversity training; and others include curricula established by state POST commissions.
At the recruit-training level, state POST commissions determine and approve the basic training curricula. Generally, they require training in the subject areas of administration of justice, fitness, law, police procedures, use of force, police professionalism, and community relations. Typical examples of training within these subject areas are examining the role of the police, making lifestyle changes, using discretionary power, making decisions to use force against citizens, becoming aware of personal cultural influences, and responding to perceptions of bias-based policing. These exemplars represent issues surrounding police behavior that have their roots in the field of psychology.
Police Wellness Training
There is concern about officers’ health having an impact on their job performance. Unhealthy behaviors, from poor diet to glumness, contribute to illness and poor job performance. Training that promotes wellness can assist officers in controlling unhealthy behaviors, making positive lifestyle changes, developing healthy attitudes, and performing job-related tasks at optimal levels. Some topics that are a part of wellness training for the police are alcohol abuse, critical incident survival, and stress management.
Following a work shift, drinking with brother and sister officers—jocularly known as “choir practice”—is a tradition through which police officers socialize, develop camaraderie, and manage stress. Choir practice often involves excessive drinking. Teaching police officers to make positive and healthy decisions about alcohol use is a part of wellness training.
Critical Incident Survival
A majority of law enforcement officers leave their jobs within 5 years of taking part in critical incidents such as an officer-involved shooting. Police officers may experience negative thoughts and feelings and perceptual distortions during critical incidents, which affect their performance levels. Educating police officers about responses to critical incidents, and the physical and mental techniques that can be used to survive them, is a preventive effort that is a part of critical-incident survival training.
Police officers find their work stressful because of unfavorable physical, psychological, or social stressors, such as working late shifts, making deadly-force decisions, or working with poor equipment. Health issues, alcoholism, family problems, and suicide are correlates of police stress. Helping police officers inoculate themselves against stress by making life- and work-style changes, giving them skills to offset negative stress effects, and providing information on peer support services and mental health programs are a part of stress management training.
Other Wellness-Related Training Topics
Psychological knowledge is available on eating healthy, controlling weight, and stopping smoking, which are health-enhancing behaviors that police trainers may discuss as a part of wellness training.
Information and Skills Police Training
Police academies and agencies have a responsibility to provide police officers with information on, and skills training in, particular tasks they are likely to perform on the job. Police trainers use different pedagogical methods such as classroom lectures, experiential activities, role-plays, and simulated scenarios to present information and skills-training topics. Hands-on training involves individual skill work, which focuses on individual responsibilities. Sometimes, trainers couple individual skill work with collective skill work, which focuses on team or group training. The following are some topics that are a part of information and skills training.
Managing Intercultural Differences
Police-citizen contacts sometimes involve the police confronting the values and practices of members of cultures different from their own, which leads to uncertainty and inter-cultural conflicts. When police officers make hitherto unknown cultures familiar, understand individuals and families from cultures different from their own, and understand the cultural meaning of their own behaviors, they broaden their cultural problem-solving strategies. All these behaviors are a part of training that helps the police develop cross-cultural competence to manage intercultural differences.
Profiling is a long-standing policing method by which officers measure criminal suspicion. Police officers make decisions of criminal suspicion under probable or uncertain conditions and with limited information that is sometimes imperfect, and thus, their decisions to act may be wrong. Informing police officers about how mental processes—heuristics, subjective reality, confirmation bias, intuition, common sense, forming impressions, overconfidence, and response bias—may wrongly influence their decisions of criminal suspicion is a part of training on police profiling.
Conducting Criminal Investigations
Conducting eyewitness identification procedures, interrogating suspects, and using lie detection equipment are crucial activities in criminal investigations. Information and skills training, in which police trainers use pyschological knowledge of best investigative practices, includes teaching police officers that showing eyewitnesses photos sequentially rather than simultaneously reduces the chances of misidentification, that threatening punishment during custodial interrogations sometimes causes suspects to confess falsely, and that using the control question technique in concert with the polygraph device is preferable.
Other Information and Skills Training Topics
Managing interactions with mentally ill individuals, making use-of-force decisions, and handling barricaded suspect/hostage situations are all job-related events for the police. Police trainers may present such topics as a part of information and skills training.
Supervisory and Management Police Training
Supervisory and management training is an essential part of organizational health. It focuses on police managers (or supervisors) developing skills so that they can effectively and efficiently influence, lead, and supervise police personnel to meet agency needs and carry out agency objectives. Managers need cognitive skills to diagnose personnel problems, behavioral skills to help personnel modify problem behaviors, and communication skills to communicate desired behaviors to accomplish organizational goals. Training associated with such skills has its roots in psychology, which has helped the police develop a rudimentary understanding of the workings of police behavior in the organizational setting. These skills are a part of advanced police-training programs that law enforcement, academic institutions, and private organizations offer. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy offers a course to develop managers of police organizations. Particular training areas, which constitute the course curriculum and have psychological knowledge richly embedded in them, are leadership development and behavioral science. Diagnosing, managing, and changing behavioral problems in the police setting are a part of the leadership development component. A part of the behavioral science unit of training is the psychology of stress.
Police Evaluation Methods
Evaluation of police performance and training curricula occurs at the individual officer and training program levels, respectively. At the individual officer level, police trainers use informal and formal evaluation methods. Informal evaluation of police performance occurs during teaching activities. Trainers consider officers’ learning and memory differences and monitor their performance in these terms: knowledge, capacity, strategic, retrieval, and gender. For example, police trainers recognize that officers have different learning styles: visual, auditory, reading, writing, and tactile-kinesthetic. They present course material in a visual and written format; they encourage officers to take notes, ask questions, and be active in classroom dialogues; they lecture; and they have officers participate in hands-on tasks.
Formal evaluation methods take the form of written tests or practical examinations. Written tests rely on content validity. Police trainers achieve content validity by using only material that they present during training to construct written tests. To make sure that written tests are representative of the training material, trainers sometimes construct a complete list of the training material and select questions randomly from it. The purpose of using written tests to evaluate police personnel is to determine whether they have mastered the content of the training program.
Practical examinations involve evaluation of performance on hands-on or scenario-based tasks. For example, a police trainer evaluates an officer’s performance on an interactive computer-simulated enforcement task that requires the officer to respond to a suspect who is actively resisting arrest. The trainer evaluates the extent to which the officer’s response and decision making reflect endorsed training practices, accepted legal principles, and approved police policies.
At the training program level, evaluating the effectiveness of a program is a challenging and expensive task that requires cooperation at all levels of the police organization. Carrying out a program evaluation requires knowledge and skills in social science research and statistical methodology. Police psychologists (or other social scientists) who have knowledge of the police culture are the ones most likely to evaluate a police-training program. They may do a utilization-focused evaluation, which is a comprehensive approach that focuses on the intended use of the training program by intended users. Major evaluation activities are describing the training program and evaluating its process, outcomes, and utilization. Not all police-training programs are subjected to evaluation or are worth evaluating, especially poorly designed ones. Police administrators and trainers make informed program decisions, however, when they use outcomes from what evaluators do measure.
- Haberfeld, M. R. (2002). Critical issues in police training. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Patton, M. Q. (1997). Utilization-focused evaluation: The new century text (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- White, E. K., & Honig, A. L. (1995). The role of the police psychologist in training. In M. I. Kurke & E. M. Scrivner (Eds.), Police psychology into the 21st century (pp. 257-277). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.