The Police

III. The Modern Era Police

In fundamental ways, modern police departments remain slaves to their history. In the 1970s, Jonathan Rubinstein (1973) commented that understanding what police do is difficult because they have such a wide variety of tasks. Thirty-six years later, this statement remains as true as it did then. Citizens are split between viewing the police in positive terms, calling them brave “crime fighters” and heroes, and referring to them negatively, as corrupt, heartless, and brutal. Often, these different views are influenced by a citizen’s experiences with the police and whether it was a positive or a negative one. Partly because of severe criticisms of the police by citizens, policing has been forced to change and develop into what it is today.

Although much of policing has changed drastically since its initiation into American government, changes in the selection and training of officers have been among the most important. There were few standards when hiring officers during the early years of policing, and practically no training. In fact, positions on the police force often were viewed as a reward for loyalty to political parties who were in power. Newly elected officials often fired existing officers and hired their political supporters. As a result, citizens thought of the police as nothing more than political “hacks,” enforcing the interests of those in power. This corrupt system of hiring officers has developed into the very elaborate and professional civil service hiring systems present in most departments today. Further, the practice of virtually no training of officers that existed earlier has progressed into the long and arduous training programs found in most departments today.

A. Recruitment and Selection of Officers

The importance of recruitment and selection cannot be emphasized enough. As police work is labor-intensive, and a large percentage of an agency’s budget is devoted to personnel issues, the officer is the most significant investment a police department can make. Police agencies are always looking for innovative ways to attract and retain good officers. Once an individual decides he or she wants to enter police work, the agency must screen the person for characteristics that make a good police officer. This is known as “selecting in,” a strategy that identifies those individuals best suited for police work. The agency must also eliminate or “screen out” those applicants who are unfit for police work. Many tests are available to evaluate someone’s psychological and physical characteristics to determine if success in police work is likely. There are multiple hurdles for recruits to pass. Unfortunately, there are no clear and accepted criteria to determine which candidates will make the best police officers. One reason for this uncertainty was suggested by Brenner (1989), who noted that an officer must be able to adapt to various situations and use a variety of styles and approaches, depending on the circumstances. He points out that officers must interact with violent criminals and distressed victims, perhaps during the same interaction, and it is unlikely that an officer’s behavior will satisfy all of the stakeholders all of the time. As it is extremely difficult to determine an applicant’s fitness for duty, officers must pass the many hurdles. Each decade or era has its own problems associated with the recruitment of police officers. The overall economy plays a role, as does the country’s involvement in war and the use of the military. In fact, these and other issues also impact trained police officers when they return from a leave or other assignment. There is enormous variance in the selection procedures and training among agencies, so the following discussion illustrate the options agencies have at their disposal to review and assess candidates.

Traditionally, police departments use standardized written tests to assess basic skills and attitudes. The use of traditional pen-and-pencil tests has been criticized for its lack of predictive ability, which has led many agencies to supplement these tests with a more comprehensive assessment procedure. Departments using this method process applicants through a series of assessments, including simulated and role-play activities. The activities are developed to force a person to respond to situations and individuals who “test” the person’s character and ability to negotiate in a specific situation. Common examples of simulations used in assessment centers include a domestic altercation, a routine traffic stop, or a bar fight.

In addition, officers are given medical exams and physical agility tests that involve job task simulations, such as lifting weights through windows, carrying heavy objects, and other tasks that might confront a police officer on the job. Officer candidates are often given a polygraph test to determine if they have told the truth about their backgrounds or past experiences on their application forms and in their interviews. One area that is investigated is prior drug use history.

Further, applicants are often interviewed by an individual or a group of commanders. These interviews are designed to determine a candidate’s ability to communicate and to respond to difficult questions. Once an applicant has passed these initial hurdles, he or she is sent to training. This training varies from state to state and agency to agency, but all have some common elements, including preservice, field, and in-service training.

B. Academy Training

Police academies can be run by the department or by the state, and they can be independent or connected to community colleges or universities. The average length of academy training is approximately 600 hours, but varies from state to state. Regardless of the total number of hours required at the academy, the training and education is an experience that plays a significant role in shaping the officer’s attitudes about policing in general, including ways to address specific tasks, and the role of the police in society.

The building blocks of a good law enforcement training program are anchored to two issues: First, the programs should incorporate the proper statement of mission and ethical considerations, which should be taught in the context of what an officer will do on a daily basis. Second, there must be a balance of time spent on “high-frequency” versus “high-risk” activities in the required training. In the 21st century, it is also necessary to prepare police officers to think, make good decisions, and to respond to a variety of difficult situations.

Recruits must pass the requirements of the academy to graduate. Many academies insist that the recruit pass all courses the first time to graduate, while other academies have built-in provisions for remedial training to help marginal students pass. Academies use a variety of methods to evaluate and grade the progress of their recruits, such as multiple-choice tests, role-play exercises, written answer tests, and oral tests. Once graduated, with newly acquired attitudes and skills, the young officer is often required to enroll in departmental training or could be assigned street work with a field training officer. Unfortunately, others are sent directly to the street, with gun, badge, and vehicle, with no further training.

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