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How revamping police academies can shape the next generation of police leaders

Changing the structure and format of police academies has the potential to provide departments with leading policing experts in the classroom without any cost of travel

One of the first things we were told when we graduated the academy and arrived at work was, “Forget everything you learned in the academy, this is how we do it on the street.” While you should not forget everything from the academy, the point many field training officers are trying to make is that knowing the book is not enough to be a good officer in the field. The academy teaches the science of law enforcement, but our work is very often an art.

Where can we make time to ensure new officers get as much exposure to both the art and the science of law enforcement?

Formal police academies have existed in the United States for over fifty years, and while the class titles and the number of hours required to complete these programs have varied, the manner in which this training is delivered has remained relatively unchanged. Following in the footsteps of the early Greeks, most police academies have adopted a lecture based approach - students in seats listening to experienced law enforcement professionals from your area spewing their pearls of wisdom.

However, just because that is the way we have always done it doesn’t mean we are doing it the best we can.

What if new academy recruits could be lectured by the best experts on each topic throughout the entire curriculum? What if lecturers could be selected from a pool of experts in the state or the nation? When we consider all the experts around the country, it is unlikely that your academy has the best lecturers available for each topic. Even if you have an expert in one part of a topic such as search and seizure law, it is unlikely to also be the same person who is an expert in civil issues.

In addition, what if we adopt the best practices in adult education and leverage technology to its fullest? We could and should rework police training from the ground up. Training time is limited in the academy and at agencies. The more time we have recruits seated in our training facility listening to a lecture the less time we get for applying theory through practical exercise. I am in Florida, where barber school is 1200 hours and the police academy is 770 hours. While we can all agree that our priorities appear skewed, this is the hand we are dealt, so managing it properly is currently our only option.

Flipping the classroom
Let’s start by flipping the classroom. In its simplest form, the student’s initial exposure to the course material would occur before the class through video, readings or homework. This exposure would occur through an online learning management system that could track student participation and provide initial feedback on materials presented. This flipped classroom could also be the conduit for your academy to present a recorded video lecture from a current subject matter expert from the state, or nation, on the topic being covered. Since most academies have a statewide curriculum, this standardized lecture could also be provided statewide to ensure consistent content for all new officers. A benefit to the recruit is that this recording could be paused, rewound and played back so the student can control the pace of his or her learning. This is the science of law enforcement.

Benefits to this new approach
When students arrive in class the following day with the basic concepts in place, more time would be available for in-depth discussion with your academy instructor and more time for peer interactions. Academy instructors can then focus on discussing significant portions of the lecture and applying concepts to scenarios or issues seen on the streets. Coupled with a short question and answer period and peer interactions on the topic, the basic lecture can now be reinforced in the academy setting. Group projects, scenario-based training and other practical performance testing can all be used to ensure students can understand, apply and analyze the course work. This additional time allows us to develop the critical thinking skills which are so necessary for the fieldwork. Here is where we teach the art of law enforcement.

If we can push a little more than half the lecture content from the academy to an online learning platform that would free up an additional 385 hours of training time in a Florida academy to be used for application of theory and working through reality based problems.

Society will continue to demand more from law enforcement, and the response that “this is the way we have always done it” is not going to satisfy the community. Better training addresses both the science and the art of the job.

I am interested in what you are doing to integrate these two concepts in your training, so comment below or email me.

Jeff McGill has 25 years of law enforcement experience. He has an earned doctoral degree with research that focused on the perceptions of mental health and suicide amongst law enforcement recruits. Jeff is a co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a national nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma of mental health issues in law enforcement. He now works full time as the Director of Public Safety Training at Northwest Florida State College overseeing training for law enforcement, corrections, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters.