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How to measure the effectiveness of police training programs

What gets measured gets managed; use these strategies to assess the effectiveness of police training programs


In a May 25, 2016 file photo, emergency personnel carrying a volunteer with simulated injuries is carried during a training exercise for an active shooter at Hopewell Elementary School, in West Chester, Ohio.


What percentage of your police training budget is intentionally designed to make your officers better at serving and protecting?

We would all like the answer to be “100 percent of course,” but the reality is that a significant number of training hours focus on:

  1. Politically mandated courses, or training that addresses public perception concerns (oh yes, Ms. Citizen Activist, since that drug raid we’ve all had puppy CPR training);
  2. Risk management (oh yes, Mr. Insurance rep, we had backing out of the parking lot recertification);
  3. Officer motivation (we can’t afford a pay raise but look, we’re sending you to training!);
  4. Buffet style (hey, look at this flyer that came in the mail on underwater fingerprint processing, let’s send somebody!).

Maybe it’s time to audit your police training program based on three major components: the subject matter, the instructor and the medium.

As with any triangulation, three fixed points will define the parameters used to measure training effectiveness. If the 16th-century mathematician Rheticus was right, what gets measured gets managed. Here are some ideas for formulating an assessment of your police training program.

The subject matter

The basic question of what to train is most effectively answered by data. Merely asking police officers what they’d like to see on the training calendar is not enough.

Here are some strategies to identify what police training should focus on:

  • Talk to prosecutors to discover patterns in cases that are quickly pled out or fail to get prosecuted.
  • Talk to victim advocates to hear patterns of complaints about how officers interacted with citizens.
  • Conduct satisfaction surveys from citizens, including violators and arrestees, to see what your officers are doing right so that a positive culture of service can be reinforced.
  • Use notes from incident debriefings to find gaps in training and performance. And do incident briefings regularly, not just on the headline-making operations.
  • Examine performance evaluations and question supervisors about systemic deficiencies.
  • Consider learning communities to keep important dialog about training and performance a regular part of management.

Once the subject matter needs are assessed, the temptation is to assign a “block of instruction” to address the need. That may not be the most efficient approach.

The training medium

Once your evaluation has identified training needs, the next step is to determine how training deficits are addressed.

  • Be specific in determining the learning outcome.
    The prosecutor may say that officers need more training in police report writing. The reality may be that problems are largely around evidence descriptions, describing suspicious behavior justifying a contact, or another narrow issue. The training medium may be a memo stating the problem, and meeting with supervisors to encourage review of that particular issue when approving reports.
  • Make learning outcomes measurable.
    We all have written lazy lesson plans. “The student will learn…, the student will know…the student will discover” tells the student, instructor and evaluator nothing. My favorite definition of learning is a change in behavior. When we know what we want the officer to do as a result of training, we can construct a learning objective and measure how well that goal was met. Learners should know what they are expected to know, and not be surprised on what they are evaluated at the end of the course. Testing should be a learning experience as well. Consider using short evaluations frequently throughout a class rather than a big final exam.
  • Ditch measuring training by hours.
    With specific and comprehensive learning objectives, we can rid ourselves of hundreds of personnel hours of mandated training. If objectives can be met in an hour of discussion, then class dismissed! How many times have we been prisoners of an instructor who had to tap dance for the last two hours of an eight-hour course for lack of relevant material?
  • Don’t train in a vacuum.
    Police activities don’t occur in a vacuum. We have law classes, traffic stop classes and use of force classes as stand-alone instruction. But the officer must integrate those subjects into a single incident. Why not integrate them during instruction? Insert a learning objective in a course already being conducted that addresses a training need that doesn’t require its own class. Get your skills instructors together to coordinate lesson plans.
  • Individual training may be the most efficient answer to a training need.
    When one officer errs, is it necessary to mandate the whole department undergo training? I had an officer who wounded himself slightly with an unintentional off-duty firearms discharge. I arranged for re-training for all officers. I could have addressed that particular officer’s need, but decided that the incident might reflect a risk among other officers, and a high liability. Those are decisions leaders must make, but the default of everybody getting re-trained may not be necessary
  • Enhance your program with supplemental training.
    Online and recorded training can be efficient, effective and economical. Supplement individual learning experiences with a group discussion about the course, webinar, or video at briefings or other training events.
  • Use scenario training.
    Students retain information better if they use all of their sensory tools, engage the material with others and the information is relevant to their experience. Using case studies and scenario training can be very effective, but scenario training must be carefully constructed to reinforce the desired behaviors in the learner and avoid creating adverse training imprints, as well as injury to participants.
  • Develop mini-lessons.
    Police1 roll call training is a perfect example.

The police trainer

Although ultimate responsibility for learning rests upon the student, the single most important component is who leads the learning process. Characteristics of outstanding police trainers include:

  • They understand the value of subject matter expertise.
    This means that a trainer knows the subject well enough to be honest when he or she doesn’t know the answer to a question. A subtle sign of lack of expertise is the inability to acknowledge the limits of knowledge about a limitless subject.
  • They are student-focused rather than trainer-focused.
    Lots of police instructors have good reasons to be proud of their accomplishments, but no one wants an eight-hour commercial about how great their teacher is. Use war stories to emphasize a learning objective, not to walk down memory lane.
  • They have credibility.
    Whether it is years on the force, specialized training, or hero awards, an instructor’s bio should be available to learners and decision makers. When I get a training announcement, I am just as interested in who is teaching as I am on the subject matter, because both are critical to success.
  • They are intuitive and professional.
    Being an instructor is like being a leader in that some seem to be born for it, some have it thrust upon them, and some are educated into it. The best trainers know how adults learn and how the brain works (maybe they’ve read my book). They pay attention to instructor evaluations and other effective trainers.

Training is more critical to success in policing with each passing year. Is your agency making the most of it?

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.