The power of belief: Boosting police recruit success through self-efficacy
How understanding and fostering self-efficacy — believing in one’s ability to succeed — can be a game-changer during FTO training programs
Law enforcement can often appear slow to adopt effective practices. As a hobby, I’ve taken to identifying successful strategies from other fields and applying them practically to ours. My focus is on ideas rather than gadgets.
Those of us in law enforcement were likely the kids who talked too much in school or found it hard to sit still — traits that, ironically, prepared us for our future careers. Yet, we frequently overlook the educational strategies that could enhance our learning processes. Specifically, there are valuable techniques used in classrooms that could benefit our profession.
For instance, applying andragogy (adult teaching methods) can significantly improve the training of new officers. It’s crucial to maximize the potential of the officer candidates we recruit. One effective strategy is fostering self-efficacy.
If you’re making the same bewildered expression my deputies did during our first briefing when I mentioned that term, I understand. Jargon doesn’t assist us; practical ideas do. Let’s explore what that term actually means for us.
What is self-efficacy?
Self-efficacy is a theory that began in psychology, made its way into education, and has since been applied across various fields to encourage individuals to see their tasks through to completion. In the context of law enforcement, we’re focusing on how to leverage this theory to prevent recruits from dropping out of rigorous Field Training Officer (FTO) programs.
Psychologist Albert Bandura defined self-efficacy as the belief in one’s ability to organize and execute the actions necessary to achieve specific goals.  This theory, though about 25 years old, lays the foundation for many works popular within law enforcement circles, including those by Jocko Willink and Simon Sinek, not to mention the multitude of leadership books that fill our shelves.
Matthias Jerusalem and Waldemar Mittag explain that individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy have confidence in their capabilities to overcome diverse challenges.  They view demands and problems more as opportunities to excel than as insurmountable threats. Essentially, recruits who possess self-efficacy are those who are fully prepared to invest their utmost effort.
It’s crucial to understand that self-efficacy is not about simply “making our trainees feel good about themselves.” Feeling positive does not equate to being equipped to manage a homicide investigation, respond to emergencies at high speed (code 3), or successfully navigate to an incident scene. Self-efficacy refers to the confidence developed from four specific, articulable areas, enabling officers to feel genuinely hopeful about their ability to accomplish a particular task, such as completing a Field Training Officer (FTO) program. This concept underscores the difference between general self-esteem and the belief in one’s capability to succeed in specific situations.
Albert Bandura, the architect of self-efficacy theory, was interested in predicting the outcomes in individuals’ lives following “fortuitous events,” like securing a job in law enforcement.  He identified four key factors that, collectively, provide a reliable indication of who is likely to succeed and who might give up. The encouraging aspect of these four elements is that they are within our control; we can improve in these areas to enhance our chances of success when facing new challenges.
The four elements of self-efficacy
1. Interpreting our body’s physical responses
The first of these four areas involves interpreting our body’s physical responses to various situations. 
On my first hot call, my partners and I were tasked with checking a shed for a potential drive-by shooting suspect, and I was put at the front of the stack. I vividly recall feeling nauseous and experiencing a chilling sensation in my hands, which made me realize I was scared, primarily due to my body’s physical reactions. However, the moment an experienced officer I was partnered with smiled, fist-bumped me, and described the situation as an opportunity for excitement rather than fear, my perspective shifted. I suddenly remembered my role as a protector of the community and recognized that my fear was actually anticipation. This field training officer’s guidance in reinterpreting my physiological responses positively was invaluable.
This is a teachable moment for our trainees, as Bandura highlighted, “As trainees gain the ability to predict and manage potential threats, they develop a strong sense of efficacy, which is beneficial in overcoming new challenges.”  By making trainees aware of their body’s reactions to high-pressure situations and encouraging them to view these responses as excitement rather than fear, we can significantly enhance their commitment to completing the FTO program.
2. The social domain
The second factor influencing self-efficacy, as outlined by Bandura, is the social domain. Do our recruits have people they respect believing in them? While many recruits may have family members or friends who think highly of their capabilities, the crucial element here is endorsement from someone within the law enforcement community who understands the demands of the profession.
It’s essential for recruits to have mentors in the field who encourage them, someone who can offer reassurance after challenging days, and motivate them to persevere through the exhaustive training period. This support significantly enhances their belief in their ability to succeed. Thus, all the literature on mentoring that occupies our shelves addresses only one-fourth of the self-efficacy concept. While mentoring is vital, it’s clear that building self-efficacy requires a broader approach.
The third element crucial to self-efficacy is self-evaluation, which involves recruits assessing their own performance.  This aspect can be particularly challenging.
Typically, recruits in their first week perform at a level far below that of fully trained and competent officers. It’s common for these new recruits to compare themselves to veterans who have years of experience, which can be disheartening. The key strategy here is for FTOs to guide recruits in making fair comparisons. Recruits should be encouraged to evaluate their progress against that of their peers who are at similar stages in their training, rather than against seasoned officers. This approach of comparing “acorns with acorns” rather than “acorns with mighty oaks” helps maintain recruits’ motivation and prevents them from losing hope when they observe the seemingly effortless competence of experienced officers. By focusing on realistic benchmarks for success, recruits can more accurately gauge their development and build confidence in their capabilities.
The latter part of focusing on self-evaluation involves providing trainees with frequent feedback throughout their shifts, culminating in a comprehensive debrief at the end of each day. Addressing minor issues promptly prevents them from escalating into significant problems. Moreover, maintaining a sense of fairness, or procedural justice, plays a critical role in ensuring that training programs are perceived as trustworthy by recruits. 
Without regular updates on their performance, trainees may feel blindsided and perceive it as unjust if they are suddenly penalized severely for mistakes during a challenging call. Regular, candid feedback and clear, honest assessments after every shift enable trainees to accurately self-evaluate and identify specific areas needing improvement. This approach not only enhances their learning experience but also fosters a transparent and supportive training environment.
The final component of self-efficacy is vicarious experience, or modeling.
According to Bandura, if trainees observe someone they perceive as similar to themselves successfully navigating the Field Training Officer (FTO) program, they are more likely to believe in their own potential for success. It’s beneficial for trainers to help trainees identify a role model within the department — someone they feel akin to, who is further along in their career.
For instance, as a female officer undergoing patrol training amidst male colleagues, hearing stories about former female partners excelling in police work was incredibly motivating. Such narratives reinforced my belief that other women had thrived in our demanding city, giving me the determination to persevere. In this case, the collective efficacy beliefs about women in my department positively impacted my training outcome. 
This concept of collective efficacy, particularly in relation to gender or minority status within the department, plays a significant role in shaping trainees’ outcomes.  For minority officers who might not immediately find relatable role models within the department, it’s crucial to share positive stories about minority officers’ achievements. Ensuring that all trainees have access to such models is a deliberate strategy that can significantly enhance the building of self-efficacy. This intentional approach to highlighting role models within the department can have a profound impact on the training and development of all recruits, fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment.
Self-efficacy leads to improved performance beyond training
While this article focuses on applying the concept of self-efficacy to succeed in field training, research in other areas of law enforcement tasks demonstrates that high self-efficacy is positively associated with improved performance across various challenging situations.
For instance, Jose Torres found a correlation between officers’ self-efficacy and their readiness to physically engage with combative subjects.  Similarly, officers’ willingness to interact with individuals expressing suicidal intentions was linked to higher levels of self-efficacy.  Further studies have shown that officers with high self-efficacy are more effective in managing calls involving autistic individuals  and in interactions with members of the LGBTQ community. 
These findings suggest that self-efficacy is not a new concept in law enforcement; rather, many officers have been applying it across a range of tasks, perhaps without explicit awareness of the theory. Armed with a clearer understanding of self-efficacy, law enforcement agencies can now take a more deliberate approach to cultivating this trait. By intentionally building self-efficacy, departments can enhance officers’ performance, not just in field training but in a wide array of operational scenarios. This targeted development of self-efficacy can lead to more effective and empathetic policing, benefiting both officers and the communities they serve.
Self-efficacy might not be the sole determinant of success for officers in training, but its impact is profound. Individuals with high self-efficacy persist in their efforts longer than those with lower levels of self-efficacy. They possess the cognitive resources and the perseverance deemed necessary for success.  This resilience enables them to devise innovative solutions to challenges — a key attribute of effective law enforcement officers who are required to solve complex problems throughout their shifts.
The essence of self-efficacy lies in the belief in one’s capabilities, which fosters a sense of competence and security, encouraging individuals to embrace new experiences.  For someone learning the ropes in law enforcement, this belief system is crucial. It emboldens trainees to step out of their comfort zones, armed with the confidence that they can handle the tasks and situations they will face.
To cultivate this sense of self-efficacy in trainees, it’s essential to focus on several strategies: teaching them to interpret physiological responses positively, ensuring they receive social support from within the law enforcement community, guiding them in accurate self-evaluation, and highlighting role models they can relate to. By implementing these practices, training officers can significantly enhance the preparedness and resilience of their recruits, setting them up for a successful career in law enforcement.
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