Trending Topics

5 steps to future-proof police leadership training

Are leadership courses adequately preparing leaders for the next decade?

Police driving _A2A7877 (3).JPG

Knowing what technology has real value and longevity and how it can be integrated into existing systems is complex.


This article originally appeared in the July 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Future-proof your leadership training; Show officers you care and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Let’s look back 10 years to 2012. A fresh supervisor attends a leadership course. Over the next decade, that leader encounters increasing personal and political hostility to law enforcement, a pandemic, civil unrest, generational and situational roadblocks to recruitment and retention, implementation of body-worn cameras, and conflicting needs for officer safety while improving relationships with the public. Our supervisor is now likely just a few years from retirement eligibility and may have added another stripe or bar to their uniform.

Now let’s look back on that leadership class outline and handouts. Did that course prepare our leader for the next decade? What can we do to engrain and refresh the lasting principles from our legacy leadership training while recognizing inevitable changes that need attention in contemporary training?

Here are five steps to future-proof law enforcement leadership training.

1. Leaders need brain-based training

Psychology and counseling principles have been part of leadership training for a long time, but our increasing knowledge about brain function can inform policing much more deeply. The effects of stress, nutrition and overall wellness are now well documented and must be addressed for the efficiency and longevity of our police officers. Critical research on the capacity of the mind and body to operate under rapidly changing conditions must become common knowledge among police leaders, as well as prosecutors and judges.

Police1 resource: Improving police decision-making under stress

2. Leaders must be technologically literate

Change used to come in great leaps – for example, the radio for police cars in the 1930s, the appearance of DNA’s role in investigations in the 1980s and dash cams in the 1990s. Now technologies that become essential change with such rapidity that sometimes agency acquisition processes approve a purchase that has already become obsolete. Knowing what technology has real value and longevity and how it can be integrated into existing systems is complex. Not to mention advances in consumer technology used by offenders more frequently leaving digital fingerprints as well as physical ones.

Police1 resource: 6 action items that should be part of every police department’s technology strategy

3. Training must use sound principles of education theory

One of the things we do know about the brain is how humans learn and retain information. Leadership training, as well as all other pre-service and continuing education, must be maximized using these principles. That includes learning that incorporates multiple senses, attaches to the learner’s experience and existing knowledge, social and emotional engagement, and application through practice and repetition. The art of collaboration encompasses many of these principles but is sorely lacking in the training and experience of police officers whose patrol skills are necessarily independence and coercion, which gets carried into leadership styles rather than collaboration.

Police1 resource: How teaching styles impact the success of today’s police recruits

4. Leadership principles should be embedded in agency culture

One of the law enforcement agencies I have visited is the Reno (Nevada) Police Department. Reno is noted for developing a police field training program for new officers focusing on problem-solving. Everyone I spoke with knew the principles of the program, as well as its theoretical underpinning. Too often a project of a leader or team gets isolated from others in a police department. Or a leader comes back inspired from a training course and wants to implement changes with little regard for the complexities of culture, tradition and resources of the department.

Police1 resource: 5 steps to begin leading transformational change in your agency

5. Leaders must learn to focus

Lou Holtz famously said that the secret to his successful coaching was asking the question “What’s important now?” In the scramble to accommodate political pressures, develop relevant training, and placate a restless and fearful public, it is a challenge to bring all of our efforts under one umbrella. But we must focus on our core mission and measure all of our programs, budgets and training against it.

Police1 resource: Police1’s 30-day leadership challenge

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He 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.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at