6 ways law enforcement training can adapt to today’s recruits

Strategies to leverage how new recruits best learn and respond to training


By Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., and Jim Dudley

Are we doing enough to adapt our training to today’s law enforcement recruits and candidates?

That is the question we posed during our session at the 2022 National Association of Field Training Officers conference on “Bringing University Level Training Pedagogies to Police Field Training.”

Recruits at the Los Angeles Police Academy they discuss tactical concepts during practical exercises. They are learning the building blocks to make sound decisions in potentially rapidly evolving situations.
Recruits at the Los Angeles Police Academy they discuss tactical concepts during practical exercises. They are learning the building blocks to make sound decisions in potentially rapidly evolving situations. (Photo/LAPD)

Teaching Generation z

While POST curricula have changed to address emerging issues like technology, hate crimes and cybercrime, teaching methods have remained constant: a one-size-fits-all approach. Field training officers (FTOs) need access to a variety of teaching skills and resources to reach today’s recruits.

Consider the education system, parenting styles and social constructs of extra-curricular activities that may have shaped the expectation of new recruits in any learning environment, including police academy and field training. By now we have all heard the “everyone gets a trophy” adage, and perhaps we have even encountered a conversation or two about the entitlement and lack of regard for authority that sometimes accompanies members of younger generations. Could any of these items run more counter to the “sit down, keep quiet, listen and learn” stereotype that sometimes accompanies training officers?

New recruits are used to high communication, clarity of expectations and rationales, and partnering with people around them as a member of a team to achieve a common goal. A more laid-back learning environment in which rapport and support from the instructor are key components is highly valued. 

In the tips below, we provide strategies to positively leverage the realities of how new recruits best learn and respond to training. However, at no time should officer safety be compromised in order to have a “teaching moment.” FTOs should have discretion to act first and teach later when situations dictate.

6 tips to reach new recruits

1. Communication

Explaining “the why” and creating an environment in which two-way communication is encouraged are best practices. Today’s candidates will likely move on to another agency should they encounter periods of non-communication.

There will always be a candidate pool of those looking to enter the law enforcement profession, while others may be “on the fence,” wondering if they have what it takes to become a police officer. Assigning a mentor to the candidate will link them with a constant presence throughout the recruiting and testing process.

During field training, communication is key in preparing the recruit for what comes next. By explaining policies and procedures, recruits gain a better understanding of what they are doing and why. Modeling the desired behavior by the FTO will show recruits what is expected.

Again, officer safety should never be compromised in situations that demand full attention to the task at hand. The opportunity to debrief the recruit should come once the situation is calm and settled. The recruit will be a better listener and accept effective and lasting criticism (good or bad) in a calm and controlled environment.

2. Gamification

Generation Z candidates are often linked to their phones and electronic devices for communication and access to applications that help them in everyday living. We have made strides over the years to blend gamification into training with training simulators, virtual reality and other technology-based systems.

Send recruits links and information that is mobile device friendly. Think along the lines of games and maps, and communicate by talk, text and live video.

Recruiting systems such as InterviewNow allow constant contact between the candidate, frequently asked questions, and even real-time contact with their agency representative. The agency can send text messages with updates on upcoming testing and appointments.

During field training, varied use of training methods may reach recruits who have difficulty in simply being told to read a learning domain. Video instruction may be repeated for recruits who need to review a domain for better understanding.

3. Mentoring

Mentoring is necessary at the first step in the recruitment process. “Imposter syndrome” is real. It is often most present in “on the fence” candidates who doubt they have what is necessary to succeed. We see it often in students at the university level. These students need one-on-one counseling and attention. There is a real fear of the unknown in the recruiting process. Some have external pressures such as friends or family who do not look favorably on their career choice or fear washing out and being left without a job. Lag time in the testing process, without updates, could be the excuse a candidate needs to drop out of the process.

4. Low or no-risk quizzes

Students tend to participate more and take more risks in a learning environment when they know they will not be graded. There are opportunities for FTOs to give pretests on a section of a learning domain ahead of the testing schedule. The student may be asked a series of questions on a topic and allowed to freely answer. The FTO may make corrections or offer alternatives. It is a chance for the FTO to use the low-risk impromptu quiz as an assessment tool to understand what the recruit may need in a particular area.

5. Learning in “motor chunks”

In learning any complex task, the brain breaks the task down into digestible chunks of information. This piece of neural knowledge has become especially pertinent in light of shorter attention spans. Better retention can be achieved by introducing new skills or information in chunks. Sessions should be brief, but repetitious.

6. Using heuristic pedagogy

Heuristic pedagogy is a teaching method well suited to police training. The instructor poses a problem, and through the use of logic, critical thinking and imagination, the student works the problem out to a solution. The teacher remains present for guidance throughout the process. This method encourages decision-making skills and self-direction – attributes that we wish to instill in new recruits.

Since heuristic pedagogy is based in trial and error theory, it is also prudent to remember that by establishing positive channels for two-way communication between trainer and recruit, making errors becomes a valuable conduit for learning.

Adapting to a new generation of cops does not equate to lowering agency standards, but it does require embracing different teaching approaches. By intelligently and creatively applying what is known about how Generation Z recruits communicate, what they value and how they learn, agencies can develop successful recruitment and training programs.

NEXT: Listen to Jim and Janay discuss this topic on the Policing Matters podcast


About the authors

Janay Gasparini, Ph.D., has been teaching collegiate criminal justice courses since 2009. Gasparini began instructing at the State University of New York (SUNY)- Ulster in 2009. In 2015, she accepted a full-time position instructing in and chairing the Criminal Justice and Security program at SUNY Dutchess where she was tenured in 2020. From 2020-2021, Gasparini was an assistant professor of criminal justice at Shepherd University. Currently, she is an assistant professor of criminal justice at SUNY - Ulster where she also coordinates the Police Basic Training Academy program. Outside of academia, Gasparini has been a certified New York State Police Instructor since 2007. She has taught on a variety of topics at several police academies. Gasparini is also a certified women's self-defense instructor, police physical fitness instructor, and police ethics instructor.

Jim Dudley is a retired deputy chief serving with the San Francisco Police Department for 32 years, at all bureaus and ranks below chief. Jim holds a BA from San Francisco State University in Criminal Justice Studies, a master’s degree in criminology from UC Irvine, and he is a graduate of PERF’s Senior Management Institute for Police and the 192nd class of the FBI National Academy. Jim is in his 10th year teaching Criminal Justice Studies at San Francisco State. He is a consultant and SME in police organizations, recruiting and promotional assessments. In addition, Jim is a Police1 columnist, host of Police1's Policing Matters podcast and co-debater with Chief Joel Shults for Police1's State Your Case column. 

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