A letter to the American public: We need to increase the quantity and quality of police training
In an analysis of 80 countries, only Iraq and Afghanistan had lower training requirements to become a police officer than the United States
By Dr. Jason Armstrong
When asked about how to improve policing in the United States, the average person often says officers need more and better training. I hear this regularly from criminal justice students at the university where I teach. When I ask them how much and what type of training officers get now and in which specific areas do they need more training, I typically receive blank stares.
If I do receive an answer, it is usually focused on de-escalation training or defensive tactics. I respond by asking how many hours officers receive now, and how do they know that it is not enough? Again, more blank stares. What they don't know is they are actually right, but they don’t know why they are right.
Police training hours
Basic academy training for new police officers is supervised by each state's Peace Officer Standards and Training organization, otherwise known as POST (the name may vary by state, but they carry out the same functions). According to a 2013 survey by the Department of Justice, the average police academy in the United States is about 840 hours or 21 weeks, although this can vary widely by state and even within a state depending on the organization that is delivering the training.
Police academy training in the United States is delivered by a variety of institutions that includes four-year universities, two-year colleges, technical colleges and POST academies. Some law enforcement agencies have their own police academies.
POST sets a minimum number of hours for basic training in each state. The average required POST training in the United States is approximately 650 hours. Individual police academies may exceed the minimum. Maryland requires the highest number of hours at 1,168 (30 weeks), and Oregon requires the fewest at 400 hours (10 weeks). Georgia, where I worked as a police officer for 13 years, is next to last with 408 hours (11 weeks). The academy for Georgia State Patrol troopers is 800 hours or 20 weeks. There is no standardization across the country.
Police training requirements
The Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform analyzed police training in 80 countries. Only Iraq and Afghanistan had lower training requirements to become a police officer than the United States.
The number of training hours required to become a certified police officer becomes shocking when you look at the number of hours required to be certified or licensed for other professions.
Georgia, as previously mentioned, requires 408 hours of academy training to become a police officer, but requires 1,500 hours of training to become a licensed barber. It takes 3½ times more training before Georgia says you can cut and style a person’s hair than arrest the same person and accuse them of a crime that can result in long-term incarceration.
Even Maryland, which requires officers to have 1,168 hours of training (the most in the U.S.), requires barbers to have 1,200 hours of training. Most states require a person who wants to be a plumber to have two to four years of experience as an apprentice with 3,000-8,500 hours of training before becoming a licensed plumber.
In the United States, we require attorneys to have three years of law school above a bachelor's degree. Even then, they are not licensed to practice until they pass a multi-day comprehensive exam. Doctors must have a bachelor's degree followed by four years of medical school and three to seven years of a residency program before they are fully licensed to practice medicine.
To become a police officer, a person needs to be 18-21 years old (depending on the state), possess a high school diploma or GED, and pass a training academy that in most states is less than one college semester.
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell proposed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. The "10,000-hour" rule can be misleading and is seen as a general guideline for specific skills (like playing an instrument or chess). Researchers have found that it takes anywhere from 700-16,000 hours to be “world-class” at one skill. However, if you are practicing a skill using the wrong method, you will never become "world-class" regardless of the number of hours spent practicing.
Training must be done deliberately utilizing "best practices." Skill mastery must be a combination of both quantity and quality. Policing is just not "one skill." It is a combination of many skills, including verbal and non-verbal communication, problem-solving and decision-making, legal application, weapons handling and defensive tactics.
States require police officers to have a certain amount of continuing education training every year or every other year to maintain their certification. That continuing education training ranges from six to 40 hours each year, depending on the state. Some states require de-escalation training, and some do not. Georgia requires officers to have three hours of use of force/de-escalation training each year. Some, if not all, of those three hours, can be completed with an online course and not in simulated training.
In recent interviews, decorated Navy SEAL Jocko Willink recommended that police officers train for a minimum of 1/5 of their time each week or eight hours a week during a 40-hour workweek. Willink formerly trained other SEALS in tactics and mentioned they would train for 18 months for a six-month deployment. While there is a big difference between SEAL training and police training, and this is not a call for police to be trained as the military, there are lessons to be learned from the advanced SEAL training.
Willink stated that during training SEALS are placed in high-stressed situations: "And, the reason for that was we wanted to teach them how to control their emotions, how to take a step back, how to get control over their adrenaline, and like you said how to detach from that situation, because when we get emotional, we make bad decisions, especially when things that get chaotic." Willink and others recommend that officers have more training in hand-to-hand control tactics.
In Georgia, officers receive 32 hours (4 days) of training in control tactics during the police academy. After this initial training, officers are not required to have any training in hand-to-hand control tactics. Professional boxers and mixed martial artists train several hours per day over several months for one fight.
Higher education requirements
Departments need to increase the educational requirements of police officers, too. Only about 1% of law enforcement agencies require officers to have a college degree.
Studies show that police officers with a bachelor's degree or higher are significantly less likely to use force, be accused of excessive force, and are more likely to de-escalate situations than those with only a high school diploma or GED. One study showed that officers with college degrees had fewer citizen complaints, fewer sustained complaints and fewer policy violations.
A 2000 study on community policing revealed that officers with college degrees preferred a community policing approach while officers with high school diplomas/GEDs had a preference for aggressive enforcement of the law. Other studies have shown that college-educated officers have less authoritarian attitudes, are more aware of social and cultural problems in their community, are more sensitive to community relations, and are more ethical and professional.
Invest in officers
Rather than defund the police, states and law enforcement agencies need to invest more money and time in training and education. The training needs to be deliberate, focused training that includes real-world situations in a high-stress environment. If we are going to require police officers to have college degrees, we will need to make sure they are compensated adequately.
We are always going to need police officers to maintain a civilized society. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in law enforcement in this country. It's time to strike while the iron is hot and encourage local, state, and federal leaders to invest in our officers. We need our police executives to step up and make training a priority.
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Shernock SK. Effects of College Education on Professional Attitudes Among Police. Journal of Criminal Justice Education; 1992, 3:1.
Telep CW. The Impact of Higher Education on Police Officer Attitudes toward Abuse of Authority. Journal of Criminal Justice Education; 2011, 22:3.
About the author
Jason Armstrong has been in the criminal justice profession for 20 years. He is the Criminal Justice Undergraduate Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Albany State University and an Adjunct Instructor in the Law Enforcement Program at Albany Technical College. Before becoming a full-time professor, he was a Georgia P.O.S.T.-certified law enforcement officer for 13 years. He has more than 2,000 hours of law enforcement training. He has been declared an expert witness in the area of crime scene investigations, gunshot residue, marijuana identification, drug investigations and criminal street gangs in the Superior Court of Georgia. He is the 2019 and 2020 ASU Criminal Justice Professor of the Year. He is a 2020 Albany State University Faculty Fellow.