Breaking down PERF's "Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles" report
I strongly recommend every administrator, trainer, supervisor and field training officer read this report, which will help police academies chart a course for the future
The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) recently conducted a study of police academies nationally and internationally and has released a report on its findings and recommendations, "Transforming Police Recruit Training: 40 Guiding Principles." (See report in full below.)
Because of my background as a long-serving, full-time police officer and life-long, part-time police trainer, I was asked to give my opinion of the report. Here is my overview highlighting both my positive and negative takeaways from the report for your consideration.
The negative (IMHO)
PERF uses the term “40 guiding principles” in the report, but I think these should be referred to as “recommendations.”
A principle is defined as “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”
Many of the points in the report identified as “principles” appear to me to be opinion-based recommendations. One example is “Guiding Principle #24,” in which the report states, “Academies should hire professional educators to teach classes in areas that do not require specific law enforcement experience.” This is one “guiding principle” I do not entirely agree with.
For example, why should an academy hire an English professor who has never written a single police report and never survived the scrutinization of a shift sergeant, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and an appellate court system, when a credentialed and experienced law enforcement officer is available to teach the curriculum?
Or, why hire an educator for crisis management, who has been teaching in a college for 20 years, but has no practical crisis management experience, when you can get an experienced teaching credentialed tactical team negotiator who has successfully de-escalated many people in crisis, including a man, who had doused himself with gasoline and was convinced to lay down, without striking it, the match in his shaking hand.
I would recommend hiring instructors with a passion to teach, the talent to teach and the credentials to teach, who are in possession of real-world experience, over an educator steeped in the theoretical, every time.
Comparing apples to oranges
In gathering information for the report, PERF chose to compare foreign national police forces’ training, (some of whose officers patrol unarmed) to local American law enforcement training.
PERF comparing American law enforcement training with national police forces overseas is comparing apples to oranges. American local agencies are wonderfully unique in that there are thousands of them. They range from one officer to 33,000 plus. These local agencies have one thing in common that no national police agency can claim – local agencies are locally controlled.
PERF also compares police academy training hours to cosmetology training hours. I get the point PERF is trying to make here. However, when these unrealistic and abrasive comparisons are made to American police academies, law enforcement officers reading the report may be tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water and stop reading.
The report concludes by stating, “We need to fundamentally change how we train the next generation of police officers.” I have no problem with change, but I do have a problem with the word “fundamentally.”
All professional trainers should constantly look to improve the training they offer. Having been part of my state’s academy advisory board and my technical college advisory board for many years, I was part of a team of agents of change.
The ongoing changes we made in police training were studied, discussed, tested, carefully implemented and then re-assessed with an eye toward maintaining professional standards while ensuring officers were being taught to do their job effectively while physically, legally and emotionally surviving.
In my opinion, the use of the word “fundamentally” is too all-encompassing to apply to all of the police academies nationwide. Many police academies have already achieved much of what PERF recommends.
The positive (IMHO)
Let me start, as someone, who wrote two volumes about my department’s history, and many national articles on police history as well as the book, “Law Dogs: Great Cops in American History,” I 100% agree with the guideline that recommends law enforcement history be taught to recruits. History gives a sense of identity and perspective.
A great deal of work went into this report and it contains a comprehensive overview spotlighting the differences between American police academies in their:
- Instructor qualifications and background requirements.
- Alignment between academies and the FTO programs on the agencies these academies serve.
- Instructional approach.
- Para-military styles versus adult learning styles.
- The teaching of some up-to-date procedures as well as some out-of-date approaches to policing.
PERF offers up a comprehensive list of what they call “guiding principles” (or recommendations) for those entrusted with constructing and administering police academy training. There are 40 of them, which are listed and then discussed in length in the report. I will just name my top 10 because as a trainer, I lived by them:
Guiding Principle #1: “Throughout a police academy, recruit training should be centered on critical thinking and values-based decision making. All lesson plans should reinforce the development of these skills.”
Guiding Principle #2: “National standards for recruit training should be developed and implemented. These standards should specify, among other things, the core topics to be taught, learning objectives to be met, and how student proficiency is to be measured.”
Guiding Principle #3: “Investments (funding) in police training should be substantially increased, beginning with recruit training.”
Guiding Principle #4: “Training academies should avoid predominantly stress-based, paramilitary approaches to recruit training and instead adopt a balanced approach that creates an academic environment based on adult-learning principles, augmented with appropriate stress-based learning.”
Guiding Principle #8: “A culture of wellness should be established within the academy beginning on the first day.”
Guiding Principle #11: “Academies should apply the principles of adult learning throughout recruit training, and they should use innovative approaches to reinforce critical thinking and decision making.”
Guiding Principle #12: “Recruit training should focus on the activities and tasks that police officers are engaged in on a day-to-day basis, as well as on the high-risk encounters that officers may face infrequently. Scenario-based training should cover both ‘everyday’ and ‘high-risk situations.’”
Guiding Principle #15: “Physical fitness should be incorporated throughout recruit training, and it should be treated as part of a career-long focus on health and wellness.”
Guiding Principle #34: “Academy and field training should be developed in tandem, to help ensure continuity between the two.”
Guiding Principle #40: “After completing their field training, officers should be brought back to the academy to review what they learned during the FTO program and how well it aligns with their instruction in the academy.”
There are 30 more “Guiding Principles” for you to consider. I strongly recommend every administrator, trainer, supervisor and field training officer read this report.
Historically the training of American law enforcement has always been changing. For example, my generation’s trainers taught us how to shoot our revolvers and could be heard telling people on the street, “It’s my way or the highway.” Look how far our profession has positively changed training in just a few decades.
One has to agree with the PERF report that the profession has to constantly change training to keep pace with each generation’s contemporary challenges of which this upcoming generation has many.
This report will help police academies assess where they are now and chart a course for the future.
With all this talk about changing police training let’s end with two timeless police training constants passed onto us by Sgt. Esterhaus and Officer Buck Savage that we can all agree still fits today:
“Let’s be careful out there,” and “Watch the hands!”