How evidence-based training developed and evolved

The goal of evidence-based training is to research and then implement the best practices to create and sustain a functional officer

This article is reprinted from "Why Law Enforcement Needs to take a Science-Based Approach to Training and Education," a digital report from IADLEST and its Partner Advisory Committee (IPAC). Click here to download the complete report

“Of all the ideas in policing, one stands out as the most powerful force for change: police practices should be based on scientific evidence about what works best.” ‒ Lawrence W. Sherman

Twenty-two years ago, Professor Lawrence Sherman gave birth to the idea of evidence-based policing. Sherman believed that just researching policing practices was not enough and that proactive efforts were needed to put the research findings into practice through national and community guidelines.

His 1998 paper, Ideas in American Policing: EvidenceBased Policing, became the core of evidence-based policing and presents a framework of thinking that is paralleled in what we call evidence-based training.

The goal of evidence-based training is to research and then implement the best practices to create and sustain a functional officer.
The goal of evidence-based training is to research and then implement the best practices to create and sustain a functional officer. (image/VirTra)

Evidence-based training in action

Evidence-based training involves implementing research and best practices to create sustainable and functional training that enables officers to meet the needs of their job tasks and, more importantly, the needs of the communities they serve.

When looking back nostalgically at old firearms training photos, we can immediately see how firearms training has evolved over the last 50 years. This is partially due to the influence of competitive shooters who innovated to obtain better performance. That innovation came from testing to see what was truly faster or more accurate. In the words of Wyatt Earp, “fast is fine, but accuracy is final.” Competitive shooters designed experiments, conducted research and made changes from findings. The “square range” allowed them to collect evidence that was needed to really evaluate human performance and how to enhance it. However, many realize that the “square range,” like many sterile labs, does not always mirror the real world.

The invention of force-on-force technology allowed for an evolutionary step in experimentation and more realistic testing environments. Force-on-force technology allowed the use of role players to interact, requiring more from the participants than just shooting paper or steel. Another evolution was the development of high-fidelity simulation, of which some systems support wearable measurement devices. This allows for the measurement of not only external performance but also the internal process of cognition and physiology that takes data collection much further than seen in the past.

These changes allow for an experimental design that can collect the evidence needed to make the best choices of tactics and training methodologies based on the science of human performance and ability.

The barriers to evidence-based training

When it comes to training, law enforcement struggles with the push-pull of operational and budgetary requirements. The demands of answering common calls for service and specialized investigations drains a large chunk of resources that generally pushes training into a second-place position.

Training of officers can take them from their primary assignments decreasing the resources available to accomplish department missions. This push and pull includes substantial time commitments from officers and financial investment in equipment and other training resources such as continued education for trainers, logistics (ranges, shoot houses), trainer prep time, etc. Purchasing updated training equipment may be sacrificed because of a need for better operational gear. Agencies must often meet federal and state training mandates. These mandates are one of the pulls that take officers away from operational tasks, but they can also pull away from other desired or required training. This has led more than one organization to significantly restrict training and others to conduct what is known as “check-the-box” training, where the training is of low or questionable value but could be checked off on a list of requirements if the department is audited or called into court.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is a concept captured in the old saying, “The only two things people don’t like are change and the way things are.” This speaks to the resistance found in any culture/ system to change; and training programs are often not immune to this. “This is the way we have always done it” is a phrase that often echoes in mat rooms, ranges and training centers. Change is hard, but in the struggle is where we grow, the challenge is where we bring out the best of us.

Unfortunately, culture makes changes to training paradigms difficult. Culture is more than a policy; a policy can change with the stroke of a pen, but culture may never change without the right influence and champions. Also, many state curriculums are governed by an administrative or political process that can make adjustments or change very challenging and labor-intensive.

Transitioning to evidence-based training

With all of the challenges mentioned above, here are some key considerations for a successful transition.

First, when an agency makes the decision to embrace evidence-based training, it should be done correctly the first time otherwise you can undermine future attempts and waste valuable training resources. Early failures could fuel the negative attitudes of detractors creating a mindset of, “See, they don’t know what they are doing.”

Often, a leader is selected to spearhead these kinds of changes. Develop the right champions to push the cause. This leader must be well-trained and able to explain the “why” at the most basic levels.

The leader is only part of the equation. All trainers must be willing to adapt and change. Many times, training programs can be influenced by one of the 3 Ps: personality, preference and performance.¹ Trainers who have been in place for a long time may prefer to maintain the current process. Instructors unwilling to push for change can undermine efforts.

The goal of evidence-based training is to research and then implement the best practices to create and sustain a functional officer. This is done with a critical analysis of training methods and selecting the most efficient for creating needed and lasting change.


1. Bartel L. The Three Ps: What Drives your Training Program? The Firearms Instructor, 2012.

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