How police education and training can contribute to violence reduction
Training isn’t a cure for everything that ails modern policing, but it can do a better job of preparing police to deal with violent crime more effectively
This essay is reprinted with permission from the Violence Reduction Project
The potential impact of police education and training on violence reduction is indirect. That is, it’s what police actually do that might affect community violence, not what police know (via education) or what they know how to do (via training). That’s caveat #1.
Caveat #2 is that we have an unfortunate tendency to think that education and training is the solution to every crisis and shortcoming in policing. As a result, we spend a lot of money on it, but we almost never evaluate it, and we usually fail to reinforce it through policy, supervision, audit/inspection and discipline.
With these limitations in mind, how might police education and police training contribute to violence reduction? Here are a few suggestions.
Stop, search and arrest
This is bread and butter, nuts and bolts. Police – mainly patrol officers and street crime units – encounter people running from crime scenes, people who look to be illegally carrying guns, people who appear to be engaged in street-corner drug dealing, people driving cars badly or suspiciously, and so forth. When encountering these people, it’s really important that police legally perform stops based on reasonable suspicion, and that their reports and charging documents, arrests and search based on probable cause, articulate the basis for the actions they took. Otherwise, evidence and cases get thrown out, keeping violent offenders from being held accountable.
Education and training help fix that. Veteran police don’t need to repeat the 100+ hours of law they studied in the academy, they just need a day or two of focused instruction and practice, reinforced by supervision.
True, we don’t want police stopping and arresting everybody, and true, it’s ultimately up to prosecutors and judges to actually hold offenders accountable. But violence reduction won’t occur unless serious violent offenders are held accountable, and for that to happen, police need to do their part correctly in the first place. 
After violent crimes happen, the key to holding offenders accountable is solving those crimes with effective investigation.
Because collection and analysis of physical and testimonial evidence bring into play advanced aspects of forensic science, psychology and law, investigators need to be particularly knowledgeable and skillful. Otherwise, evidence is missed, misinterpreted, or deemed inadmissible and offenders go free. When that happens, those offenders get the opportunity to commit more violent crimes. In addition, victims lose confidence in the police, making them less likely to cooperate in the future.
Investigation training has suffered in recent years because time and resources have, understandably, focused more on use of force, de-escalation, procedural justice, and fair and impartial policing.
We have the opportunity now to update and enhance investigation training based on new techniques from the forensic sciences, as well as studies that have identified the most effective ways to elicit valid information from witnesses and suspects.  Police education and training should incorporate these methods and increase the emphasis on preparing street officers and specialists to be better at collecting evidence and solving crimes.
Use of force
Police training has long focused on teaching police how to decide whether to use force and then how to do it effectively. More recently, an explicit emphasis on de-escalation has been added with the objective of avoiding use of force whenever possible through better utilization of tactics such as communication, time, distance, and cover. 
Training on use of force is and must be a high priority for at least two reasons related to reducing violent crime:
- Police need to be skilled at using force in order to successfully apprehend violent (and often armed) offenders.
- Police use of force always needs to be reasonable, necessary and proportional in order to avoid losing public trust.
The combination of these two training priorities – how to use force well and then how to avoid using it – is inevitably somewhat awkward. But they are both crucial in preparing officers who can successfully handle dangerous people while also avoiding the use of force whenever it’s not necessary.
Police are easily capable of overwhelming the courts and aggravating their communities by making too many stops and arrests and issuing too many citations for lesser offenses. It’s up to police executives to structure officers’ discretion and decision-making through policies, but the enormous range of “what ifs” that follow have to be answered through education and training.
No more arrests for simple marijuana possession? What if it’s a guy who just beat up his wife, but she’s too scared to press charges? No more enforcement of loitering? What if the loiterer is outside a public bathroom where rapes have recently occurred? What should officers do when dispatched to investigate a suspicious person, and the caller’s basis for suspicion might simply be the other person’s skin color?
Officers need more than written policies to guide them through all the permutations and combinations of ambiguous and suspicious human behavior they encounter.  Education and training can help with that.
Officers can learn critical decision-making skills and become more familiar with non-enforcement options. They can be reminded of governing values and principles. And they can practice, discuss and debate how best to handle situations through realistic and challenging scenarios. Back out in the field, they can be smarter about using their formal authority when necessary, while not wasting that scarce resource when other alternatives would work as well or better.
No, procedural justice isn’t the answer to everything that ails the police. But when officers stop suspicious people and treat them disrespectfully, future cooperation is compromised, and that applies equally to victims, witnesses, bystanders, observers and everybody else who hears about it or sees the video. Needless to say, police actions that decrease community cooperation don’t help violence reduction.
Police education and training can systematically reinforce the value of treating people with respect.  In scenarios, officers can practice introducing themselves, listening carefully, showing empathy, building rapport and explaining their actions. Afterward, they can watch their own body-worn camera video to become more self-aware of tendencies and bad habits. With feedback and repetition, they can get better at communicating with authenticity and sensitivity. This can help build, or re-build, that reservoir of trust so essential for tackling community violence.
Police departments and police academies have been trying for three decades to deliver meaningful community policing training, without much success. The main handicap has been the ethereal quality of the strategy itself – training in community policing has often been a mix of history, philosophy and sermon.  What it hasn’t been, usually, is an opportunity to learn what to do and how to do it.
Fortunately, despite weak training, community policing has consistently been shown to improve police-community relations, which can then set the stage for a more cooperative approach to tackling crime and violence.  It’s not rocket science. Officers can be shown how to increase their voluntary contacts with the public by starting a conversation at a business, on a front stoop, or in a parking lot. They can be taught how to identify community leaders, organize a meeting, set an agenda, build consensus and look for partners to help follow through on more formal engagement initiatives. And they can learn how to work with neighborhood residents in collaborative problem solving directly aimed at reducing specific problems of crime and disorder at the local level.
Problem-Oriented Policing (POP)
According to scientific evidence, nothing that police do is more effective at reducing crime than problem-oriented policing (POP).  One would think, therefore, that POP would occupy a central place in police education and training, but it doesn’t. Police training continues to focus primarily on teaching officers how to handle their work incident by incident, while educational programs in criminal justice and criminology tend to focus mainly on macro social and policy issues. Neither hits the real sweet spot – how to identify and analyze specific crime and disorder problems and then discover what works best at reducing them.
Police education and training can and should be re-oriented around problem-oriented policing. Officers should be trained to use the tools of POP, including the SARA model (Scanning, Analysis, Response and Assessment), the crime triangle and the problem analysis triangle.
Police officers should become well-versed in a few practical concepts from applied criminology, including opportunity theory, routine activities theory, crime concentration, crime analysis and situational prevention. They should learn how these concepts apply to specific crime and disorder problems, from homelessness to drunk driving to residential burglary to street robberies to retaliatory violence.
They should get practice drawing on the 100 POP Guides and hundreds of case studies available online at the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (see an example below). They should become as proficient at using POP to deal with community problems as they are at report writing, car stops, arrest and control techniques, and active shooter response.
Police education and training isn’t a cure for everything that ails modern policing, but it can do a better job of preparing police to deal with violent crime more effectively. This includes improved training in the basics – stops, searches, arrests, investigations and use of force – and adopting a much more serious emphasis on what actually works, particularly community policing and problem-oriented policing.
Click here to read more essays from the Violence Reduction Project
1. Moore M, Braga A. The Bottom Line of Policing: What Citizens Should Value (and Measure) in Police Performance, 2003. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.
2. Meissner CA, et al. Developing an Evidence-Based Perspective on Interrogation: A Review of the U.S. Government’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group Research Program. Psychology, Public Policy & Law, 2017, 23,4: 438-457.
3. Engel R, Corsaro N, Isaza G, McManus H. Examining the Impact of Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) De-escalation Training for the Louisville Metro Police Department: Initial Findings, 2020. IACP/UC Center for Police Research & Policy.
4. Bayley D, Bittner E. Learning the Skills of Policing. Law and Contemporary Problems, 1984, 47,4: 35-89.
5. Wood G, Tyler T, Papachristos A. Procedural Justice Training Reduces Police Use of Force and Complaints Against Officers, 2020. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 1117,18: 9815-9821.
6. Buerger M. Police Training as Pentecost: Using Tools Singularly Ill-Suited to the Purpose of Reform. Police Quarterly, 1998, 1,1: 27-63.
7. Gill C, et al. Community-Oriented Policing to Reduce Crime, Disorder, and Fear and Increase Satisfaction and Legitimacy Among Citizens: A Systematic Review. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2014, 10,4: 399-428.
8. Hinkle J, et al. Problem-Oriented Policing for Reducing Crime and Disorder: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2020, 16: e1089.
The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the Baltimore City Police Department or the City of Baltimore