Using surveys to improve police academy education
How well a police academy prepared a new officer can be effectively assessed through surveys conducted during the field training process
By Eric J. Salemi, MPA
Basic police training academies are the first stop in many new officers’ careers. Outside of college degrees and certificates, many recruits receive no education or training in their new role until they reach the academy. Whether a regional or department academy or a community college certifying program, standards are set by a governing board regarding minimums and expectations, but are the needs of your member agencies truly being met?
The most recent police training academy statistics released in 2016 by the Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, reflect numbers from the 2013 Census of Law Enforcement Training Academies. At that time, 664 law enforcement (police) training academies were surveyed. From 2011 to 2013, these academies accepted roughly 45,000 applicants. In turn, 86% of the applicants graduated from these 664 academies, yielding 16,200 recruits per year. A further breakdown revealed that ten thousand of those graduates per year came from 2-year colleges and 6,200 graduated from municipal police academies.  Each state sets its minimum training requirements. Most allow for academies to exceed certain standards, but none allow for any less than those set minimums.
Meeting the minimum
Most academies receive input from recruits regarding instructor performance and staff concerning curriculum development.  These are excellent sources of feedback and expertise. This data, coupled with state minimum requirements, offer excellent guidance in putting together a curriculum that checks the boxes of all required training standards.
While it is of utmost importance that training academies meet the minimum requirements imposed upon them by state and federal mandates, it is as equally important to meet the specific needs of their member agencies.
Academies should solicit data from member agencies regarding how well they believe recruits are prepared for follow-up training at their agency upon academy graduation to improve police academy delivery of training and education and recruit performance. This can be accomplished with academy-prepared surveys that are sent to member agencies for completion.
In completing these training surveys, member agencies must evaluate recruit performance. This is done by retrieving feedback from a recruit’s standpoint, as well as a training officers’ evaluation, of the amount of knowledge the recruit has and can apply to situations. Academies serving one entity can use the same approach on a smaller scale.
Feedback should be solicited from recruits mid-way and/or at the end of field training programs to get an opinion from them of how prepared they ultimately were for the situations they found themselves in during that continued portion of their training. The same feedback should be solicited from those responsible for the continued training of the recruit, i.e., field training officers and supervisors, during and approximately six months to a year after field training.
Training surveys are very helpful for training academies in assessing whether the academy is not only certifying recruits but truly meeting the needs of member agencies.
Agencies must thoroughly evaluate the knowledge base of recruits post-basic training. Many states require recruits to take a final exam to determine the retention of articulated learning objectives and require a minimum score of proficiency. This "score" can be used in comparing recruits learning to the delivery of education.
Surveys, when taken seriously and narrowly tailored, better allow for reviewers to measure success or need for improvement. Questions posed to recruit respondents are geared toward evaluating their assessment of how well material is delivered and how applicable it eventually was in real-world application. Instructor evaluations along the way also contribute data to this end by providing additional data concerning delivery and accuracy. Other questions geared toward academy facilities, learning environment and scheduling will also provide data concerning the academy's effectiveness.
Surveys soliciting information from field training officers and administrative staff should request, on a scale of say one to five, how well recruits seem to be prepared for given work responsibilities. A simple example would be, “If the recruit has had the opportunity to engage with a citizen in need of crisis intervention, how well prepared was the recruit?” The same approach can be used in assessing how well recruits are prepared for domestic situations, interpreting state code, officer safety, speaking with the public, and the list goes on.
Answers where data consistently shows that recruits are poorly prepared require curriculum and delivery evaluation to say the least, but a closer look at other influences can be made by academy staff once the connection to academy service is evident.
An important note, as is the case for all ethical research, there must be an element of anonymity and protection of respondents to better ensure honest participation and credibility for the survey. Students can be assigned numbers as identifiers when answering their survey. While field training officers and supervisors must know which recruit they are reviewing, managers can protect them by ensuring them that the survey will not be part of the recruit’s personnel or training file.
Many accreditation agencies, like CALEA, require such evaluations and academies are expected to obtain this feedback from member agencies. To be consistent and inclusive, they should occur for each graduating class.
Because the issues are so important the evaluation of data and assessments should occur annually. This process can only be successful to the extent that member agencies cooperate by providing productive feedback and conducting their assessment of improvements in performance or deficiencies related to training needs. A simple review by member agency staff of the survey results netted from academy surveys will go a long way to that endeavor.
1. Reaves BA. State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2006. Office of Justice Programs: Bureau of Justice Statistics, February 2009
2. Reaves BA. State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2013. Office of Justice Programs: Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2016.
About the author
Eric Salemi, MPA, continues to serve in law enforcement after 28 years. His assignments have included leadership roles in patrol, SWAT, criminal investigations, accreditation and PSAPs. He is the director of the Public Safety Division at Berkley Group LLC in Virginia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.