Why training reform must start in the academy

There are ways to improve academy training to promote desired learning outcomes that transfer to real-world encounters


Police training should evolve as our understanding of how people learn advances. Research shows how priming, emotional connection to the material, sleep, mirror neurons, training intervals, training design and exercise after a new skill session leads to increased performance and longer retention of skills, yet few police academies design training programs around this knowledge. There is rarely a critical look at what is being taught, how it is being taught and why it is being taught, but this is essential for understanding what consistently works to provide appropriate outcomes. Practices that do not improve outcomes should be replaced.

For most officers, training begins at the academy. These institutions can be regionally or departmentally run, depending on the size of the jurisdiction. The traditional boot camp academy approach is proving counterproductive. Stress should be by design and have a context outside of what is often referred to as a “harassment package.” Staff at an academy should be coaches and educators.

By the time an individual gets to an academy, the goal is to teach that person how to be a successful police officer. Students who are self-motivated, self-disciplined and who perform to standard will succeed. Those who are not and do not should be dismissed.

Recruit officer Ryan Rich with the Vancouver Police Department handcuffs “suspect” Don Cornwell, a recruit with the DuPont Police Department, after a mock fight during an academy class at the Washington Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, Washington on Wednesday, August 18, 2021, where recruits are learning and using less-than-lethal force alternatives.
Recruit officer Ryan Rich with the Vancouver Police Department handcuffs “suspect” Don Cornwell, a recruit with the DuPont Police Department, after a mock fight during an academy class at the Washington Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, Washington on Wednesday, August 18, 2021, where recruits are learning and using less-than-lethal force alternatives. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Concepts

Academy training design is crucial for how students learn and retain information. There is an enormous body of research on sports performance and motor skill learning – the underlying mechanisms of which are the same for decision-making and performance outcomes in a policing context – but these methodologies are largely unused in law enforcement training. The result is that when it comes to real-world application, many police academy graduates cannot remember, let alone successfully perform, the defensive control tactics they were exposed to or consistently hit what they are aiming at on a firearm range under simple time stress or when given a simple cognitive task. Often, they are unable to communicate what they want a suspect to do and give nonsensical or ambiguous commands.

Street application defaults to what the individual has actually learned and believes will likely work, not necessarily what was taught at the academy. Real-world application is also influenced by the level of fear response the officer is experiencing and skillsets may not even be accessed or employed during an acute sympathetic nervous system response.

Wrestlers, boxers, Jiu-Jitsu practitioners and others default to techniques at which they are skilled and have a level of automaticity, and which have proven successful for them in the past. Unfortunately for many officers, they do not have a great skill set and resort to schoolyard brawling or, for multi-officer engagements, the ironically named “pig-pile,” where five officers are each pulling on a limb of a suspect who is on the ground with no real strategy for handcuffing.

Higher levels of force may be used to compensate for lack of confidence or skill, resulting from the dynamics of a fear-driven response, or from ambiguous or conflicting communications. While most situations involving inadequate skill-sets are resolved satisfactorily because officers continually adapt their approach to achieving an acceptable outcome, [1] there are ways to improve academy-driven training and promote desired learning outcomes that transfer to real-world encounters.

The following can improve the acquisition, retention and application of motor skills and should be included in police academy curriculum development:

  • Space out skill learning so new or similar skills are not taught closely together to improve retention, [2] exploit sleep benefits [3, 4] and avoid introducing new skills when students are fatigued. [5] Students should regularly practice skills in context or in decision-based drills, such as random or interleaved training once an acceptable level of proficiency has been achieved. [6] Mere repetition of a motor skill, without the problem-solving aspects of when and how to implement it, or the ability to evaluate and adjust the approach in the moment, is of little value for learning. [7] Learning motor and verbal skills should be distinct phases and separated for better retention, [8] like any motor skill learning.  
  • Training should be long-term and progressively more difficult [9] with a teaching emphasis that allows students to experiment and develop internal, rather than a reliance on external, feedback. Students would be better served to spend shorter sessions working on a skill over a longer period of time, than longer sessions over a shorter period, i.e., spending two hours a day on control tactics, four days a week, over 10 weeks, would be more beneficial than eight hours a day over two weeks. Individuals should always be pushed to perform in increasingly more complex drills, but only as an individual is ready to progress. This methodology requires students to adapt their skills to achieve their goal – although the skills themselves are not “advanced” and do not change, per se. This means adapting basic skills for use in different environments; the dark, in confined spaces, on uneven or different surfaces, with loud noise or other distractors, etc.
  • Communication skills and goal-directed verbal strategies should be taught from day one. [10] Communications strategies – from simple conversations to those that allow a person to calm themself or that are designed for acutely stressful or multiple officer situations are critical. Simple changes to police commands, which are unambiguous, can save lives. In a nod to “what’s old is new again,” officers should tell someone to “Freeze” or “Don’t move” when immediate compliance is expected and wait for compliance before issuing another command. “Stop! Show me your hands!” barked in rapid succession is an example of both ambiguous and contradictory commands that heighten emotions. Stop what? If the officer means “Freeze” and the citizen responds to “Show me your hands,” pulling their hands out of their pockets could (and has) resulted in tragic outcomes – for both officers and citizens alike.
  • Ensure that students understand stress responses and the impact they have on motor performance, cognitive performance and decision-making. Recognizing these effects in themselves, a citizen, or another officer can have a profound influence on how an incident is resolved. For example, negative emotions like anger are associated with a sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response. [11] SNS responses have been shown to impair executive function; including inhibition, [12] which prevents impulses from being acted upon – impulses like hitting someone without cause or aggressive hostility. Understanding how acute stress can influence perceptions, capture attentional resources, and negatively impact a person's decision-making and behaviors, can inform how an officer deals with a suspect, manages their own stress response, or intervenes when another officer needs to down-regulate.
  • Intentional training on force inhibition is critical. It is important to train officers to act, and to act decisively when they perceive a threat to safety. It is just as important to train officers to recognize when they cannot be hurt quickly and to use that time to evaluate and adjust force accordingly – this will be affected by skill level and level of stress response. Officers should fully understand the dynamics of shooting contexts, i.e., the ability to perceive what is beyond a running target, at night, in a city, etc. – and their ability to ensure a hit. Closing distance or finding cover may be better options than throwing errant rounds. If an officer does not have appropriate target identification/discrimination, that officer must be trained not to shoot. Firearms instructors know officers who consistently miss a target from the 25-yard line in a range environment – they know, in fact, that the safest place to be is where the officer is aiming. Without knowing what is behind a threat that is at this range, it would be prudent for this officer to inhibit shots so as not to endanger the community. Force intervention training, with the proper mechanism in place to ensure officer and citizen safety, fits well into a force inhibition training context.
  • Finally, training for stress management, compassion and the regulation of emotions is a component that is sorely needed in policing. An officer who goes to a child abuse call one minute and a barking dog complaint the next needs a mechanism to buffer the trauma of the first from the triviality of the second. Mindfulness training can be that answer. Although anathema in most policing cultures, various mindfulness training has been shown to decrease stress, [13] proactively reduce anger responses, [14] improve attention and working memory, [15] and facilitate emotion regulation, problem-solving, and learning. [16]

Training is essential for any skilled activity. The right kind of training can decrease learning time and dramatically improve performance and long-term retention of skills. At a police academy, students need to focus on fundamental skills and begin to apply them in contextual, integrated and decision-based drills from the outset of the academy. It is similarly important that a police academy instill and demand a culture of discipline in the learning process. As World Heavyweight Champion James J. Corbett put it, “Only those who have patience to do simple things perfectly ever acquire the skill to do difficult things easily.” [17] Train basic skills daily, not until a person gets them right, but until they cannot get them wrong.

Communication skills are essential and should be incorporated into all training evolutions once basic physical techniques have reached an acceptable performance level. Progressively complex training exercises will challenge students and facilitate learning. Human factors and personal ability should frame the approach to skill development. These ensure that students learn to recognize and appropriately respond to SNS-driven decision-making, learn to recognize moments within use of force that allow the student to evaluate their approach and to inhibit force where reasonable, and give students an understanding of the boundaries of their skills so that they can make sound force decisions. Mindfulness meditation will help officers learn, improve decision-making, and connect with those in their community while helping to inoculate against the stressors that commonly cause PTSD in officers. [18] This is the type of training law enforcement needs in the reform era – it is time and resource-intensive, requiring the intense examination of content followed by redesigning many current curriculums.

Challenges

Compounding the problems to policing during turbulent times is the tendency for jurisdictions to be more concerned with filling vacancies than filling vacancies with the right people. Steadfast leadership is needed to ensure that the commitment to selection, training and standards are maintained. Both state- and department-mandated training tend toward that which shields the command structure from Monell claims and appeases political constituencies rather than cultivates and improves officer performance – this is commonly referred to as check-the-box training or CYA mandated training. Officers must have “continued training at a high task level in order to maintain skill mastery.” [19] Current training mandates do not broadly accomplish this goal.

Law enforcement has not historically done a good job of explaining the “why” of common practices, which can lead to hard feelings (both from an interpersonal and profession-wide standpoint), been particularly adept at analyzing the origins of poor outcomes so that they can be prevented in the future, or proactively looked for ways to improve performance. Politicians, on the other hand, have not really been interested in understanding policing dynamics and regularly support or criticize law enforcement in a reflexive manner, to divert attention from (or to) failed policies. Recently, assigning sinister motives to outcomes that are completely predictable over time – given current levels of training, human capabilities, and the reality that sometimes a host of influences intersect at just the right time to produce a catastrophic outcome – has become the norm.

Law enforcement leaders and legislators should be using poor outcomes in a policing context as the starting point of an investigation and not as the conclusion of one. Taking a systems approach to identifying the intersecting influences which produced an outcome is a more effective approach to mitigating future occurrences [20] and a better way to drive policy decisions. While this takes time, it is critical because under most circumstances, the behaviors that routinely and consistently produce acceptable results, also produce the occasional poor result – as officers are remarkably skilled at adapting their approaches to address and resolve events. [21] This makes uncovering opportunities to improve practices more difficult. The challenge is to have honest dialogues when things go wrong and to constantly evaluate what goes right. The focus should be to learn and to seek ways to improve, adopting practices and policies that work and discarding or updating those that do not. In this way, training opportunities are identified, curriculums evaluated, and programs developed so that officer skills and aptitudes are consistently evolving for improved community outcomes. Law enforcement, political leaders, and society would benefit from a more reasoned, scientific approach to policy and training rather than a reactive and emotional one.

Conclusion

Once a person passes selection and begins a police academy, the proper learning environment and approach to developing essential knowledge, skills, and abilities should be driven by scientific research. This means an entirely different curriculum design and methodology than is found in most police academies. Long-term exposure to essential skills, applied in progressively more demanding environments, will ensure that motor performance continues to improve while decision-making skills are developed and improved. It is also important to recognize that chronic exposure to trauma can lead to changes in an individual’s personality traits, [22] which can manifest as inappropriate and hostile interactions in a policing context. As such, training at the academy should proactively prepare officers to mitigate the impact of traumatic events. Various mindfulness and meditation practices have been shown to be beneficial in this regard and should be performed at the academy. These practices have also been shown to improve cognitive function and facilitate learning, there is no downside to engaging in mindfulness meditation routines.

Training must be championed at the academy and continued throughout an officer’s career. Leaders must commit to proactive searches for opportunities to improve practices. Test policies to determine if the outcomes are consistent with the intent behind them. Support a systems-based approach to identifying the intersecting factors that result in tragic events in order to decrease the likelihood of future events. Law enforcement and political leaders that support these practices will aid in producing better policing outcomes while improving public safety.

References

1. Hollnagel E. (2017). The ETTO principle: Efficiency-thoroughness trade-off: Why things that go right sometimes go wrong. CRC Press.

2. Cantarero G, Tang B, O'Malley R, Salas R, Celnik P. (2013). Motor learning interference is proportional to occlusion of LTP-like plasticity. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(11), 4634-4641. 

3. Walker MP. (2003). Sleep and the time course of motor skill learning. Learning & Memory, 10(4), 275-284. 

4. Vahdat S, Fogel S, Benali H, Doyon J. (2017). Network-wide reorganization of procedural memory during NREM sleep revealed by fMRI. eLife, 6. 

5. Branscheidt M, et al. (2019). Fatigue induces long-lasting detrimental changes in motor-skill learning. eLife, 8. 

6. Lin C, et al. (2018). Contextual interference enhances motor learning through increased resting brain connectivity during memory consolidation. NeuroImage, 181, 1-15. 

7. Lee TD, Schmidt RA. (2014). PaR (plan-act-Review) golf: Motor learning research and improving golf skills. International Journal of Golf Science, 3(1), 2-25. 

8. Gagné M, Cohen H. (2015). Interference effects between manual and oral motor skills. Experimental Brain Research, 234(3), 845-851.

9. Christiansen L, et al. (2020). Long-term motor skill training with individually adjusted progressive difficulty enhances learning and promotes corticospinal plasticity. Scientific Reports, 10(1).

10. Wolfe S, Rojek J, McLean K, Alpert G. (2020). Social interaction training to reduce police use of force. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 687(1), 124-145.

11. Peters JR, Eisenlohr-Moul TA, Walsh EC, Derefinko KJ. (2018). Exploring the pathophysiology of emotion-based impulsivity: The roles of the sympathetic nervous system and hostile reactivity. Psychiatry Research, 267, 368-375.

12. Shields GS, Sazma MA, Yonelinas AP. (2016). The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: A meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 651-668. 

13. Lang AJ, et al. (2019). Compassion meditation for posttraumatic stress disorder in veterans: A randomized proof of concept study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 32(2), 299-309.

14. Johnson KT, et al. (2019). Cardiovascular and affective responses to speech and anger: Proactive benefits of a single brief session of mindfulness meditation. Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 24(3). 

15. Zanesco AP, et al. (2019). Mindfulness training as cognitive training in high-demand cohorts: An initial study in elite military service members. Progress in Brain Research, 323-354. 

16. Jha AP, et al. (2019). Does mindfulness training help working memory ‘work’ better? Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 273-278. 

17. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/james_j_corbett_229122.

18. Wagner SL, et al. (2020). Systematic review of posttraumatic stress disorder in police officers following routine work‐related critical incident exposure. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 63(7), 600-615. 

19. Christiansen L, et al. (2020). Long-term motor skill training with individually adjusted progressive difficulty enhances learning and promotes corticospinal plasticity. Scientific Reports, 10(1). 

20. Dekker S. (2017). The Field guide to understanding human error. CRC Press.

21. Hollnagel E. (2017). The ETTO principle: Efficiency-thoroughness trade-off: Why things that go right sometimes go wrong. CRC Press.

22. Leigh Wills J, Schuldberg D. (2016). Chronic trauma effects on personality traits in police officers. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 29(2), 185-189. 

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