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‘Do as we say, not as we do’: The unintended disconnect in police basic training

The manner in which we’ve historically taught police officers doesn’t align with how officers are expected to police their communities today

DALL·E 2024-01-09 08.02.45 - A 16x9 image of a police academy training session with a stern-looking instructor overseeing the activities. The scene includes a diverse group of re.png


Within the first week of our new academy class’s arrival, our staff noticed a palpable sense of anxiety among the group. After orientation and foundational courses, one trainee said they were waiting for the “real” academy to start, believing the conventional boot-camp style that media and history has shown the world was just around the corner.

While this was an apparent commentary on our academy’s approach to police training, this trainee’s comment nonetheless brought to the forefront a reality in police education: the manner in which we’ve historically taught police officers doesn’t align with how officers are expected to police their communities today.

A recent Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) Critical Issues in Policing Series report notes, “Traditionally, many police academies have followed a regimented, boot-camp style approach to training new recruits. Many academies place an overriding emphasis on strict discipline, deportment, following orders, and a stress-based style of instruction.” While instructors in these stress-style academies, as the U.S. Department of Justice labels them, surely teach positive methods of policing, the training can’t help but seem contradictory when trainees are subjected to an exceptionally controlling — and in some cases, disparaging — culture from day one.

Just as a child models the behavior of their parents as they grow, new officers follow the example of their senior officers. Simply put, new officers will police in the manner they were taught. As suggested by the PERF report, “If the academy culture is demeaning and controlling, then new officers may be more likely to model those traits in the community when they graduate.”

It’s time to look at police training through a new lens that reassures officers we are a profession that does as we say and says as we do.

Check yourself: What are you modeling for new officers?

Following the idiom “actions speak louder than words,” it’s critical how we teach reinforces what we teach. For instance, if an instructor teaches a community relations block by lecturing from the front of the room, stymieing conversation and making a student perform push-ups for getting the wrong answer, does the method really reinforce the message? Put another way, is this the way we want our officers to interact with the community?

It’s not enough for instructors to simply transmit curriculum; we must look beyond the material to evaluate how it’s being presented. To start, ask these questions to determine the example that is being set for your officers in the classroom:

1. Who’s doing most of the talking in the classroom, is it the instructor or students?

2. How are students interacting with the material in class? Are they expected to just absorb it from lecture, or are they dissecting it through hypothetical situations, debates or discussions?

3. How are instructors providing feedback? Is it student-centered and developmental, or critical, closed-off and harsh?

4. What’s the tone in the classroom or on the range? Is it collegial, or is there a strong power dynamic?

5. Read the room: Are students engaged or are they lost?

6. How do instructors interact with students? Does it lean more toward superior-subordinate, or mentor-mentee?

These questions should start to draw out the prevailing themes and methodologies evident in your training program.

Introducing a collaborative approach to learning

Positive modeling for new officers starts with the application of soft skills in the educational environment, emphasizing critical thinking, professional communication and emotional intelligence, as these are the skills effective police officers rely on to be successful.

Rather than merely instructing classes about soft skills, every class and evolution should serve as a forum for applying and advancing these critical skills. When officers collaboratively discuss, problem solve and debate, they learn how to work with individuals from different backgrounds and with different perspectives to reach an amicable resolution. Similarly, by instructors modeling a collaborative and cooperative approach to learning, new officers are imbued with this culture from day one so by the time they hit the streets, they are more likely to replicate these philosophies in their day-to-day contacts.

Consider these methods for integrating soft skills into your classroom:

  • Change-up the seating. Rather than the traditional column and row seating, group desks together to facilitate cooperative learning and discussion.
  • Present curriculum in alternative ways, such as with teach-backs, case study reviews, in-class debates and discussions.
  • Limit the lecture. Allow students to drive the learning.
  • Mitigate the power dynamic in the classroom by taking away the lectern and making your instructors interact with students while teaching. View the instructor as a facilitator, rather than a lecturer.
  • Use student-centered feedback models when evaluating reality-based training evolutions.

In these instances, it’s the role of the instructor to promote affirmative interactions and correct new officers when they stray off course, have wrong information, or interact inappropriately with fellow students or staff.

Don’t eliminate stress, just retune it

A regular criticism of this approach is that new officers will lack the resilience, detachment and confidence instilled through strict discipline. The fact is the type of stress brought on by yelling, demeaning comments and physical discipline is not necessarily the type of stress our officers will regularly face in the field, and nor is this what we want officers to replicate in the field when they are under stress or working through a call.

Instead, officers more often face personality conflicts, communication barriers, ill-structured problems and workload burdens. Through an academy’s philosophy and leveraging soft skills, a course can induce stress in a manner more consistent with their future field experience, allowing new officers to build their capacity for the real world of policing. Academies can structure this stress in different ways, such as through:

  • Reality-based training that emphasizes de-escalation skills, communication skills and methods for voluntary compliance, especially in the face of conflict.
  • Group table-top exercises that require officers to collaborate with different personalities and perspectives to reach a specific goal.
  • Multiple competing assignments and deadlines that challenge a new officer’s ability to prioritize, plan and accomplish tasks.
  • Scheduling longer training days that require officers to work through physical and intellectual fatigue.
  • Problem-based learning opportunities that require a group of officers to tackle a challenging issue where there’s no one simple solution, a general lack of information, and a need to resolve learning issues.

The academy is a powerful place in the development of new officers, as it lays the critical foundation for any new officer’s career. Ensuring our academies positively model how we want officers to interact with others, informed by an emphasis on soft skill application, ensures we can meet our communities’ high expectations while fulfilling our duties in a respectful, professional and empathetic manner.


Hank Prim is a supervisory special agent with a state law enforcement agency, where he oversees the state’s standards and training section and serves as the state peace officers standards and training director. In this role, he directs the state’s sole police academy, manages law enforcement officer certifications and training, and supervises officer misconduct investigations. Prior to this position, Hank was assigned as a regional major-crime investigator. Hank grew up in the Chicago suburbs and graduated magna cum laude from Hillsdale College. He is currently pursuing his Master of Science degree in Law Enforcement & Public Safety Leadership from the University of San Diego.