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The private police training universe and public money

How can police leaders ensure their training investment in tuition cost and personnel is aligned with an agency’s core values?

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A 2021 training event conducted by Street Cop Training in New Jersey has been accused of “alarming deficiencies in the police training provided at the Conference” according to the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller (OSC). As a result, the state’s Attorney General will require that the 240 New Jersey officers who attended the event be retrained. The allegations of the OSC against Street Cop Training deserve attention, not merely because of the impact on the particular training company and the thousands of officers they’ve trained, but because of the question of who can or should censor law enforcement trainers.

The OSC has authority within the executive branch to oversee expenditures of state funds. As part of that larger mission, the OSC established the Police Accountability Project “to detect waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct in law enforcement agencies” according to the OSC website. Interestingly New Jersey’s Police Training Commission within the office of the attorney general has jurisdiction only over police basic training, not continuing education or regulation of in-service training.

Part of the cry for police reform is a demand for better training. Much of that demand centers around use of force, de-escalation, and issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Police leaders, in response to funding opportunities and public expectations, have largely been responsive to those issues. Meanwhile, officers crave training that helps them stay safe and intervene effectively in criminal activity. The demand for all of this training is met by largely unregulated and unvetted private training organizations.

Until recently, few questioned the content or value of these training presentations. From the banning of any training with the scent of “warrior” to the violent protests against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center portends a new era in the commercial viability of privatized training. Whether this will improve the quality of education for police officers or reduce training to the vicissitudes of transient political pressures remains to be seen.

How can police leaders ensure their training investment in tuition cost and personnel is well spent and aligned with an agency’s core values? Here are some key considerations:

  1. Send supervisors, agency legal representatives and prosecutors to the training. They might learn something, but their main purpose is to evaluate the training and presentation. Sure, the course likely concludes with an evaluation form being handed out, but officers ready to head home may take little time for the form. In addition, the company evaluation is for internal purposes, advertising quotes (Great training! Love the presenters!), and is not intended to question whether it is consistent with the attending agencies’ needs.
  2. Get reviews from your agency’s attendees. Ask about the propriety of the presentation. Would every officer in the room feel valued and not the butt of any race or gender-insensitive commentary or humor? Was there anything in the curriculum that was contrary to the agency’s policy, procedure, ethics, legal guidance, or previous training?
  3. Vet the event in advance. Most police agencies do not have a prioritized schedule for training over matters that have been measured or deemed to be needed to overcome a deficiency in current practice. They do what I call “training by flier.” The information about some course coming to the area shows up in the mail or there is an email offering free seats to a host agency and it gets added to the calendar. What is known about the course, its owner, its presenters and its contents? What do we hear from officers who have attended? (And just because it was fun doesn’t mean it was quality.) Does it meet a demonstrated need?
  4. Monitor post-performance. One definition of education is an observable difference in behavior based on new information. Are there post-instructional measures to determine if the training made a positive or negative difference in an officer’s performance that is traceable to the instruction? One of the challenges of training in police tactics is that very little is truly research-based and validated. Absent some objective studies that show that certain tactics are legal and effective, agencies bear the responsibility to show that they are appropriately practiced by their officers.

The patchwork of training standards and needs across the country’s 18,000 police agencies could someday be replaced by national oversight and regulation. There are arguments for and against such a move, but if individual agencies maintain quality control over training vendors and their own efforts, self-regulation will answer the concerns.

NEXT: How to measure the effectiveness of police training programs

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.