How to prevent P.O.S.T. trauma
To a cadet with no experience in policing, much of the subject matter in the academy – both academic and skills – is abstract and hypothetical
Since the dawn of formalized police training in the United States in New York City in 1909, law enforcement training and standards have been constantly evolving.
New York and California were the first to establish statewide mandatory police standards in 1959. Corruption scandals in the first half of the 20th century and televised police response to civil disturbances in the 1960s and 70s gave rise to demands for better police training. The 1965 Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice resulted in federal legislation that continues to reverberate to this day.
All states now have some official body or commission that governs, mandates, or recommends training for police officers for licensing or certification. Many are referred to by the acronym POST for peace officer standards and training.
Members of the law enforcement profession are grateful for opportunities for training, and for knowing that colleagues have met training standards as well. As a seasoned professional who was sworn in before my state had minimum requirements, and who has served as a subject matter expert advising a POST board, a full-time academy instructor and site director, with doctoral research on academy curricula, I see some potential weakness in the current regulation of police training.
Limitations on pre-training service
I’m not an expert on all states’ regulations, but I do know that many or most do not allow a person to act as a police officer until completion of the academy. Both my subjective training experience and research in teaching and learning tell me that context is critical for retaining information.
To a cadet with no experience in policing, much of the subject matter in the academy – both academic and skills – is abstract and hypothetical. New information is retained more effectively when it is linked to knowledge or experience already in the mind. I compare it to the two sides of the hook and loop fasteners. It takes an existing surface for the other side to stick. I attended an academy after I had been on patrol for six months. Everything I learned in the academy I was hungry for and had application and meaning. I understand the liability, but today’s recruits are robbed of context if not allowed to be out in the real world before the information fades from memory.
As a trainer approved in several states, I have been required by some to provide presentation slides with my lesson plans. News flash: not all training requires presentation slides, and many lesson plans could be improved by eliminating them!
Measuring learning by hours rather than objectives
In my list of grievances, this one is at the top. As anyone who has been in an 8-hour class where the instructor looks at their watch, starts talking slower and repeating themselves just to fill the allotted time knows, all the learning took place before lunch. Since a good lesson plan identifies learning objectives and the means of measuring learning outcomes, why not call it a day when the instructor is confident that objectives have been met?
Restricting course formats
There is research aplenty that guides teachers on teaching and learning styles, information retention and proxemics. That research says that the “sage on the stage” is least effective of all, and yet lesson plans filed with regulators must often fit prescribed formats. Preference is given to lecture format except in skills areas (shootin’, fightin’ and drivin’) where lab or participation hours are regulated as well.
Sitting in rows as you did in first grade and paying attention to your teacher can transmit information, but brain science says that using multiple senses, associating the information with movement, and social interaction with others about the information is most effective in learning. In addition, requirements that each class segment consists of 50 minutes with a 10-minute break do not allow for the momentum of discussion or the studies that show that 90-minute segments can be as or more effective.
Training time is of high value, but every hour of training takes an officer away from their primary task of dealing with crime and public service. When a legislator decides that the police need 40 hours of training on something, it means 40 fewer hours of police protection for the public. A 500-person agency facing such a mandate must forfeit 20,000 hours of potential police response capacity, arguably increasing the danger to the public when many agencies are already understaffed. For a small agency, such a mandate can be devastating to the scheduling and availability of officers. Even when training is “free,” there is rarely a provision for backfilling the empty patrol cars in exchange for an officer filling a classroom chair.
Training topics and content should be determined by valid assessments of frequency, risk and value, not by a political wind that seeks to make cops more aware of something that may not be a problem in the real world of their experience.
Failure to coordinate among subject matter experts
A cadet learns about the Fourth Amendment in the classroom, then on the firing range, then in defensive tactics, then on the driving range practicing car stops. Is there consistency among those instructors? Does the firearms instructor know what the empty hand control instructor is offering? Do students get evaluated on how they integrate knowledge across the curriculum?
The most important learning is in the field
Few states regulate the field training portion of a new officer’s career, and yet this is where the most critical acquisition of skills and application of knowledge occurs. Although I find that ironic, it also (at least in most states) allows the freedom of innovation and personalization that is denied to basic police academies. While we’ve certainly come a long way from handing over a gun, badge, car keys and a map to a rookie and wishing them luck, the profession must pay attention to the high cost of training inefficiently.