There's a crisis in new police recruit training across the country. (Courtesy of MassDOT via Wikimedia Commons)
There's a crisis in new police recruit training across the country. (Courtesy of MassDOT via Wikimedia Commons)

A comprehensive new report asserted that American authorities have traditionally trained police officers on the cheap, noting that more than 71% of agencies devote less than 5% of their total budget to recruit training. 

Issued by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the report found that nearly half of the agencies responding to the survey agreed that spending on recruit training had increased over the past five years.

However, that was before police budgets faced the dual challenges of cuts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and calls to “defund” the police. 

The 84-page exposition noted that investments in training could be stalled or reduced at the very time they need to increase to bring about changes required in American policing. 

Researchers found that in many jurisdictions, “the goal seems to be moving as many recruits as possible through academy training as fast as possible and at the lowest possible cost.” 

They argued that this approach had been driven partly by the desire to quickly get more officers on the street – a challenge that became particularly acute as officer hirings declined and retirements and resignations increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic and as homicides and other violent crimes surged.

“Besides recruiting and hiring, there is perhaps no activity that is more crucial to the success of police departments and sheriffs’ offices than how they train recruits,” researchers wrote. 

“Recruit training is where new officers acquire the basic knowledge and skills to do their jobs. It’s where they learn the right way to do things and have an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, without the serious consequences of making those mistakes in the field.”

They continued: “It is where new officers acquire the foundation of technical know-how that will stay with them throughout their careers. But recruit training is about more than just technical instruction. 

“Recruit training is where prospective officers are introduced to the concept of public safety and public service. The training academy is where police agencies can articulate their philosophy and vision and begin to instill their core values. 

“Finally, recruit training is where agencies build and reinforce their culture through the next group of frontline employees.”

While policing has changed in many respects throughout the years, officers struggle with challenges on several fronts, including dealing with individuals in crisis.

The report contended that, far too often, police recruits are trained as warriors, not as guardians and partners intended for civil communities.

To effect change, new officers should receive new and adequate instruction sensitive to the communities they serve, researchers wrote.

“The current state of recruit training demands that we rethink – and remake – the system for how new police officers is trained,” the researchers argued. 

“We need national consensus and national standards on what the training contains, how it is delivered, and by whom. 

“This report may present a grim picture of the current state of recruit training, but it also puts forth a series of principles that can help guide the transformation of training to meet the challenges of policing for today and tomorrow.”

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the PERF, said one could ascertain much about a police training academy from the moment an individual walks in the door and encounter a group of recruits. 

“If the recruits immediately back up against the nearest wall, look straight ahead, and bark out in unison, ‘Good morning, ma’am!” or “Good afternoon, sir!” you pretty much know the culture and operating philosophy of that academy,” Wexler stated.

“If, on the other hand, the recruits pause, look you in the eye, and offer a more conversational, “Good morning, sir” or “How are you today, ma’am,” that tells you something else. 

“Academies have traditionally followed a paramilitary, boot camp-like model that emphasizes discipline, deportment, following orders, and a strict hierarchy where recruits are often on the lowest rung. 

Wexler continued:

“Discipline and following the chain of command are certainly important and necessary aspects of police training and operations. But when those elements become so pervasive that they overshadow almost everything else, it can undermine the academy’s mission, which is to prepare new police officers to serve and protect their communities with compassion and humanity.”

Researchers concluded the report by noting that American policing needs to re-imagine and retool recruit training. 

They recommended that officials rethink how academies are operated and staffed, what the recruit curriculum contains, and how the training is delivered and by whom.

They also suggested authorities rethink how to use reality-based scenario training more broadly and effectively and how recruit training integrates with field training once recruits leave the academy. 

“Re-imagining policing begins with tackling how police officers are taught. This report is a blueprint for fundamentally rethinking the current way we train new police officers – for dismantling the existing model and building a new approach,” Wexler asserted. 

“The goals are ambitious and far-reaching. But we hope that if police agencies can attract those who possess the ‘right stuff,’ we can provide them with the kind of training that will take us into the future guided by a new way of thinking.”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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