“They Need More Training!” A National Level Analysis of Police Academy Basic Training Priorities

“They Need More Training!” A National Level Analysis of Police Academy Basic Training Priorities

John J. Sloan III, Eugene A. Paoline III | Police Quarterly

“They Need More Training!” A National Level Analysis of Police Academy Basic Training Priorities

John J. Sloan III, Eugene A. Paoline III | Police Quarterly


"Recurring incidents of Black citizens killed or injured during interactions with police has led to calls for “more training” of officers, including new recruits.

Prior research on academy-based police recruit training has centered on evaluation and heavily relied on case studies.

The current study overcomes these limitations by analyzing the structure and content of academy-based basic training using secondary data collected from the population (N = 591) of U.S. police academies.

Although we found significant mean differences across academies in total required contact hours needed to graduate and with how the hours were distributed across training areas, we also found academies adopted the same core curriculum consisting of six major “themes” and topics (n = 39) comprising them. We also found academies prioritized core areas of training in certain areas, while requiring far fewer hours in others. Implications of our results for basic training of recruits and suggestions for future research are then presented.

The first American police department to employ personnel who were full-time, paid and sworn was established in Boston in 1838 (Walker, 1977). The lack of personnel standards for hiring officers as well as the absence of formal pre-service training was a negative feature of this department, and those that incrementally followed, and would be at the heart of a widespread reform of police (Uchida, 2015). Generally credited with leading such reforms was August Vollmer, who viewed pre-service training as one of several bedrocks of a “professional” police officer (Vollmer, 1936). Interestingly, systematic use of training academies for police recruits did not become commonplace until the 1950s. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, academy training was under constant scrutiny for either the (low) number of contact hours (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, 1967) or the need to expand training curricula beyond traditional assumptions regarding the crime fighting dimensions of police work (Christopher, 1991; National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1967).

Contemporary policing has not been immune to criticisms of academy training. For example, continued efforts to mend the fractured relationship between the police and the public (especially those of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods) following a series of high profile use of (deadly) force incidents involving white officers and unarmed Black citizens beginning in the mid-2010s and continuing through 2020, resulted in some reformers claiming that police need more training in “guardian-style policing.” (Brooks, 2020; Robinson, 2020). To the extent that altering academy-based pre-service training of police is being considered, reformers must first take stock of what sort of pre-service or basic law enforcement training is offered at police academies nationwide and affiliated with various law enforcement agencies and postsecondary educational institutions.

The problem is that to date, empirical evidence on police training academies has focused on such topics as predicting the performance of recruits enrolled in basic law enforcement training, evaluations of a particular type of innovative approach to training, or conceptual critiques of needed additions to curricula based on limited observations of training academies. Absent from research inquiries of American police academies are studies that provide assessments of, or insights into, the structure, organization, and topical coverage of basic law enforcement training curricula and how hours in these curricula are ultimately distributed.

The current study aims to fill this empirical void by analyzing survey data collected from over 500 police training academies as part of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Census of Law Enforcement Training Academies (CLETA) program. Specifically, we identify how basic law enforcement training curricula are organized and assess how the hours comprising these curricula are distributed across multiple thematic and topical areas of instruction by police academy affiliation. Our results should help inform ongoing debate over whether contemporary police recruits need more training or different training."


"Over 80 years ago, August Vollmer bemoaned the lack of personnel standards relating to police officers and training available for them. Since then local commissions – convened to investigate allegations of inappropriate police behavior (individually or organizationally) – and national commissions – charged with identifying best practices for effective crime reduction while building and preserving community trust – have either indirectly or directly focused their attention on the importance of police training. Thus, for nearly a century, police scholars and practitioners alike have argued that the nation’s police officers should receive either more training, better training, or some combination of the two. Few of these assertions, however, were ever buttressed with empirical evidence.

The current study brought empirical evidence to current conversations about police officer training, specifically, data relating to the curricula that comprise pre-service basic law enforcement training at the population of police academies in the United States that provide such instruction. What we found was that police recruits do not seem to need more training: on average, basic training involves more than five months of full-time police academy training. Rather, what pre-service training need do is provide recruits with different training. Achieving that goal necessitates a complete reorienting of the core curriculum in pre-service training to deemphasize “traditional” aspects of policing like operations and weapons/defensive tactics that is geared toward teaching recruits about and preparing them to “go to war” (McLean et al., 2020) – a war that is disproportionately waged against citizens of color in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Instead a new curriculum would emphasize to recruits the need to develop skills in communication (Millar et al., 2019), stress management (McCraty & Atkinson, 2012), and building partnerships with the community (Makin & Marenin, 2017); internalize mounting evidence that procedural justice is inexorably linked to police legitimacy, especially in communities of color (Peyton et al., 2019); understand that greater diversity brings strength, not weakness, to the ranks (Bury et al., 2018); and learn how to make ethically sound decisions while simultaneously advancing professionalism within policing (Sloan, 2019). While such a reorientation will no doubt encounter resistance, if policing is to finally achieve the ideals envisioned by Vollmer and rebuild the trust that has been lost in so many communities, there is little choice. Policing in America is currently experiencing an existential threat that can be traced, at least in part, to the training that officers receive. Its leaders must choose wisely."

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“They Need More Training!” A National Level Analysis of Police Academy Basic Training Priorities, John J. Sloan III, Eugene A. Paoline III, Police Quarterly, 2021