The 2015 Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended federal funding “to promote consistent standards for high quality training” and to “develop rigorous training practices, evaluation, and development of curricula based on evidence-based practices.” To date, nothing has been developed regarding academy training.
Force Science believes that scientifically examining academy training is critical because great policing lies primarily on the foundation of a successful academy learning experience.
…great policing lies primarily on the foundation of a successful academy learning experience.
In our previous article in this series we highlighted FS research conducted in three countries on the number of hours and the scientific foundation of police training on force. One of FS’s consultants on that study, with a Ph.D. in psychomotor skills training, concluded that none of the academies provided an appropriate number of hours, or the type of instruction that ensured the skills would be functionally sustained for any period after graduation from the academy. This is critical information. Training institutions are asserting the recruit is trained, and all instructional components have been taught, but have they been “learned?”
For decades, departments have routinely complained that tactical and decision-making skills are less well trained than anything else. Perceived errors in the application of tactical and decision skills are the very areas that lead, in large part, to the 1.2 billion-dollar loss in civil suits that the ten top police agencies in the US pay per year. These perceived errors also appear to be a contributing factor if officers face criminal charges for their use of force, as well as factors for some of the injuries and deaths experienced in this profession.
In our previous study FS found force skills were taught in stand-alone (silo training) sessions and were taught in a block format. One of the reasons for this is budgetary. Training is costly and it is especially costly to bring in the same trainers, multiple times, so instruction is presented in a less expensive block fashion. This is a key weakness that lies at the heart of police instruction. Any skill, relevant to force or not, will perish rapidly if taught in the block and silo format. Even during officer in-service training, this instructional weakness pervades the training of tactics, arrest and control, communication and de-escalation, and practically every other type of police instruction.
…silo training…taught in a block format…is a key weakness that lies at the heart of police instruction.
In addition, two-thirds of officers graduating from academies in the US will not have any FTO training after graduation, and they will receive very little in-service training. Therefore, the major component of force-skills must be effectively taught, measured, and clinically integrated in the academy, with other skills such as pre-event assessment, decision-making, communication, and de-escalation. If an officer was not effectively taught, or does not retain, the practical skills they need to handle a situation, they compromise their safety and that of the person with whom they are working.
When a tactical analyst observes an officer repeatedly using the same ineffective technique, or unnecessarily escalating in their use of force, one of their immediate thoughts is to question the training of the officer. The community pressure to solve this perceived problem with police use of force moves in another direction. It is not to analyze what is taught and how, but instead to require additional, non-skill training, often at the expense of time spent in skills training. This is not to say that other training is not useful or important but reducing already insufficient time in arrest and control and intermediate skill training may not be the answer. On its face, it may look like a good way to solve the problem. However, before implementing any solution to any force problem, the first point of inquiry should be an in-depth analysis as to whether or not the person has the necessary skill.
…reducing already insufficient time in arrest and control and intermediate skill training may not be the answer.
The first FS study, analyzing time and methodology of instruction, strongly predicted that the current method of instruction used in the academies studied, would result in a significant erosion in functional skills after graduation from the academy. Was this prediction realistic and accurate? Unfortunately, FS found the answer to be yes.
The next step in the FS scientific investigation of skill-training was to burrow deeply into the actual resulting achievement of the skill by the recruit. FS adopted an objective, analytic process and method of measurement for the functional assessment of academy skills. This could then be used to build a measurable score on whether the skill was achieved, and whether or not it was sustained over time.
Most academies (93%) already do some type of evaluation on skill acquisition. However, these evaluations are mostly subjective, and even use group examinations of whether or not the skill was acquired. If any semi-objective measurement were to be made by academy instructors, it is usually on a simple Likert-type scale of 1-5.
After developing this evaluation tool, FS began an intensive analysis of academy training, and conducted a three-year, empirical analysis of three large regional police academies randomly situated across the United States. The instructors had been teaching skills, on average, for at least a dozen years. The skills tested were divided into simple, skills consisting of five steps or less, and complex, more than ten steps. Examples of the simple skills studied are baton strikes and pressure point techniques. Examples of the complex skills are weapon disarming and handcuffing.
A step-by-step task analysis was constructed based on the components and grading process the instructors stated they used. This was then modified after the researchers analyzed videos of the instructors modeling and teaching the skills. In the classroom, the instructors used a combination of lecturing, modeling, practice, and corrective feedback. All instruction, throughout all academies, was conducted in a group, block format and each skill taught was taught independently of others, or in a silo format.
FS videotaped each recruit performing the skill before instruction, during instruction, and multiple times after, even up to 16 weeks post academy graduation at one site. Over the course of all three academies studied, over ten thousand videos were made of the recruits and the instructors. These were analyzed in detail using the criterion established by each academy.
At each site, prior to being taught the skill, the recruit was tested on the skill being evaluated to establish a baseline, and determine the influence of training. They were also asked to perform a physical skill that was not taught in the academy which served as a control for the research study.
In studies of this nature, an accuracy score of 80% is generally considered mastery of a skill that is performed in a stable, non-threatening, non-dynamic environment. This was the training and testing environment in these academies.
Assessment of the recruits’ performance was done immediately following training and at least at one, two, four, and eight weeks post-training. In the first academy studied, simple skills, at the completion of instruction, were performed at an average of 81%, with a range of 45% to 100%. After eight weeks, the simple skills declined to a class average of 75%, with a range of 45% to 100%. It is important to note that each skill was assessed by researchers and trainers to also identify the skill’s “critical steps.” At eight weeks, although the recruits maintained a relatively correct process of the whole skill, the critical step for the simple skill scored at 29%. This means that the simple skill, although performed relatively correctly, was no longer functional even though the recruit had not yet graduated.
…the simple skill, although performed relatively correctly, was no longer functional even though the recruit had not yet graduated.
The complex skill, scored immediately after instruction, averaged 71%, with a range from 3% to 81%. After one week, the group still had an average of 71% but the range was from 21% to 88%. At four weeks, the complex skill had decreased to an average of 59%, with a range from 8% to 81%.
The recruits reported being “somewhat”, to “very,” confident in their ability to perform the complex skill, yet they fell far short of the 80% mastery level in their ability to perform it. In actuality, only a few had achieved and maintained some mastery of the complex skill in a stable, non-threatening, non-dynamic situation. None of these skills were taught or assessed under stress or resistance. But FS observed, even at the completion of all of the training and testing, some recruits, demonstrating the simple skill of baton use, lost control of the baton on their swing and some never made contact with the leg of the target dummy. In the weapon take away, after initial training and confirmation of the achievement of the skill, only 17% performed the initial step correctly, and made contact with the arm holding the gun. If this contact step is not completed in weapon disarming, the rest of the technique is irrelevant, regardless of the quality of the remaining moves.
At one of the research sites, FS was able to conduct a follow up of half of the class (27 recruits) at 16 weeks post-graduation. The complex skill had dropped by 20% from the last time they were tested in the academy. The average score was 60%, with the range being 29% to 77%. The simple skill (baton strike with five-steps or less) dropped by 11% with an average score of 65% and a range of 24% to 84%. Functionally, these skills would not be effective in a dynamic, real world encounter.
Remember, all three countries in our first study, the US, UK, and Canada, generally use the same training time and methods that are being used in the academies on which FS just reported. Therefore, we would expect these results to generalize to them as well.
For more information, the full study entitled ‘Police Academy Training, Performance, and Learning’ is found in Behavior Analysis in Practice, a transnational journal providing science-based, best-practice information relevant to service delivery in behavior analysis.
Despite how some of this information may sound, FS found many positive aspects in academy training. Common themes emerged in all three countries and in all the academies studied. It was evident the instructors were skilled, talented, accomplished, and committed professionals. They were challenged to provide the best instruction possible, to everyone, given the range of attitudinal and psychomotor abilities that are present in every academy class. They bore the burden of knowing the limitations on their instruction-time, funding, equipment, and limitations in facilities. In summary, academy staff are under tremendous pressure to accomplish the stated “learning objectives,” but the limitations of time, personnel, and resources available, often defy the reality of being able to successfully teach them. It would be valuable to see the results these trainers could deliver given more time, resources, and the use of instructional techniques, based on modern, scientific foundations for learning.
It was evident the instructors were skilled, talented, accomplished, and committed professionals.
Police trainers, like most officers, are very resourceful people, and there were kernels of genius that helped staff overcome limitations, to the extent they could.
In our next FS News, we will share some of these kernels from the instructors and the techniques with which FS experimented in our studies that significantly improved learning.
For almost a decade, we enjoyed the teachings of the master of psychomotor-skills training, Dr. Richard Schmidt. Dr. Schmidt spent 40 years studying, researching and teaching in the psychology department at UCLA. He taught for Force Science for almost ten years in our Certification Course and crafted the current unit on psychomotor-skills currently taught by Chris Lawrence. We have also been fortunate to enjoy the support of Dr. Schmidt’s co-author, in the latest versions of Motor Learning and Performance, Dr. Tim Lee. Dr. Lee is a retired professor from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and teaches and consults in the Force Science Advanced Specialist Class.
In our next FS News, we will share with you some of the recommendations of these giants on motor-skills acquisition that can be used in an academy setting.
In the law enforcement profession, it is a good thing we hire good people, because no professional tries so hard and does so much with so little!