“Clinical” Law Enforcement

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Training for the Real-World

The law enforcement profession has long been characterized by highly specialized education and training requirements.  Society’s expectation that police effectively develop, maintain, and update their skills echoes the profession’s own commitment to never-ending improvement. 

To determine how well these expectations were being met, and to identify promising practices for training excellence, the Force Science Institute set out to analyze the current state of police training.  Now, in this expanded four-part series, we begin with a recap of our previous reports as we continue to share our findings.

Series Review

In Part 1 of the series, we began with an introduction of Force Science research into current force training methods, observing that simple and complex skills quickly deteriorated when taught under traditional training approaches.  Any shortage of time, money, or training personnel further compromised the suitability and sufficiency of training.

Part 2 detailed our assessment of arrest and control programs from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.  The conclusion?  Not a single academy used modern principles of instruction, but instead relied on non-integrated, block training (“block and silo”).  The result was a rapid deterioration of proficiency and the inability to integrate skills in a real-world setting.

In Part 3, we reported on our analysis of three U.S. based regional police academies.  After three years and the analysis of over 10,000 videos depicting skill acquisition and erosion, the results were instructive.  Despite the dedication of talented instructors, even simple skills, when taught in block and silo programs, deteriorated to where they were no longer functional—even before recruits had graduated.

Now in this first half of Part 4, we share Force Science’s recommendations for successful academy learning and performance.  In addition to the Force Science team’s research, these lessons derive from highly skilled police trainers encountered by our team, as well as by masters of psychomotor-skills training, Dr. Richard Schmidt and Dr. Tim Lee.

Law Enforcement as a Clinical Practice

Over years of observing and researching academy training, Force Science consistently noted a heavy emphasis on “teaching objectives” and a preference for measuring achievement through written exams, group evaluations, and scenario performance.  Seldom were “learning objectives” evaluated or recruits expected to individually demonstrate functional knowledge and awareness, analytical and complex decision-making, or enduring technical skills.

Although law enforcement is not typically associated with “clinical” practices, the observations, assessments, decisions, and corresponding actions of officers “on the street” align directly with the assessment, diagnosis, and subsequent “treatment” of individuals in the “real-world”—the very definition of clinical. 

Therefore, the most effective pre-service training should reflect the interdisciplinary, integrated and clinical nature of police work.  Beyond physical skills training, the best programs will teach officers expert analysis, flexible and creative decision-making, and, most importantly, the integration of interpersonal, tactical, and technical skills. 

…the most effective pre-service training should reflect the inter-disciplinary, integrated and clinical nature of police work.

The best training will have evolved from an overreliance on academia-inspired lectures and trade school skills development and instead will reflect a more sophisticated integration of clinical skill development and decision-making.

The Block and Silo Illusion

The current “block and silo” instruction that characterizes most police training, although fast and easy, can create the illusion of skill development.  This happens because the process that allows for successfully passing “end of block” testing, unfortunately, produces the fastest rate of skill deterioration of any method of instruction. 

But rapid skill deterioration isn’t the only concern that “block and silo” training engenders.  It fails to prepare officers to integrate the interdisciplinary skills required for real-world (clinical) application.

Many of you will readily acknowledge that officers are expected to possess and harmonize a vast set of skills in executing even the most routine of police responses.  Even uneventful traffic stops involve threat assessments, hazards assessments, communication, legal assessments, and technical proficiency with cameras, radars, radios, and even pens.  Violent or high-risk traffic stops even more so, as they bring de-escalation, weapon manipulation and transitions, response coordination, and scene security into the equation.

These interdisciplinary attributes (knowledge and skills) must be flexibly integrated in response to ever-changing problem sets, where assessments are often made in high-stakes, time-constrained, and ambiguous circumstances.  The successful integration of interdisciplinary knowledge and attributes improves decisions and performance of subsequent action.  Conversely, “block and silo training” effectively ignores integration of professional attributes and risks deteriorated performance.

Although block and silo training are frequently used to conduct the full range of police training, psychomotor skills training provides a useful illustration of its limits.  In psychomotor skills training, a “closed skill” is one for which the environment is stable and predictable, (think punching a heavy bag,) while an “open skill” is one for which the environment is variable and unpredictable, (like punching a bobbing and weaving boxer in competition.)

Similarly, “closed environments” are stable and predictable.  They include air-conditioned mat rooms with stationary punch dummies waiting to be hit.  It follows that “open environments” are changing and unpredictable—the natural condition of police operating environments.

With those definitions in mind, the limitations of block and silo training become apparent.

First, closed skills are often taught in closed environments but are expected to be used as open skills in open environments.  And where open skills are taught, they are frequently taught in closed environments for risk management; ignoring the dynamic, evolving, and unpredictable nature of the street. 

Dr. Tim Lee, retired professor from McMaster University in Canada and co-author of Motor Learning and Performance, recommends avoiding block training altogether.  If block training must be used, it should only be used to jump start skill instruction.  Otherwise, Dr. Lee observes, “Just the elimination of block instruction would be a significant step toward improvement in any type of training.”

Just the elimination of block instruction would be a significant step toward improvement in any type of training.

Dr. Tim Lee

Integrated Training

Where block instruction is mandated or otherwise used to kick start skill development, those relevant skills should be integrated as early as possible with other attributes and included as reoccurring elements of the overall training process.   

Simulations that provide a single, end-of-academy test of integrated skills and decision-making, are small steps in the right direction.  But, ultimately, the effectiveness of these single experiences is limited by insufficient practice, feedback, opportunities for self-analysis and correction, or any type of corrective response and learning.

Force Science recommends that at least one-third of academy training be spent on open-environment simulations or scenarios that allow students to apply their new skills in an integrated fashion.  Ideally, these experiences, which should begin shortly after training starts, will include the full range of skills and attributes developed throughout the academy, including those academic subjects which often fail to make their way from the lecture hall to the role-playing scenarios.  The often-forgotten disciplines of law, ethics, and values deserve special attention here. 

Force Science recommends that at least one-third of academy training be spent on open-environment simulations or scenarios…

Law, Ethics, Values

Every professional assessment by police officers requires consideration of law, ethics, and values. For that reason, these considerations should be integrated into every training scenario (and real-world professional encounter).  Restricting these foundational subjects to classroom lectures and divorcing them from the decision-making process, is the equivalent of athletes abandoning the rules of their game during practice, while still expecting them to regulate competitive performance.

The integration of law, ethics, and values into academy training becomes vital when you consider that two-thirds of academy recruits do not participate in any formal field training programs and receive only minimal in-service training following graduation.  These additional opportunities for integrated training are lost to these officers.

The integration of law, ethics, and values into academy training becomes vital…

Lessons Learned

The Force Science Team continues its decades-long commitment to identify and report the scientific foundations that underlie evidence-based investigation and training protocols.  This first-ever Force Science training review series details many of those findings.

In this first half of Part 4, we encourage a paradigm shift that recognizes law enforcement as an interdisciplinary, integrated, clinical practice and recommend that the training and education of its officers be based on the best evidence and research reflecting that reality. 

In the second half of Part 4, we will identify additional considerations for implementing effective scenario-based training.  We will continue with recommendations for integrated training and introduce readers to some promising practices being implemented across the profession—including the expansion of training toward the development of social and emotional intelligence.

For now, we leave you with the “Top 10 Force Science Training Observations,” a compilation of Force Science findings condensed for your convenience and included below.


Top 10

Force Science Training Observations

1. The law enforcement profession requires the integration of a variety of sophisticated interdisciplinary skills.

2. Context and scenario-based training should begin early in training and then escalate in difficulty and realism as necessary to develop insight, motivation for learning, integrated skill development, maximum learning, retention, and skill transferability.

3. “Block and silo” instruction produces rapid gains in skill building and the illusion of learning, but also ensures the fastest deterioration of those skills and should be abandoned as a form of long-term skill building.

4. When spread throughout the learning process, short burst, frequent, and integrated skills training and practice improve performance and retention.

5. The blending of skills (interleaving), in both instruction and practice, is critical for effective transference and real-world application.

6. The building of skills to an automatic level (automaticity), facilitates real-world performance and decision-making and is often the product of “mindful practice.” (Mindful practice is practicing with an awareness and understanding of the skill, the rationale for its use, and the ability to critically analyze personal performance.)

7. Significant improvement in skill development can result from proper instructional feedback and the use of video modeling.  (Video modeling can be used for pre-learning priming, to provide correctional information, create the development of self-assessment and facilitate corrective efforts by trainers.)

8. When properly arranged, pre-service training provides opportunities to develop social and emotional intelligence within current training timelines.

9. The utilization of specialized “work groups,” journaling, group training, and interaction throughout a training cycle, promotes motivation, competition, interpersonal insight, and change.  It facilitates the development of social and emotional functioning.

10. Law Enforcement is a profession that is characterized by time compressed, high-risk decision-making, often involving encounters with very difficult people.  Training for expert decision-making in real-world (clinical) settings should occupy at least one-third of the pre-service curriculum and a regular portion of in-service curriculum.

Previous Series Articles

Police Academy Training

Police Officer Training

Police Arrest and Control

The Effectiveness of Academy Training – A Three Country Study

Police Skills Training

Block Training in the Academy – Efficiency & Effectiveness Are Not The Same

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