Social Innovation
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Training for Safety and Success: Research & National Minimum Training Standards for Law Enforcement

07.19.23 | 9 min read | Text by Michelle Rippy

Summary

Law enforcement is a highly visible profession where, without effective training, safety is at risk for both law enforcement officers and community members. Officers regularly respond to calls for service with uncertain risk factors and must balance the work with proactive activities to improve community well-being. Nationally, mandated training hours for new law enforcement officers are consistently less than those required for cosmetology licensure, with training quality and requirements varying significantly by state. Nearly three-quarters of states allow officers to work in a law enforcement function before completing the basic academy. Public trust and safety are placed in the hands of law enforcement officers, even if they lack the training, skills, and knowledge to be successful. Policing practices are regularly shaped by failures shown in national media, yet the shift in practices is rarely institutionalized in basic training practices.

To make communities safer and law enforcement officers more successful, the Biden-Harris Administration should fund research on the effectiveness of law enforcement training and create a national minimum standard for entry-level academy training to further support the Safer American Plan. The 2022 Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety focuses on strengthening trust between communities and law enforcement officers, including training and equitable policing. The Department of Justice should oversee this research, and the Departments of Homeland Security, Labor, and Commerce can help create national standards and minimum training recommendations. Based on the findings and using pedagogical approaches for the most productive learning, minimum national training standards will be recommended by an interdisciplinary federal task force. Training can be used to compel change in law enforcement, improve community-police relations, and reduce liability while advancing community safety.

Challenge and Opportunity

Law enforcement actions have widespread implications due to the immense power and inherent risks associated with the position. The profession is plagued with complexity and unpredictability, further challenged by extensive discretionary capabilities and varied training requirements. Basic academy training is the foundational coursework for learning about laws and ethics, technical skills relating to actionable law enforcement functions, soft skill development, and honing critical thinking during stressful situations. However, more focus is placed on didactic portions with practical exercises than on cognitive, emotional, and social skills, which can be used to safely de-escalate situations. Even with these known training insufficiencies, academy training topics and hours are rarely updated. Training requirements and pedagogical approaches administered by peace officer standards and training or similar overseeing bodies generally require legislative updates to update curriculum standards, taking significant time and resources to enact change.

Back in 2015, President Obama highlighted the need for training and education in the 21st Century Taskforce on Policing, citing that law enforcement officers (LEOs) are required to be highly skilled in many operational areas to meet the wide variety of challenges and increasing expectations. The Biden-Harris Administration has vowed to advance effective, accountable policing through the Safer America Plan, noting that change at the local and state level requires congressional action. The Safer American Plan would provide funding for 100,000 additional LEOs, all of whom will require training to be effective in their role. Academy training requirements are not regularly collected or monitored at the federal level, and research is not routinely completed to show the efficacy of the training provided. The lack of data on law enforcement actions further complicates the training process, as the time spent during patrol is not regularly cataloged and reviewed to determine where officers spend most of their time. Data showing where officer time is spent can guide training decisions and adjust hours to provide skills for the most commonly utilized skill sets. 

There is no national training standard for LEOs: state requirements vary from 1345 hours in the basic academy in Connecticut to 0 hours in Hawaii. The basic academy provides future LEOs foundational knowledge and skills in law, defensive tactics, report writing, first aid, communication, and other critical skills. The average length of basic training is 833 hours, with an average of 73 hours dedicated to firearm skills and 18 hours to de-escalation techniques. While firearm familiarization and skills are of utmost importance due to the fatal consequences of not understanding the weaponry and one’s ability, the discharge of a firearm occurs significantly less than de-escalation and other communication techniques. When not used regularly, skills become perishable, and the lack of regular training on topics like firearms and traffic stops can reduce an LEO’s efficiency, response time, and safety. The 2022 Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing mandates training federal LEOs with clear guidance on use-of-force standards and implicit bias, but these basic tenets of policing requirements are not extended to state and local law enforcement.

Thirty-seven states allow LEOs to work before they have completed a basic training academy. The time LEOs can work before receiving basic training ranges from 3 months in West Virginia to 24 months in Mississippi. There are obvious dangers to LEOs and the public by providing a uniform and firearm to an untrained person to interact with the community in a position of power. Figure 1 shows the ranges of when the basic academy is required of new LEOs.

Figure 1

With the basic academy averaging 833 hours, or about 21 weeks, it may seem like a sufficient timeframe to train new law enforcement officers. However, it commonly takes at least six months to master a new skill, with the academy requiring many new skills to be developed simultaneously. The minimum basic academy hour requirement in California is 664 hours, though the training is commonly over 1000 hours. By contrast, earning a cosmetology license in California has more extensive hour requirements than the basic police academy, with cosmetology and barber training requiring 1000 hours for state licensure. While injuries can occur in cosmetology, the profession is inherently safer for the practitioner and the client. 

FBI Director Wray noted a 60% increase in murders of law enforcement officers in 2021, explicitly noting that violence against law enforcement officers does not receive as much attention as it should. Of the 245 LEOs who died in the line of duty in 2022, 74 were feloniously killed, up from 48 in 2019. In 2022, 1194 people were killed by LEOs, with 101 people being unarmed. Black people are disproportionately killed by LEOs, at nearly triple the population rate. The statistics of community members killed do not differentiate between legally justified uses of force and illegal actions, so a true picture of potential training concerns versus ethical violations cannot be determined. 

Recognizing the insufficiencies of current LEO training raises opportunities for data-driven improvements. Research is needed to determine the efficacy of the basic academy training in each state, with comparisons made to provide an overall recommendation for minimum national standards. Innovation should be encouraged when developing future training standards, as the basic academy training has not embraced technology or newer learning techniques that may aid in practical decision-making and skill mastery.

Plan of Action

Training can be used to implement vital reforms in law enforcement, potentially saving lives. A multipronged, transparent approach is needed to determine the efficacy of current training before introducing innovation and minimum training standards. Multiple agencies will need to collaborate to complete the evaluation and create recommendations to incorporate inclusive views through multifaceted lenses and coordinate future actions. Transparency of the research and its goals, including making findings available on public-facing websites, is needed for accountability and to foster trust in the process of improving law enforcement. Additional detail of the proposed agencies and their roles is below.

AgencyRole
Department of Justice (DOJ)The DOJ is responsible for protecting civil rights, upholding the law, and keeping our country safe. The DOJ houses the Office of Justice Programs and Community-Oriented Policing Services, which will be instrumental in this project.

The DOJ should be the principal agency, as the Office of Justice Programs has a structure for creating, reviewing, and awarding grants. The DOJ can also spearhead the evaluation efforts either internally or through grant proposals for the components of the project and the overall assessment.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)The DHS focuses on crime prevention and safety at our borders, including monitoring security threats and strengthening preparedness.

The DHS oversees Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC). FLETC trains federal law enforcement personnel to assist with improving safety across the nation. FLETC can assist in the review of current state training practices and provide recommendations for national training minimums. While federal and local law enforcement focuses vary, safety, ethics, and communication are top priorities in both training communities.
Department of Labor (DOL)The DOL is the primary agency for labor and workforce concerns. The DOL should provide input on national training standards and programs.
Department of Commerce (DOC)The DOC oversees the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST works to advance science through the creation of standards to enhance innovation and promote inclusivity.

NIST should be the principal agency to create the nationally recommended standards for LEO training through its multidisciplinary process with input from DOJ, DHS, and DOL. The standard should also go through a standards-developing organization (SDO) to build consensus and due process.

Recommendation 1. Fund research for current LEO training and efficacy

Before overhauling training, data is needed to provide a baseline of training in each state, including its perceived efficacy by stakeholders. The DOJ should create and administer competitive grants to evaluate current training in every state/territory and complete surveys, interviews, and focus groups with stakeholders to determine the impact of training. Use-of-force incidents, accidents, LEO decertification, and other aspects of potential training deficiency should be examined for additional insight into effectiveness. 

Research should also be conducted on fatal and accidental duty-related incidents to determine the human and other contributing factors. Data and trends gained from the research should be incorporated into minimum training standards to reduce future errors. Competitive grants can be provided to evaluate potential root causes of duty-related fatal and accidental deaths.

A key component of the research phase will be bringing the researchers together to discuss findings, regional and national trends, and recommendations. Creating a formal networking  process will allow for best practices to be shared across all states/territories participating and made available to all LEO training commissions. 

Recommendation 2. Spark innovation from adult learning experts and practitioners for LEO training

Through a competitive grant process, the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs can advertise funding opportunities and outline the application process. Grants focusing on practitioners and adult learning experts in collaboration, potentially through practitioner-higher education partnerships, can assist in bringing the necessary experience from the field and adult learning. Curriculum designers should consider immersive or simulation training experiences and the use of technology in training. In addition, they should consider redesigning the rigid paramilitary format to encourage LEOs to utilize critical thinking skills, improve adaptability, and hone communication skills. Using Challenge.gov can also provide additional insights from the community. 

Recommendation 3. Create national minimum standards for LEO basic academy training

Using the recommendations from the state law enforcement training researchers, the fatality factor researchers, practitioner and adult learner experts, FLETC, and DOL, a compilation of recommendations from NIST, DOJ, DHS, DOC, and DOL of national minimal standards should be completed. Requirements for academy instructors will also need to be established, including training program requirements and regular reviews of their performance and impact. NIST will use the information gathered, including contemporary training topics and a focus on adult learning techniques, and create a draft standard. The research teams and the public will have an opportunity to comment on the draft standards, then NIST will adjudicate the comments before sending the standards to an SDO for additional feedback for a quality, peer review. 

The DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs will offer grants to all interested state LEO training bodies to adhere to the national minimum standard, with funding for planning, Implementation, and evaluation of the project. Grants should require a three-year timeline for implementation to ensure trainees receive training before their first day on the streets and the basic academy meets the minimum national requirements.

Recommendation 4. Evaluate curricula changes with environmental changes

Grant funding for the planning and implementation should extend an additional two years for the evaluation component. Evaluators chosen during the grant process can review how well training adheres to the national standards across all academies in the state, LEO feelings of preparedness upon graduation and quarterly after that for up to two years, and supervisor/administrator feedback on LEO performance after the academy. Deidentified records of unjustified use-of-force, decertification, and criminal actions can be reviewed for additional insight into the effectiveness of the basic academy training.

An overall program evaluation will be needed, including reviewing the state evaluations and the overall administration of the project. The grant can be open to one organization or multiple organizations with the selection and funding provided by DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs. Competitive grant funding for up to $5 million should be awarded for the six-to-eight-year evaluation.

Budget Proposal

A budget of $125 million is proposed to evaluate current LEO training, develop minimum requirements, and evaluate the implementation. The primary research of determining current LEO basic academy training and efficacy requires $500,000 for one researcher/research group per state/territory, totaling $28 million.

For the adult learning and practitioner component, competitive grants for up to 10 collaborations should receive up to $300,000 each, totaling $3 million. FLETC and DOL can be funded for their participation in the minimum standard creation at $1 million each, totaling $2 million. 

Each state LEO training commission should be eligible to receive up to $2 million each to plan, implement, and evaluate the minimum training standards. If all states/territories participate, the funding will total $112 million.

An evaluation of the entire program will be conducted for $5 million for six to eight years of expected evaluative work. The final report will be provided to the DOJ to determine if performance metrics were met. 

Conclusion

The national LEO training standard is meant to be the floor of training for states and does not remove the oversight of state peace officer training commissions. Every LEO should go through a basic academy and field training before serving the community to ensure they can be safe and effective in their roles. Developing innovating training techniques can help increase skills and understanding of vital topics while refining critical thinking skills in high-stress situations. Minimum training standards can improve safety for the public and first responders, reduce ethical and criminal violations by LEOs, and assist in repairing community-police relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions
Does the federal government have legal oversight of law enforcement training?

No. The 10th Amendment restricts the federal government from mandating standards, but federal grant funding can be restricted from states that do not meet the minimum training mandates. Precedence was made with DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services grants, which restrict federal funding if the agency’s use-of-force policy does not adhere to federal, state, and local laws.

Why shouldn’t states update their requirements independently?

States can update their training requirements at their will. States may be incentivized with federal grant funding, rather than waiting for unfunded and underresourced local attempts. Change involving many or all states can create pressure to conform to minimum requirements where there is currently little pressure with no financial incentives offered.

Are there any current federal efforts to initiate changes to state law enforcement training?

In December 2022, the House passed S.4003 Law Enforcement De-Escalation Training Act of 2022. The bill provides $34 million to the Department of Justice to fund scenario-based training for de-escalation and use-of-force for individuals experiencing a mental, suicidal, or behavioral crisis.


Stemming from the deaths of two unarmed Black men, HR 1280 and HR 1347 requested additional training and standards to reduce excessive force by LEOs. HR 1280 passed the House, and HR 1347 was introduced to the House with no actions since 2021.

How does LEO training in the United States compare to training internationally?

LEO training in the United States is among the lowest in the world, with France training LEOs for 10 months or 1600 hours, Scotland’s basic training lasting for 92 weeks or 3680 hours, India for 2.5 years or 5400 hours, and Finland for three years or 6240 hours, with an additional year of field training.

What about continuing education or professional development for LEOs?

Most states require continuing education or professional development. Hawaii has no LEO training requirements, and New Jersey law states agencies may provide in-service training without hourly requirements. Once minimum standards for basic training are implemented, national minimum mandatory annual continuing education or professional education can be developed.

How will the effectiveness of training be measured?

The first recommendation requests funding to assess and determine the current efficacy of law enforcement training in every state. The multistage research would include interviews, surveys, and focus groups with stakeholders to determine training perceptions and impact, while a comparison is made using data from use-of-force incidents, officer decertification, accidents, fatal incidents, and other areas of potential training deficiency.

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