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

Date01 December 2021
Published date01 December 2021
AuthorJohn J. Sloan,Eugene A. Paoline
Subject MatterArticles
“They Need More
Training!” A National
Level Analysis of Police
Academy Basic Training
John J. Sloan III
Eugene A. Paoline III
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 ¼591) 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 (n¼39) 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.
police academies, pre-service training, police socialization
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama, United
Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States
Corresponding Author:
Eugene A. Paoline III, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, 12805 Pegasus Drive,
Orlando, FL 32816, United States.
Email: eugene.paoline@ucf.edu
Police Quarterly
!The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10986111211013311
2021, Vol. 24(4) 486 –518
Sloan and Paoline 487
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 incre-
mentally 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 train-
ing. For example, continued efforts to mend the fractured relationship between
the police and the public (especially those of color in disadvantaged neighbor-
hoods) following a series of high profile use of (deadly) force incidents involving
white officers and unarmed Black citizens beginning in the mid-2010s and con-
tinuing 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 con-
sidered, 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
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 ulti-
mately 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 distrib-
uted across multiple thematic and topical areas of instruction by police academy
2Police Quarterly 0(0)
488 Police Quarterly 24(4)
affiliation. Our results should help inform ongoing debate over whether con-
temporary police recruits need more training or different training.
Historical Significance and Development of Pre-Service
Police Recruit Training
No person would dare place his life in the hands of shoemakers, chauffeurs,
bricklayers, or persons engaged in any other trade or occupation. When he is ill,
he wants a medical man, professionally trained, experienced in the practiced of his
profession. If a skyscraper or a large bridge is to be constructed, we certainly do
not go to the medical profession, legal profession for designs for the structure; we
go to the experienced bridge engineers. But it has not yet been recognized that the
work of the modern policeman requires professional training comparable to that
required for the most skilled profession. (Vollmer, 1936, p. 231)
Along with the removal of local political influence over decision making, the
lack of personnel standards and training were at the heart of the professional
reform of the police at the turn of the 20th century (Walker, 1977). Lead reform-
er August Vollmer’s largely suggestive calls to establish standards for the selec-
tion and instruction of police recruits were actually formalized during his
involvement in the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and
Enforcement from 1929-1930. As part of the first study of American criminal
justice, Vollmer’s Police Administration report reiterated previous pleas to
recruit and scientifically train highly qualified and educated police officers in
to dealing with the complexities of crime (Vollmer, 1932). Unfortunately, due to
financial reasons Vollmer’s recommendations for pre-service training fell on
deaf ears. That is, While federal police (e.g., agents of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation) were being trained extensively prior to employment – and had
been since the 1920s – training academies for local police did not emerge until
the latter part of the1950s and did so only sporadically (Walker, 1977).
Vollmer’s vision for the content of police training concentrated on teaching
recruits about the various causes of crime and ways to properly prevent and
scientifically investigate it (Douthit, 1975). As a result, academy pre-service
training curriculum consisted of topics related to efficient crime fighting techni-
ques and foundational operational demands of the job (e.g., patrol tactics,
search and arrest procedures, weapon proficiency, etc.). While these topics
were pillars for producing a “professional” police officer, subsequent highly
visible examinations of police practices pointed to the unintended consequences
of this instruction as well as the need to expand academy curricula beyond
traditional police functions. For example, the National Advisory Commission
on Civil Disorders (“Kerner Commission”) (1968, p. 270), convened to examine
Sloan and Paoline 3

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