Apex Officer's guide to how, what, where, when, and why police officers and law enforcement professionals are trained.
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According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the general job description of a police patrol officer is to enforce laws and ordinances, for the protection of life and property in their assigned area. Police officers receive assignments for the protection of a particular area, conducting investigations, and apprehending criminals.
Before police academies were developed in the United States in the early 20th century, a police officer’s training took place on the streets. Aside from following the law, police learned primarily by trial and error from the different encounters they came across. Now, every police officer in the nation goes through a formalized certification course at a police academy.
Each year, an average of 45,000 entry-level officer recruits enter basic training programs at 664 state and local law enforcement training academies. Of the 45,000 recruits, eighty-six percent of the recruits successfully completed their training.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that police academy applicants usually need a high school diploma or its equivalent (www.bls.gov). In some cases, at least some college coursework or a degree is necessary. Additional qualifications may include a valid driver’s license, a clean criminal record and a physical fitness report from a doctor. Some academies also require completion of a hearing test and a psychological evaluation.
Students can begin preparing for the police academy while in high school. Electives such as criminology, legal studies, physical education, sociology and psychology are helpful for aspiring police officers. In addition, police academy admissions officers may look for applicants who have completed college coursework in criminal justice or law enforcement. Some academies prefer candidates who hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in one of those fields.
After gaining acceptance into the police academy, recruits participate in classroom and practical instruction. They learn state laws, criminal investigations, patrol procedures, firearms training, traffic control, defensive driving, self-defense, first aid and computer skills. Police academy recruits also undertake physical training and fieldwork that demonstrates their comprehension of classroom instruction. Field exercises include investigating mock criminal scenes, directing traffic, operating police vehicles, arrest techniques, using firearms, fingerprinting and interrogation methods. Police academy training usually takes 22-27 weeks to complete.
From 2011 to 2013, nearly half (47%) of the academies that provided basic training for new recruits were based at an educational institution such as a 2-year college (33%), 4-year college or university (7%), or technical school (7%). Municipal police departments operated 20% of academies, sheriffs’ offices operated 10%, and state police or highway patrol agencies operated 6%. State Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies, which typically certify peace officers, operated 5% of academies.
Nearly all (96%) state and local law enforcement training academies used a class structure for basic training (groups of recruits being trained at the same time). From 2011 to 2013, academies held a median of six training classes, or two classes per year. The median smallest class size was 14 recruits and the median largest class size was 28 recruits. Overall, there was a large range of class sizes. Some academies had classes with 1 graduate and others had classes with more than 1,000 graduates.
Stress-based training is based on the military model and typically involves intensive physical demands and psychological pressure. About half (48%) of recruits were trained by academies using a training model that was more stress than non-stress oriented in its approach.
Non-stress training model emphasizes academic achievement, physical training, and a more relaxed and supportive instructor–trainee relationship. About a fifth (18%) of recruits were trained by academies that maintained more of a non-stress environment.
A third (34%) of recruits were trained in academies that balanced the two approaches.
A total of 488 (73%) academies provided data on the sex of 91,000 recruits entering basic training programs from 2011 to 2013. Fifteen percent of these recruits were female, down slightly from the estimated 17% in 2005. During the same period, 336 (51%) academies provided data on race and Hispanic origin for 58,000 recruits entering basic training. As in 2005, 70% of these recruits were white, and 30% were members of a racial or ethnic minority. Blacks and Hispanics each accounted for 13% of recruits, and 4% were members of other races.
Excluding field training, the average length of a basic law enforcement training program in a training academy was about 840 hours, or 21 weeks. This was about 2 weeks longer than was observed in the 2006 CLETA. Academies operated by agencies with special jurisdictions (such as natural resources, parks, or transportation systems) had the longest training programs (an average of 1,075 hours), followed by county police academies (1,029 hours). Academies operated by state POST agencies (650 hours), technical schools (703 hours), and sheriffs’ offices (706 hours) had the shortest training programs on average. Across all types of academies, each recruit spent an average of 806 hours each completing basic training (not shown).
Among the major topical training areas in the CLETA survey, the most required training hours were in the area of operations (more than 200 hours per recruit). Major topics covered in operations training included patrol procedures (52 hours), investigations (42 hours), emergency vehicle operations (38 hours), and report writing (25 hours).
An average of 168 hours per recruit were required for training on weapons, defensive tactics, and the use of force. Recruits spent most of this time on firearms (71 hours) and self-defense (60 hours) training. Recruits also spent an average of 21 hours on the use of force, which may have included training on agency policies, de-escalation tactics, and crisis intervention strategies.
Recruits were typically also required to take training classes in self-improvement (89 hours per recruit) and legal education (86 hours). On average, more than half of self-improvement training hours were related to health and fitness (49 hours). A majority of the legal training focused on criminal and constitutional law (53 hours) and traffic law (23 hours). Nearly a third (29%) of academies required basic foreign language training with an average of 9 hours per recruit.