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Becoming a Police Officer: The Academy Experience

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Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Regardless of the type of police academy you attend, you are joining policing at a time when training has been enhanced. Although training itself is not new, it was only in the 1950s that states began to set minimum training requirements for police officers. Since that time, the number of hours and the range of subjects that are taught to rookies have increased substantially. Many training programs were initially as little as 300 hours, which, divided into a 40-hour week, meant programs that were as short as 71 2 weeks, or barely two months. Today, the average number of hours of basic training for police officers is about 650, although in some programs more than 1,400 hours (35 weeks, or more than eight months), including the academy and the field training experience, are included in the total.

The number of hours you attend the basic academy and the subjects you are taught are generally defined by a police training authority with statewide jurisdiction. This is to assure that all police officers receive the identical mandated training. Academies may offer more than the state-mandated training, but they may not offer less. Generally, large departments, often defined as those in cities with populations over 100,000, tend to provide longer academy training programs than smaller departments.

A detailed list of topics taught in basic police academies is available on the websites of many of the state training councils. Their similarities are striking. For example, taking two mainland states that at opposite ends of the continent, New York State mandates 635 hours of training and California mandates 664 hours. Although the listing looks very different, the difference in hours is spread across so many subjects that the actual number of hours per topic is quite similar. Sex crimes are taught for two hours in New York and four hours in California; physical fitness and wellness consumes 65 hours in New York and lifetime fitness 44 in California.

The length of time, though, does not always reflect the breadth of training, since, as indicated, much of the curriculum is state-mandated. Large departments, with their own academies, are able to add hours to train rookie officers on the departments' unique policies and forms. Smaller departments that rely on regional academies generally do this during the field training period. Because larger departments often police a more diverse population, they may devote extra hours to teaching new officers about the histories and cultural differences among the citizens they will police. Some invite representatives of these communities or groups that focus on cultural diversity to provide lectures and role-playing exercises for students. In the past decade, as urban departments have also eliminated the requirement that officers enter the academy with a driver's license, they have also had to add hours for driver education and practice driving before being able to begin defensive driving instruction.

By now you have come to understand the pitfalls of generalizing about many aspects of policing, but academy curricula at the state and local level share a number of commonalities across jurisdictions. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2002 the largest single area of instruction in police academies was firearms skills (a median average of 60 hours), followed by investigation techniques and self-defense (45 and 44 hours, respectively). The only other single topic to which more than 40-hours were devoted was criminal law. Other areas of study include domestic violence, constitutional law, cultural diversity, ethics and integrity, and community policing.

Using the medians above gives a candidate an idea of what will be studied, but not necessarily how it will be learned. Of the four largest areas outlined in the BJS study (firearms, investigations, self-defense, and criminal law), only the last one is primarily classroom-based book learning. For the other three categories, officers will be exposed to legal aspects (i.e., when it is permissible to use force, when it is permissible to use deadly force, when it is permissible to undertake a vehicle chase); they will also participate in such hands-on training as loading and cleaning a firearm, shooting at a variety of types of targets, handling evidence and taking measurements pertaining to, for instance, an automobile accident. The use of hands-on technique is generally what differentiates education from training; education can be defined as the why or why not, while training may be seen as the how to or how not to.

Hands-on training is also the method for most defensive tactics training and for physical fitness and physical agility training. During your time in the academy you should expect to run almost daily, starting at distances of up to a mile and increasing to five or more miles while also lowering your times. Because this area of training and ability plays a larger role at the state police level, many individual department websites provide a detailed description of the level of fitness you will be expected to have in order to enter the academy, milestones at various key training points, and what is considered the minimum level of achievement for graduating from the academy. In addition to running milestones, there may be goals for swimming generally and for water rescue maneuvers; for first aid (including Red Cross certification or the opportunity to obtain an emergency medical technical [EMT] certification); for delivering babies or extricating victims from accidents, fires, or explosions.

Some theory is taught in the area of defensive tactics, but here, too, much of the training will involve hands-on practice, often with or against classmates. You can expect to use one another to learn on, whether it is boxing, handcuffing techniques, or various come-along holds. Generally instructors will try to pair students of like size and weight, but if you are smaller than the average police officer, you will be encouraged—if not forced—to practice on someone larger than you to provide you with the experience you will need on the streets.

The more sedentary aspects of training will be more like high school or college. You will read books or manuals, listen to lectures, and see films or computer-based presentations on the material. This type of training is commonly used for learning the law, department policies and procedures, how to explain your cases to prosecuting attorneys, and how to testify in court. Lectures will be supplemented by role-play, during which you might be asked to make believe you are a suspect trying to lie to or mislead a police officer, or, in reverse, the officer trying to get at the truth. On another day you might act the role of a non-English speaker trying to explain an incident in which you are the victim of a crime; or you might be an attorney questioning your classmate harshly to determine whether the facts you stated surrounding the arrest you made are accurate.

Less interactive lecture supplements will include filling out blank copies of the forms required when a theft has been reported to you, or a motor vehicle accident, or when you have made an arrest. Rookies are often amazed at the number of forms they must learn to fill out; it is a major aspect of the job and one that is rarely portrayed on television and in movies. Paperwork requirements remain one of the major complaints officers have throughout their careers.

Eventually, after months, if you successfully complete all the training requirements, you will graduate from the academy. Your family will be invited to a ceremony much like a high school or college graduation. There will be speeches, generally by the police chief, sheriff, or academy director, possibly by local politicians or other dignitaries. Some of your classmates—possibly even you—will receive awards. The rookie officer with the best academic average will be recognized and probably receive a book or a plaque. The officer with the best physical agility tests or who has shown the most improvement since the beginning of training will receive an award. The student with the best firearms scores will be recognized and possibly receive a firearm donated by a local vendor, and the best overall student will also be recognized. Again similar to a school graduation, a rookie valedictorian may speak, often recalling how naïve you all were when you entered the academy only a few months ago and how much more confident you now feel in your own abilities despite what may be concerns (or even fears) about what the future will bring.

In your mind you are ready to go out and fight crime. But in the minds of the leaders of your agencies, you are ready only for the next step in your training—assignment to a field training officer who will watch and guide you and report on your progress before you are actually permitted to exercise your police authority and the discretion that comes with it on your own.

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