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How to modernize your police officer training program

A group of police officers standing in front of a grey building.

What to consider when tailoring training programs to suit the current public safety landscape

Few things are as constant as change, and policing has seen plenty of that over the past few decades. From advanced computer technology to evolving use-of-force guidelines, many aspects of modern policing would be foreign to police officers who served a generation ago.

There is more scrutiny of departments at the state and national levels now than ever before. More officers receive calls from their mobile data terminals (MDTs) than from the radio. DNA evidence has completely changed how suspects are identified. Body-worn cameras and other digital gear are now standard equipment. And gone are the days when a revolver and baton were all that was required. Today’s police wear body armor, carry pepper spray, sidearms, TASER energy weapons, collapsible batons and a variety of other gear.

With new techniques, technologies and increasingly community-centric demands, modern policing requires a modern training approach. Keeping in mind the limitations of time, space and money facing police departments today, here are some suggestions on how to modernize your police officer training program. 

Learn more about police officer training with Axon's Law enforcement training: The complete guide.

Multiple learning styles

Different people learn differently. Some people may learn best by seeing something done, others by hearing about it or reading about it, and still others by doing it themselves. 

Having a variety of different training methods drives better outcomes, as it provides a holistic approach to training and allows officers multiple opportunities for learning.  A police officer training program that offers a variety of teaching methods — such as classroom instruction, VR training, reality based training, and so on — will typically demonstrate a better result than one that offers a single methodology.  

Axon Training programs offer departments the tools and techniques to keep officers engaged and learning as technology evolves. With training sessions developed by subject matter experts, Axon Training has a range of teaching tools available to meet the needs of law enforcement officers with different learning styles. 

Scenario-based simulations

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an independent research forum founded in 1976 with a leadership comprised of law enforcement professionals, released a report in late 2022 on Transforming Police Training. This extensive report outlines 40 “guiding principles” or recommendations that PERF believes will enhance modern police training.  

According to PERF’s report, guiding principle 12 states: “Recruit training should focus on the activities and tasks that police officers are engaged in on a day-to-day basis, as well as on the high-risk encounters that officers may face infrequently. Scenario-based training should cover both ‘everyday’ and ‘high-risk situations.’” 

Virtual reality training platforms like Axon VR offer scenario-based training for departments, no matter their available space or time. VR training doesn’t require a dedicated space, and individual modules can be completed in minutes, making them perfect for training between shifts. Axon VR offers a variety of immersive learning opportunities, including tactical scenarios and community-engagement training.

The biggest benefit of VR training is its ability to create scenarios that more closely mirror what police officers will encounter on their daily patrols. Traditional training may take place in a training room or gym, but VR training can place an officer (virtually) in a train station, or a home, more closely reflecting the real-world scenarios they’re likely to encounter.  

De-escalation techniques

A police officer training program with an emphasis on de-escalation can lead to fewer use-of-force events, a reduction in community complaints and better community outcomes. Police de-escalation techniques aim to reduce the intensity of a potentially dangerous situation that might spiral out of control if not handled correctly.

This is where critical thinking and problem-solving training can come into play. Training often endeavors to reduce policing to a series of if/then questions. If a subject is carrying a weapon, then the use of force is appropriate, for example. But encounters in the field are rarely cut and dried.

Take the example of an encounter between police in Providence, Rhode Island, and a young man holding a knife. The young man was on a porch, cutting a window screen, when officers approached him. He was not acting aggressively but refused verbal commands to drop the knife and instead began to approach the officers. 

The officers involved in this encounter could have justifiably escalated, using some form of force, but chose not to. Instead, the lead officer, Lt. Gannon, picked up a chair and held it between himself and the approaching young man. He then proceeded to talk to the young man calmly until he eventually dropped the knife. 

The young man was taken to a hospital but was not charged. It was determined he was suffering from some form of mental distress.

“When I see something that seems off, I take an extra minute to think,” Lt. Gannon told media at the scene. “We had all the time in the world, so long as nobody was hurt. A lot of it is common sense and not jumping into action too quickly. If you can take the time, take it.”

The principles of de-escalation support Lt. Ganon’s approach, namely, slowing down and assessing before acting. Here are some other essential de-escalation techniques:

  • Slow down: Many situations can be de-escalated by backing off or taking the time to assess properly.

  • Active listening: Hear what people are saying instead of waiting for your turn to speak. Sometimes angry people just want to be listened to. 

  • Isolation: Sometimes, giving a subject space can help calm a situation down.  

Community-police engagement

Community-oriented policing is not a new concept. It has been around since at least the early nineties. But the principles involved continue to evolve as our understanding of what makes effective community engagement and the demands of the communities themselves continue to mature. 

According to the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA), focusing on community policing is one way to improve community relations. Foot patrols and increased interactions with the community will promote a more community-centric model of policing, leading to better outcomes. 

Empathy-based training, like Axon VR Community Engagement Training, offers a variety of experiences based on real-world scenarios that can help police officers understand what community members experience. From situations like domestic abuse to a schizophrenic episode, officers will experience what an individual is experiencing, giving them valuable perspective and new tools to address situations they may encounter in the field.  

Ethical considerations for a police officer training program

Police officers are held to a higher ethical and moral standard than the average citizen not only because of their authority but also because they are tasked with making split-second decisions that can have huge ethical ramifications. Juggling this dichotomy can be a challenge, even for seasoned law enforcement officers. 

A police officer training program or police sergeant training program that takes into account ethical considerations can set up officers and superiors for success when dealing with ethical considerations. Palo Alto University identifies four key sources of ethical issues in modern policing:

  • Off-duty life: Even when not on duty, officers and their actions are heavily scrutinized. This can place an undue amount of stress on officers in their downtime.

  • Use of force: Recent societal events have placed police use of force under a microscope. Officers must use critical thinking skills to navigate the demands of the job with the scrutiny that arises in certain scenarios.

  • Acting impartially: Officers may struggle with acting impartially because of familiarity with subjects or situations where a lack of evidence prevents them from acting at all. Police officers may also struggle with the impact of their actions on an individual.

  • Profiling: everyone has biases. Police officers must make split-second decisions and are just as susceptible as anyone to judging a person based on preconceived notions or bias. 

A modern police officer training program or police sergeant training program doesn’t have to be expensive or require a large amount of space or resources. With Axon Training, police departments can gain access to a network of knowledgeable instructors and innovative technology that will allow them to train their officers anywhere. For more information about how Axon Training can meet the needs of your department, contact us today.