Police Training and Education (Pillar 5 in Pillars of Justice Series)

Pillars of Justice is a six-part series covering the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The full report can be viewed here.

By Jimmy Steyee

American police forces seem to be at a turning point not seen since August Vollmer and his successor O.W. Wilson led the charge toward a “reform era” of policing in the 1920s and 1930s. The changes Vollmer and Wilson promoted largely remained intact through the 1970s. Further reform over the next two decades ushered in an era of foot patrols and community-oriented policing. Ongoing change in police practice is set against the current backdrop of rising violent crime in major cities, alleged police slowdowns in Baltimore and New York City, and the Ferguson Effect. With these challenges in mind, this blog discusses Pillar 5 of the Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing: police training and education.

Police must respond to a myriad of situations, ranging from international and domestic terrorism threats to mental health events, as the “de facto first responders.” Furthermore, police have been at the front line (rather controversially) in dealing with the ever-present issues of drug and substance use. To effectively respond to this multitude of issues and threats, police must have proper training and education. The Task Force report recommended changes to help create and maintain police forces not only reflective of the communities they serve, but that would also be recognized as fair and just leaders in those communities—a true 21st century police force.


The Task Force made 13 recommendations related to training and education, ranging from developing and promoting consistent standards and establishing “training innovation hubs,” to mandatory crisis intervention training and a dedicated curriculum on the disease of addiction. Three of these recommendations are called out for consideration here.

5.2 Recommendation: Law enforcement agencies should engage community members in the training process.

Recognizing the importance of good community relations (both in terms of police legitimacy and procedural justice [discussed in more detail later]), transparency and inclusiveness are imperative. Engaging the public to help shape training agendas and curricula will help local law enforcement be more in tune with the needs of citizens as well as with society’s evolving mores.

5.3. Recommendation: Law enforcement agencies should provide leadership training to all personnel throughout their careers.

Police operate with considerable discretion in their day-to-day contact with offenders and the general public. It’s the aggregate of those daily interactions—deciding to arrest vs. issuing a warning—that shapes the public’s perception of policing. Some have argued that stop and frisk (aka stop and search) has disproportionately and negatively affected communities of color, leading to low levels of public trust and satisfaction with police.

As cited in the Task Force report, the Leadership in Police Organizations Program from the International Association of Chiefs of Police is based on the premise that “every office is a leader.” With ongoing leadership training and improved leadership throughout the ranks, the Task Force report suggests “officers are more likely to behave according to those standards in the community.”

It should be noted that recommendations 5.7, 5.9, 5.10, and 5.13 in the Task Force report all encourage training that promotes improved trust in and legitimacy of officers by the communities they serve. Recognizing the importance of procedural justice in increasing police legitimacy, the Task Force report consistently interweaves this theme throughout its discussion of Pillar 5. (For an interesting take on a recent strategy that may affect perceptions of police fairness among blacks, please see “Will Body-Worn Cameras Improve Perceptions of Police Fairness Among Blacks?”)

5.6 Recommendation: POSTs [Peace Officer Standards and Training] should make Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) a part of both basic recruit and in-service training.

The Task Force report notes that CIT training is an effective strategy for helping officers effectively identify and respond appropriately to anyone having a mental health event. Research has found that deinstitutionalization has placed a large and vulnerable group of people back in their communities, as opposed to being treated through inpatient hospitalization, thus increasing the chances of police interaction with these individuals. CIT’s aim is to ensure trained officers—along with a team of local mental-health authorities, emergency psychiatric professionals, and staff at local facilities—are always on call and available to respond to mental health events. This collaborative model helps to shift the response from a focus primarily on law enforcement (with the likely outcome being jail) to one in which the mental health community can assess and prescribe the best response and offer a range of options.


The will to change embedded practices will take time. It requires consistent leadership at the Federal, state, and local levels, as well as an influx of resources. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “about half of all agencies employed fewer than 10 full-time officers.” Small police departments with limited resources, few staff, and the need to provide 24/7 service face challenges to implementing the Task Force report’s recommendations. During the 21st Century Policing panel discussion, one panelist concluded that smaller agencies “often lack the resources for training and equipment accessible to larger departments.” Yet with proper Federal support through technical assistance and free training—as well as programs such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s “smart policing”—a solid foundation of resources is available for those local police departments ready to effect change.

Borrowing from Professor John DeCarlo of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who spoke on National Public Radio about police reform: “Make change. Don’t ever accept the status quo. Be an anarchist, and you will change a system that is in need of change.”

Jimmy Steyee is project director at CSR, Incorporated where he consults with and advises clients at the Department of Justice on performance measurement for justice-related programs. For the last decade, he has analyzed how DOJ funding is used nationwide to improve criminal justice services—from crime victimization tracking, gang threat assessment, and Tribal assistance to drug courts, incident-based crime reporting, and state-of-the-art surveillance. He has a master’s degree in criminology, law, and society from the University of California—Irvine.