Online training key to bringing police into the 21st century

Online training key to bringing police into the 21st century
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Our police officers have become modern Renaissance men and women. As they face an unheralded demand for their services, officers are expected to simultaneously act as investigators, social workers and emergency medical professionals. At the same time, unprecedented scrutiny has revealed not only the personal failings of a few officers, but the need for officers of all ranks to be well-versed in ethics, community relations and leadership. Often, training in these areas is slow to catch up.

The intense, multifaceted mission of modern law enforcement requires us to look beyond the old brick-and-mortar academies and workshops. Only by unlocking the potential of online learning can we provide our officers with the depth and diversity of training they need to prosper.

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We live with a paradox in which our police officers have never been better trained and yet many of them still do not have the training required to be successful. With officers often filling the void left by overburdened social service organizations, some police chiefs estimate that as much as three quarters of their officers’ time is spent on duties more commonly associated with a social worker or surrogate parent. The latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report on law enforcement academies, however, shows that the average police recruit received only 43 hours of training on community policing. Excluding field training, this represents a mere 5 percent of their training time.

 

Nowhere is the training deficit more acute than in our small towns and rural police forces. Around half of our nation’s law enforcement agencies have 10 or fewer officers, and these smaller forces often don’t have access to the training and other resources available to larger departments. Even if training is theoretically available, it may be practically out of reach for such small forces, which often cannot spare their officers for the time required to complete a residential or in-person training program. Not surprisingly, these smaller departments frequently lack consistent training, and departmental quality can vary widely.

Online courses can help bridge the gap by bringing valuable training to the hardest-to-reach officers. Internet delivery flips the traditional training paradigm — instead of officers having to travel to train, courses can appear instantly and anywhere with an internet connection. This means that the solo police officer in a rural community can access the same training as one serving alongside thousands of colleagues in one of our biggest cities. Further, by removing travel and lodging costs, online courses also represent a more affordable option than traditional training methods. This can help ensure that officer quality isn’t determined by local property values or regional variations in the cost of living.

For overburdened departments, officers’ ability to access training on demand can be a real difference-maker. Rather than taking officers off the beat, potentially for days at a time, online courses allow officers to simply log on for short stretches in between responding to calls or whenever else they might have a little spare time. These trainings work around officers’ busy schedules, not the other way around. For smaller police forces that can ill-afford to be without officers for even a short period of time, this would be especially helpful.

Online offerings could also be particularly useful for providing the softer set of skills and knowledge critical to returning law enforcement to the role of community guardians and away from the militarism that has seeped into many departments. While firearms and other tactical training may struggle in an online medium, that’s not the case for many leadership and social services courses. Additionally, the economies of scale possible with internet courses allow them to cover a range of subjects and provide a level of detail that would be impractical for most physical programs. This means that each and every police department can tailor its training catalogue to evolve along with its mission.

Unfortunately, online law enforcement training offerings remain in their infancy. For example, when the Department of Justice launched its online portalfor its Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program in November of last year, it offered only five courses. Private organizations such as the International Academy of Public Safety — which blends in-person workshops with online learning — and PoliceOne Academy have started to fill this void. But it is still not enough.

Nurturing these kinds of programs into maturity requires funding and direction at the highest levels. As it considers its funding priorities, Congress should leverage existing Justice Department grant programs and other federal resources to expand law enforcement trainings that have an online component. For all that we expect of our men and women in blue, the right training should be only a click away.

Lars Trautman is a senior fellow with the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group aimed at promoting limited government in Washington, D.C.