Futures Perspective

A Retrospective: Police Academy Training in 2032

By Bob Harrison, M.S.
Stock image of a man touching a computer screen, representing training in the future.
The training model described in 2032 is not an attempt to predict the future. It uses trends and issues emerging today to prompt reflection, discussion, and action by law enforcement leaders to guide and impact the future we all will share.

It began like so many revolutions do, almost unnoticed. In the 2010s the halls of academia were filled with discussions about the future of education. Online and alternate degree programs already had been widely accepted, yet academic conference attendees still debated the merits of technology-enabled adult learning. A positive catalyst came in the fall of 2011 when two professors launched an open, online introductory course on artificial intelligence. Anyone could participate, and university students could take the class for credit. More than 166,000 individuals enrolled, and, at the end of the semester, 20,000 people from 190 countries had completed the course.

The success of this course spawned a new learning culture where certificates earned online became more prized than degrees. Colleges pushed to accommodate this culture by adding credit-earning classes using online purveyors of learning. Law enforcement training institutions also were inundated with increasingly tech-savvy applicants expecting app-friendly e-learning options to complete their orientation into policing. Rather than following the examples of academia, California’s police academies were the first institutions to merge this new culture with their curricula, implementing online training as the primary method of instruction based on guidance from the state commission responsible for police training.

Academies Change: 2015

Community colleges that had partnered with law enforcement to host recruit training academies collapsed after tax initiatives in 2015 failed to save them. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) acknowledged the reality of the state’s economic situation. Existing models of basic and in-service training were deemed expensive, limited, and logistically difficult to maintain. Partner academic institutions offered little support as they faced their own shrinking budgets, increased fees, and substantial cuts to student attendance fee reimbursements. Smaller agencies, unable to pay for travel, lodging, and per diem for their trainees, fell out of compliance with POST standards as fewer and fewer officers entered training beyond the minimum required. Even recurring first aid, firearms, and emergency vehicle operations course (EVOC) training waned as police organizations struggled to keep enough officers on the streets.

Self-sponsored training offered by public and private institutions with open, online courses paved a new, legitimate pathway to success for agencies burdened with a necessity for classroom space and instructors. In this emerging knowledge economy, emphasis increasingly was placed on certification and demonstrated competence, rather than earning a static degree. This provided a viable alternative to educational institutions as a way to learn the skills to enter sought-after professions, thus, curtailing the long-standing reason many adult learners applied for degree-granting programs in the first place.

Graduates entering the workforce at the time were weaned on interactive, connected, and collaborative learning and recreational experiences. The smartphones introduced just after the turn of the 21st century continued to increase in capacity and complexity. Almost any virtual community, commodity, game platform, or learning venture could be accessed by the tap of a finger. Entertainment moved to a “three-screen world” where people could carry their interests and interactions with them. The advent of augmented reality, first with Google glasses and later with a variety of wearable (and now implantable) devices, created an individualized experience of daily social interaction. As a result, those seeking employment as peace officers insisted on accessing training by similar means.

Mr. Harrison
Mr. Harrison is the course manager for the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Command College and the futurist in residence with the FBI’s Behavioral Research and Instruction Unit.

Pathways Emerge: 2015-2025

POST staff recognized that training delivered online could be substantially less costly than traditional classroom means. Initially objections were raised concerning the quality of such training, the security of its assessment, and ways to confirm a trainee’s identity. Given that academic institutions nationwide were offering online advanced degrees in the sciences and humanities, POST realized that law enforcement training would have to follow suit or be relegated to history.

With money approved by the POST Commission, staff began creating simulation modules for training, focusing first on in-service issues and then basic academy domains. After the first two alternate-format classes graduated, POST and its partner agencies discovered an amazing fact: students completing their cognitive work online consistently tested higher than their peers in the classroom. Agencies found that online students reentered training modules a number of times prior to and after completing their testing. By repeatedly attempting to learn the material, the students knew the topics better.

Transition Occurs: 2018

The success of the pilot program led to more than 500 hours of available online basic training by 2018. Public and private developers created thousands of hours of training modules—the most effective were chosen through user ratings and fee-for-service totals. Member agencies collaborated to create physical locations on a regional basis for recruits to engage in simulation training encompassing a wide range of real-life police duties.

  • Responding to routine and emergency calls for service
  • Handling traffic enforcement, collision response, and congestion control
  • Investigating crimes, from petty theft to homicide
  • Providing courtroom testimony
  • Investigating disturbances, ranging from intoxicated persons to neighborhood disputes

Each training block emphasized developing the appropriate skills needed by peace officers, including multiple task skills, emotional and social awareness, interpersonal communication, cultural competence, and the application of learned concepts.

Online modules replaced traditional criminal investigation training. Virtual reality and holographic simulations of victims, witnesses, and suspects interacted with trainees in virtual and physical locations. These avatars could be set to represent any age or ethnic group, and the issues they presented could vary as broadly as those found in real life. Trainees could enter these virtual simulations (virtusims) repeatedly, practicing alternate means of dispute resolution, investigation, and problem-solving tactics. In-service police officers quickly followed suit using virtusims, formally as trainees in advanced settings and provisionally through their agencies’ virtual-training accounts.

Model Matures: 2025

By 2025 regional training facilities replaced the old community college academy system. Eighty-two agencies—consolidated from more than 530 in 2015—used online modules to complete up to 600 hours of recruit training. In many instances, agencies used virtusim modules to provide their recruits with more than 1,200 total hours of academy training. The remainder of the training experience involved hands-on role-play instruction at one of the regional training centers. Resembling a movie set, these centers were equipped with a driving track, indoor and outdoor firearms ranges, and life-size cityscapes to simulate call response and provide additional driver training.

The use of online modules and training centers for law enforcement instruction afforded recruits an experience completely transformed from the process used to train their captains and chiefs. Agencies urged POST to allow sponsorship of preservice applicants through some or all of the online modules. The commission approved this process in 2021, allowing preservice independent students—previously unsponsored academy students—to apply and enter the online system to earn their certificate in police studies prior to applying for employment.

Member agencies soon found an increasing pool of ready-trained and prequalified applicants. By 2032 the functional capability of enrollees had significantly improved through this preemployment process. The number of recruits succeeding in the academy and field training also increased. These positive results were the culmination of the learning process that POST set out to update almost 20 years earlier.

Opportunities Expand: 2032

In 2015 POST had more than five decades of experience providing cutting-edge training to 100,000-plus members of law enforcement. From that time, however, smaller agencies were increasingly consolidated or absorbed into county joint powers authorities (JPAs) for public safety. Basic academies, with 664-hour minimums, disappeared by 2020 due to realignment of funds. In their place, more than 3,000 hours of academy curricula moved to individualized learning modules in POST’s digital information cloud.

Agencies now choose from an online list of recommended training providers and select those that incorporate augmented, holographic, and virtusim methodologies to enhance learning. As a result the best trainers in any topic are always available, providing learners with a wealth of expertise to access at their convenience. The success of specific learning modules determines the most effective training, and agencies use analytics to select the ideal blend of experiences for their trainees.

A variety of preservice preparatory courses are available for individuals seeking to qualify for law enforcement careers. Once they complete the online curriculum, prospective applicants are certified as ready for employment—a huge cost and time savings for agencies. Online opportunities have expanded as developers and endline users imagine new ways to interact. Refresher modules are available for personnel who seek or are mandated to strengthen their skills. Four of these offerings have emerged as essential tools for police training.

  1. A fitness app, called “FitCop,” helps users measure basic metabolic rate (BMR) and vital signs and establishes fitness routines to enhance their health. By 2022 police agencies universally adopted it for employee fitness programs. Some personnel have gained discounts on insurance by using the app and tracking their participation in healthy lifestyle regimens.
  2. A module with first-person multiplayer online role-playing game (MORG) capabilities allows individuals to conduct simulated investigations in real time from start to conclusion. Used extensively by today’s officers, this module is popular and allows participants to assume specific roles in the investigation process. Gamers, a primary source of current and future recruits, have established teams, leagues, and networks of enthusiasts using the module. Public service announcements promoting law enforcement employment are included in the game play.
  3. Another popular module enhances communication skills through virtual reality simulations of interviews with victims and witnesses. This module emerged from concerns about the adverse impact of technology on social intelligence skills. To enhance the development of job-specific skills, users experience a simulated incident-to-court process and learn how to interact and how to apply those interactions to law enforcement duties. Departments have adapted the module to generate agency-specific data recording for court purposes.
  4. A home-based virtual reality simulator allows trainees to enter almost any environment and engage in police contacts, from the routine to the uncontrollable. This virtual simulator has been credited with saving lives because officers can test viable options, train through them, and apply their training in the real world.

Model Delivers: After 2032

Seventeen years since its inception, POST’s online training model continues to deliver high-quality law enforcement courses and is now fully funded through app fees. Although similar efforts to integrate technology into training have surfaced nationally, POST’s model has seen rapid adoption by agencies in a number of states. Modern in-service training has migrated to online, virtual reality, and simulation-based platforms—as a result, departments have recorded enhanced performance levels and higher assessment scores from their officers.

Public and private app developers working with POST and member agencies are able to provide virtual assistants for officers that can offer advice, clarify points of law and policy, and act as a virtual partner. By the time today’s police enter the field, they have extensive online, physical, and virtual reality experience in almost any situation they might encounter. Like airline pilots, officers have become comfortable with unusual or critical incidents and are able to remain calm and clearheaded in the most fluid of circumstances.

Mr. Harrison can be contacted at bobharrison@cox.net.