In summary

New Little Hoover Commission report focuses on five ways to improve law enforcement training in California.

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By Pedro Nava

Pedro Nava is the chair of the Little Hoover Commission Little Hoover and a member of the commission’s subcommittee on law enforcement training.

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Janna Sidley, Special to CalMatters

Janna Sidley is a member of the Little Hoover Commission and a member of the commission’s subcommittee on law enforcement training.

California spends millions of dollars each year on law enforcement training, but never takes a look back to see what we’re getting in return. We don’t consider whether the training actually addressed the problems it was intended to solve or if it even remains relevant for the realities of policing today. 

This must change. 

As members of the Little Hoover Commission, California’s independent government watchdog, we have spent the past year examining training for the state’s nearly 700 law enforcement agencies and more than 87,000 full-time sworn and reserve peace officers. We found very little evidence to prove which types of training actually achieve intended goals and positively impact officer behavior in the field – and which do not. 

Law enforcement training has long been relied upon as an instrument of change. In the wake of deadly police encounters involving Black Americans and excessive use of force, both now and in the past, state lawmakers have turned to police training as one way to implement critical reforms. 

Yet despite this ongoing emphasis on police training, there is an alarming lack of evidence for much of California’s current approach to it.  

Take basic training academies, for starters. From total size to instructional hours to rates of graduation, California’s 41 academies differ in substantial ways. Yet no overall assessment has been conducted to compare how effective each model is in preparing people to become peace officers. As a result, California does not know what kind of training works best for its officers or the communities in which they serve. 

To make matters worse, entry-level training often crams curriculum into limited hours, resulting in a learning approach that one officer likened to drinking from a fire hose. 

And since California does not require – or invest in – many ongoing educational opportunities for peace officers throughout their careers, there are few avenues for officers to stay current with ever-evolving laws, policies, trends and societal demands.   

Legislators have too often heaped additional training requirements on officers without evaluating how effective those requirements actually are. Between 2015 and 2020, lawmakers introduced an average of more than nine bills a year related to officer training – almost double the average between 2010 and 2014. Such an approach leaves little room for thoughtful priority setting and evaluation. 

Californians deserve to know that their taxpayer dollars are being used to bring about the police reforms they want to see.  

That’s why the Little Hoover Commission’s new report, “Law Enforcement Training: Identifying What Works for Officers and Communities,” calls for five simple steps that will help California progress toward meaningful law enforcement reform:  

First, incorporate academic research into training. Lawmakers should temporarily refrain from adding new training requirements and instead provide funding to partner with academic researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of current training. 

Second, assess and compare the state’s 41 basic training academies. We need to figure out which models are beneficial for officers and which are not, and the variation among California’s existing academies provides a natural research experiment in which to do this.  

Third, rethink California’s approach to entry-level training. Instead of cramming an ever-changing list of required training topics into an allotted set of hours, the state should assess and restructure current curriculum to ensure it emphasizes the skills new officers need and gives officers appropriate time to practice.  

Fourth, develop robust ongoing education for officers. Developing a new advanced academy for officers with two to five years of experience and providing more pathways to training, including online courses, will help ensure officers have access to additional training, whatever their role or tenure. 

And finally, create a more representative POST Commission. While maintaining a majority of seats for law enforcement is crucial, the state should adjust current membership to add additional public members with expertise in academic research, adult education, health and mental health, as well as individuals from vulnerable communities. 

Improved law enforcement training is within reach, but California must act now. The safety of our officers, our communities and our state depends on it. 

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