What’s the best way to train law enforcement leaders?



Background and brief history of police training

Policing in the U.S. is conventionally broken into three historical periods: 1) the Political or Traditional Era, from 1890 to 1930, when law enforcement officers generally followed the directives of local political bosses and worked closely with the neighborhoods in which they served; 2) the Reform Era, from 1930 to 1980, which introduced the widespread use of scientific findings and technology to policing; and 3) the Community Era, from 1980 to the present, which expanded cultural sensitivity, collaboration with civilians and closer engagement with individuals served by the local police force. Some believe a fourth period, the Homeland Security Era, began after the 9/11 terror attacks, but this has yet to be universally accepted by law enforcement scholars.

Early in the Political Era, officer training occurred informally, on the job, where recruits were paired up with seasoned officers. The rookies’ professional skills were learned through direct experiences, accompanied by the advice of their superiors. This was most likely the only training any police officers would ever have had during that first era of policing, including department chiefs.

The first formal training academy devoted to police work was established in 1908 at the University of California, Berkeley, by Berkeley Police Chief August Vollmer, considered by many to be the father of modern American policing. Vollmer, who later served as chief of the Los Angeles police force, was widely known for “professionalizing” his departments, as well as numerous other police agencies across the nation and internationally. It is fair to say that Vollmer was ahead of the times, and he was in large part responsible for ushering in the Reform Era of policing as he promoted science and technology, as well as formal training for all police officers.

A 1935 article, “Police Training — Its Needs and Problems,” by George H. Brereton, deputy director of California’s Department of Justice, asserted the necessity of establishing educational standards and training for police, comparable to those found in many other professions. Brereton strongly promoted this need, stating, “so broad are the problems with which the police must deal, that to learn police work entirely through experience would require a lifetime or more… Why should a man learn the criminal law through trial and error, if he can learn it through instruction?”

Effective officer and leadership training

In 1923, Vollmer issued a report expounding the seven most important points of police training: 

  1. Have high educational, mental, moral and physical standards for recruits.
  2. Have psychological assessments for recruits throughout the training period.
  3. Withhold full police authority until recruits show by conduct and comprehension that they are fit for such service. 
  4. Make preparatory and promotional courses available for officers in colleges and universities. 
  5. Establish crime prevention divisions and appoint trained criminologists to lead these divisions. 
  6. Establish a merit system for promotions.
  7. Educate the public and invite their friendship and cooperation with the local law enforcement agency.

With that last step, Vollmer foreshadowed the essence of modern community policing, and his forward-thinking guidance has come to be realized in the preponderance of today’s extant police training programs.

A 1959 article by Honolulu Police Chief Daniel S.C. Liu stated that “the qualities of integrity, honesty, justice, decency, benevolence, compassion and all the other virtues we look for in wholesome leadership throughout the world are the same qualities that we desire to see represented throughout all of the police services.” 

This wisdom from these foundational authorities of the Reform Era characterizes the same fundamental issues related to the qualities required of leadership personnel in law enforcement today. While comparisons have been suggested about similarities between supervisory education for both the military and police, Dr. Wes Doss, an experienced training instructor for both sectors, observes that the military places far more emphasis on advanced training and leadership development early in one’s career than is typical in law enforcement. Military leaders receive leadership training before assuming any supervisory positions, unlike in law enforcement, where there’s generally little or no training for new supervisors or managers, except for any training that happens after the promotion.

Dr. Erik Fritsvold, academic director of the University of San Diego’s Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program, has itemized some essential elements required for effective law enforcement leadership training. Topping his list are so-called “soft skills,” such as communication, team-building, problem-solving and conflict resolution, which are hardly ever developed by most individuals — in or out of criminal justice — without formal training. Other essential skills include understanding how to connect well with people from diverse backgrounds, often under stressful conditions, and the capacity to collaborate with individuals and other agencies without having to “be the boss,” plus a solid sense of ethics and emotional intelligence, defined as handling interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

The program developed by Fritsvold combines media and community relations, techniques for successful community engagement, dispute and conflict resolution, and procedures for evaluating crime trends. These are all in keeping with the spirit of Vollmer, Brereton, Liu and other originators of smart and effective policing skills. Recently, Fritsvold wrote that many departments are beginning to recognize the benefits of a more inclusive, transformational approach, rather than relying solely on the more militaristic, authoritative approach that has characterized police work for so long. He also notes that advanced education in law enforcement and criminal justice is common among the most effective police leaders.

Less effective law enforcement leadership

As described by Vollmer, et al., effective law enforcement leadership training starts with hiring recruits who are suitable for police work and providing them with the proper kind of ongoing education. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83% of all U.S. police departments require only a high school diploma for recruits, while less than 10% require a four-year college degree, but even the rank and file who lack formal law enforcement education upon recruitment could and should still obtain effective training as described above.

There are almost 18,000 law enforcement departments in the U.S., each with its own rules and standards, which means significant variations in organizational culture, sense of social responsibility, available funding, local regulations and community relations, all of which impacts the effectiveness, even the purpose, of leadership training.

Some issues that currently challenge effective law enforcement leadership training may include the increase in mass shooting events, rampant opioid addiction within normally noncriminal populations, ever-changing immigration policies and the proliferation of widespread human trafficking, among other contemporary issues. A 2019 paper by Georgetown Professor Vida B. Johnson in the Lewis & Clark Law Review traces the significant proliferation of white supremacist recruits in recent decades, particularly in rural police departments, often hidden or easily overlooked by human resources personnel. This is another growing challenge to effective leadership whereby hidden, unethical biases may supersede serving the law. These and other emerging issues are either so recent or so mutable that effective training may be currently lagging.

The current state of police officer and law enforcement leadership training

According to the Census of Law Enforcement Training Academies (CLETA), there are more than 600 state and local law enforcement training academies in the U.S. and over 70 colleges and universities that offer accredited programs in law enforcement and corrections.

In recent years, there has also been a proliferation of smaller institutions and community colleges that offer law enforcement programs, from the certification and associate level through doctoral degrees, specifically for those seeking to become leaders in criminal justice organizations. One example is Colorado Technical University, where I have been an associate professor since 2011. With about 20,000 students nationwide on campus and online, it offers master’s and doctoral degree programs in criminal justice that emphasize 21st-century professional areas in law enforcement leadership, such as diversity in criminal justice, managerial decision-making, criminal justice organization and management, ethics and the criminal justice leader, and leadership theory and development. This thoroughness shows that even smaller schools can address effective law enforcement leadership training, reflecting the wisdom and influence of Vollmer and other pioneers of police training mentioned above. 


The days of law enforcement leaders being able to simply learn on the job during their rookie years, and then move up the ladder to a supervisory position, are fading away. In a recent study, over 1,000 law enforcement supervisors ranked the characteristics of effective and ineffective leaders. They overwhelmingly linked effectiveness to integrity, work ethic, communication and care for personnel, while ineffectual leaders were identified as lacking in these and related traits. This study’s participants indicated that good leadership was achieved through a combination of training and education, experience and accepting feedback from others. It is interesting to note that the most highly rated obstacles to effective leadership practices had nothing to do with budgetary problems, but those related to cultural, structural and political difficulties.

Dr. Gene Ira Katz is an associate professor at the College of Criminal Justice and Health Services at Colorado Technical University. 

Dr. Gene Ira Katz

Dr. Gene Ira Katz

As seen in the April 2023 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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