Exploring the Value of On-Demand Training in a Community Policing Environment

Few proposed changes to the law enforcement status quo seem to generate public interest like community policing. From its very name to the core ideas that govern it, the philosophy’s tenets paint a radical alternative to law enforcement policies and practices: a proactive and problem-oriented mindset that fights crime on one side and addresses issues that allow it to occur on the other, largely by encouraging officers to work closely within the communities they serve.

Naturally, such a fundamental philosophical shift brings with it a deep variety of opinions, not all of them positive. While those in favor of community policing are quick to cite its statistical and practical successes (equally healthy drops in crime and officer-involved shootings during David Brown’s tenure with the Dallas Police Department are one common refrain) critics say the movement is little more than a wasteful public relations move. Officers are “participating in pickup basketball games and stopping by local cookouts,” instead of providing the services that make them so valuable to the community in the first place, per commentary published in the New York Times.

To be sure, community policing is far from the only popular law enforcement movement to draw equal measures of traction and criticism. On the other hand, the philosophy joins body cameras as one of few such movements to gain added credibility from high-level government support. Just as federal funding for body cameras positioned the devices as a good, necessary change in the public view, major support from the Department of Justice (including the DOJ-backed Community Oriented Policing Services, which provides funding, training, and other services to state and local agencies) lends community policing an air of prestige it may lack otherwise.

Further, community policing embodies several features that separate it from other measures:

  • Potential for partial implementation: Where body cameras are mostly an all-or-nothing affair, agencies may pick and choose the aspects of community policing they wish to implement, making the practice closer to similarly popular civilian review boards in terms of adopt- and adaptability.
  • A revised mindset: Where even an officer who wholeheartedly disagrees with body cameras can still wear one and function as usual within their role, community policing requires a degree of buy-in to be effective.
  • Need for training: Body cameras necessitate backend technical expertise and policy updates regarding data storage, access, and the officer’s ability to turn the device on and off. Community policing, meanwhile, represents a fundamental shift in thinking and public-facing behavior, with many tenets that may run contrary to conventional street-level practice.

The last point represents arguably the biggest hurdle for law enforcement agencies interested in adopting some form of community policing. Those who find themselves in this position would be wise to consider the relative benefits of on-demand training as they grapple with ways to educate and gain buy-in from personnel. While any change of community policing scale will come with its own unique set of challenges and setbacks — and while it will necessarily include an in-person, classroom-based component — the medium’s strengths make it an invaluable aide during a critical, intricate, transition.

Early-2000s study highlights benefits, challenges of early community policing training

Interest in community policing has seen a massive increase in recent years, but the philosophy, which has roots in police practices dating back to the late 1800s, is hardly a new development. Practices implemented in the 1970s, another period marked by deep political division, racial tension, and outrage over perceived police misconduct, provided a modern foundation for the practice [PDF link]. Just as today, law enforcement decision-makers and other governmental stakeholders deployed the strategies in a good-faith attempt to reduce crime and quell what had become a potential powder keg of civil unrest.

The philosophy has evolved over that time, with experts drawing from over four decades of observations to refine and isolate best practices. Of those, training — particularly early, academy-level training — appears to be the most important factor in a program’s success. Researchers in a 2001 edition of Police Quarterly found that recruits given both academy and subsequent field-based community policing training tended to hold better attitudes and behaviors regarding the practice [PDF link]. This includes those who came into the 16-month program with a negative view of it. Additionally, most recruits came away believing their colleagues held a more favorable view of the practice, indicating both a better view of the effectiveness of community policing and better buy-in among peers.

To some degree, the Police Quarterly findings mirror common sense. In any field, recruits and their beliefs about the role they have accepted tend to be more malleable than their veteran counterparts might be. Personnel who lack the professional background to draw their own conclusions are generally more open to new information than those bound by the status quo and the biases lent by their own experience. A recruit who might reject the core ideas of community policing on the personal level may be more willing to implement its practices on the professional level, whether they are aware of this openness or not.

How on-demand training increases community policing buy-in

Recruits and young officers are not the only ones capable of buying into a full or partial change to community policing.  Others should buy into it with little more than notice of the pending transition. Others yet may be swayed by education on the new style of policing, and what successful adoption of such a policy might accomplish for the agency at large. Although certain elements within the agency may resist the change for a number of reasons — preconceived notions of what policing “is” or “should be” or outright rejection of the close community relationship such an endeavor requires are two possible examples.

This is especially important to note given the long-running practical criticisms levied at community policing, such as its costs, staffing requirements, and time commitments that seemingly make an effective change too costly and difficult to consider.

Whatever successes a philosophical shift may bring, it is clear that criticisms like the above are valid in light of the average public service agency’s financial situation. For one example, the San Diego Police Department (SDPD), once lauded nationally for its community-minded approach, incurred the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) wrath in 2015 after a “spate of officer misconduct cases,” according to the San Diego Union Tribune. The DOJ’s missive included a 40-point list of improvements, many of them drawing directly from changes styled after community policing. As the newspaper’s extensive research showed, a majority of the cases that drew federal attention came after funding cuts forced the SDPD to scale back on personnel and programs dedicated to community-focused purposes.

Here, the scalability of on-demand training can help organizations on a limited budget educate officers on community policing. Because the content is deliverable via the internet to any authorized device, any number of employees can access the same training content without the financial and logistical trappings of a classroom-based module. As such, on-demand community-focused modules could effectively be used to train an entire roster or a handful of community outreach officers with the same level of effort and cost.

Most courses offered on community policing will be largely conceptual in nature. This greatly reduces the need for a physical component, further calling to the strengths of an online, self-paced course. Besides the financial-logistical advantages listed above, this makes it easier for agencies already pressed for training time to implement community-based training modules. For instance, a department simply wishing to train officers on proper decorum during public encounters could use an on-demand module to refresh its corps and mandate that personnel take the course during downtime in their regularly scheduled hours, potentially saving a great deal of time and money in the process.

Due to these advantages, departments looking to implement targeted aspects of community policing — along with those that have fully bought in and wish to augment core training with self-paced supplementary courses — may see even more benefit from on-demand training than most. Instead of overloading officers with an all-in-one training session or overpaying for multiple physical classroom components, cloud-based learning offers a more targeted approach. A department dealing with a minor PR scandal, for instance, could take the opportunity to reoffer a relevant training module (thus offering practical assistance and a talking point for the media), while another wishing to appoint qualified officers to a pilot program can transmit content with little more than a click of a button.

Conclusion: Community policing needs on-demand training

As the past 40-plus years have shown the benefits of the practice, it is unlikely that the end of community policing is on the horizon. Moreover, in the past five years, public and governmental attention on the topic has become stronger and more sustained than ever. With a recording device in every citizen’s pocket, even minor transgressions — real and perceived — have the potential to become major controversies. It is fair to assume more organizations will adopt the practice, or at least some of its high points: Its practical (lighter caseloads and fewer complaints) and public relations (a better face forward with citizens and the press) benefits are simply too great a match to think otherwise.

For those organizations, on-demand training represents an evolved method to explore and implement the concept without overspending on implementation or logistics. The medium’s strengths align quite well with the challenges of transitioning and the financial realities of running a public service agency in this era of shrinking budgets and growing responsibility. Whatever one’s personal opinion of community-based endeavors, expect the model to play an increasing role in agencies around the country, and for on-demand training to provide much of the content that officers consume during the transition.

Posted on Jan 3, 2019