American policing faces two simultaneous crises. One is a crisis of legitimacy: while most Americans trust them, the police still face severe distrust in many places, particularly among black Americans, while large majorities continue to sense a need for police “reform.” The other is a crisis of staffing: major police departments across the country report struggles with hiring, as a short-run decline in employment caused by the “defund the police” movement coincides with a historically tight labor market and a wave of retirements occasioned by the sunsetting of the hiring wave of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Each crisis mutually reinforces the other. On the one hand, Americans want better police officers and fewer instances of unjustifiable use of force. Departments must thus be careful when hiring new officers, and they need good replacement options when firing existing ones. At the same time, the supply of good cops is constrained, as the badge’s declining prestige raises the opportunity cost of police work. Most people don’t recognize this contradiction: they worry about the quality or quantity of policing in isolation. But solving the problem means addressing both.
Writing in the Washington Post last week, columnist Megan McArdle floated a proposal that plausibly addresses both concerns: a national training academy—a “West Point for police officers.” As McArdle envisions it, the academy would improve the quality of policing, acting as “a research center for learning what works in policing, and as a place to transmit that information to new generations of officers, who can be attracted to the profession through a combination of free, high-quality education and opportunities for elite public service.” And it would improve the quantity, by paying full freight for graduates—a substantial benefit that should attract marginal would-be cops—while requiring them to serve for at least eight years after they leave. Though (understandably) short on details, McArdle’s vision of a national police academy could have real benefits—if run correctly.
The idea of a national policing program is not new. The FBI has run its National Academy since 1935, when J. Edgar Hoover made it part of his modernizing push in American policing. Today, the FBI provides advanced training to hundreds of midcareer officers each year. Federal law enforcement officers train in the unified Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, also the product of a 1970s modernizing push. A national police academy would necessarily go much further, but it is easy to imagine using one or both of these preexisting programs as a vehicle for a larger one.
Such programs exist in part to address problems imposed by the patchwork nature of American policing. Depending on how one counts, the U.S. is home to between 12,000 and 18,000 police agencies. They vary wildly in size: while the NYPD has nearly 40,000 sworn officers, the average city department has about 40. So many small departments not only create bureaucratic redundancy but also slow the diffusion of best practices. Police shootings have declined in big cities, which tend to have the best-trained departments, but have stayed flat or risen in rural or suburban jurisdictions.
Decentralization also limits the availability of training resources. Partly as a result, most departments dedicate little money and less time to training. American police recruits spend about 20 weeks in training, the Police Executive Research Forum has found, well short of the years many other nations require. A national police academy could sidestep all of these constraints.
What would a national police academy look like? At one extreme, it would entail training every one of the maybe 50,000 new police recruits yearly. At a cost of, say, $100,000 per recruit, that would run $5 billion per year, a large but not insurmountable outlay. More challenging would be constructing new facilities to house, feed, and educate that many people. It is less comparable with West Point, which has about 1,200 per class, and more with the whole U.S. army, which must recruit nearly 60,000 per year.
More manageable would be to recruit smaller classes, as small as West Point’s 1,200, for a longer term of training, up to the full four years for a bachelor’s degree. Such a small class would necessarily be only a fraction of total police recruiting. But assuming the program the recruits go through is well-designed, they could have an outsize impact on the departments they eventually join.
Course materials could cover the broad topics of criminal justice and crime prevention. A useful model here is the undergraduate coursework offered by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which today provides advanced training for many NYPD officers. With sufficient money, the National Academy could also help fill the massive gap in funding for basic criminal-justice research, in turn using that research to put students on the cutting edge of policing tactics. The importance of such skills-based training is likely only to increase over time—as one beat cop recently observed to me, technologically driven policing is the wave of the future. National academy students familiar with advanced knowledge will be better equipped to operate in the high-tech world.
Three objections to the national academy model are worth reckoning with. One is that policing is not so much an academic topic as a craft—you learn much more out on the beat than sitting in a classroom. Relatedly, policing requires considerable jurisdiction-specific knowledge: the best cops know everything about their specific beat. A third concern is the tensions that might arise between a specialized “officer” class and “enlisted men.” After all, policing remains a highly unionized, blue-collar profession, one particularly skeptical of “bosses.”
To address all three concerns, any national program should emphasize practical education. If academy recruits received, say, 18 months of training—roughly what they would get in Croatia or Estonia, though far short of the rest of the European Union—they could spend another 18 to 24 months working in the field. This experience would supply practical know-how and the credibility of real-world experience. If they end up going to work for the same department that they “intern” in, they would also bring along preexisting “beat” knowledge.
Deploying newly trained officers to short-staffed departments—of which there are many—would ameliorate concerns that they would be “dead weight.” Places like Minneapolis and Portland can use all the hands they can get. The “internship” period of the program would also help encourage geographic diversity upon graduation, vital for propagating knowledge: if all the academy’s graduates go to New York and Los Angeles, it will not have succeeded.
There is room to experiment. National leaders could construct a small pilot class of first-years adjunct to the FBI national academy, use the connections to local PDs facilitated by the Community Oriented Policing Services office to place them after a trial period, and track their performance. Such a program would cost far less than the $5 billion outlay suggested above. And when policing—indeed the whole criminal justice system—is much in need of modernization, a considered experiment is better than no action at all.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images