Law Enforcement Social Interaction Training: A Review of the Research
Samantha A. Moul, University of New Haven
Since the turn of the century, the policing profession has seen a shift towards evidence-based practices, in an attempt to integrate empirically validated research into policies, programs, and training (Mays & Ruddell, 2019). In addition, recent high-profile incidents of officer use of force and the officer-involved deaths of several unarmed individuals, particularly Black men, has renewed public and political interest in understanding how law enforcement officers are trained to interact with the communities they serve (Siegel, 2020; President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). To begin to understand the breadth of law enforcement training, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has routinely gathered data on state and local agency trainings across the country (Reaves, 2012; 2016). The quantity and quality of training that officers receive differs widely from agency to agency, both at the recruit and in-service/veteran levels. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that state and local academies can vary anywhere from 650 to over 1,000 hours of training (Reaves, 2016). Additionally, the content of that training, in terms of the hours dedicated to various topics and the overall orientation of the academy as a stress-based or non-stress based curriculum, can also vary significantly (Reaves, 2016). While these trainings typically focus disproportionately on physical skills and firearms training, many academics have advocated for a more “soft skills” emphasis that helps improve officer communication skills, empathy, and public health awareness (Antrobus et al., 2019; Csete, 2019).
Given the current state of policing and the movement towards evidence-based practices, scholars also have committed to exploring the efficacy of police trainings and the impact they have on officer attitudes and behaviors. A large portion of this scholarship has focused on issues of procedural justice and legitimacy of law enforcement within the community (Owens et al., 2018; Mazerolle et al., 2012; Rosenbaum & Lawrence, 2017). Generally, these studies have found that trainings focused specifically on procedural justice have promising effects on officers’ decision-making skills and use of force, as well as on citizens’ perceptions of law enforcement (i.e., legitimacy). The value of procedural justice in policing generally is accepted in the academic community, and recent research exploring the efficacy of specific trainings should inform future attempts to solidify these topics in both academy and in-service trainings.
Following a 2015 report revealing people with serious mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement (Fuller et al., 2015), literature also has emphasized the importance of law enforcement engagement with specific populations, particularly persons with mental illness, substance use disorders, and other developmental disabilities. To illustrate, Kohrasheh and colleagues (2019) and Railey et al. (2020) attempted to conduct systemic analyses of the available literature on substance use trainings and autism spectrum disorder education, respectively. These reviews found very little consistency in both the availability of studies and their results. These findings suggest there is much more to be learned about how law enforcement should receive this information and how well it can be retained to influence future citizen interactions. Additionally, a review of mental health training programs with non-mental health professionals found some short-term behavioral changes but was unable to speak to any long-term improvements (Booth et al., 2017). While several well-known programs, such as Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, have been developed to aid law enforcement in how to address mental illness or psychiatric crises, there is still much to learn about how to best deliver these trainings to produce the strongest effects (Compton, 2008; Hacker & Horan, 2019).
As most of the aforementioned studies evaluate the efficacy of singular trainings that already have been implemented, consensus is lacking on exactly what type of training may have the most generalizable positive effects on improving officer behaviors across agencies. Similarly, the mixed results of the available literature in assessing significant and lasting changes in officer attitudes leave gaps in current understandings of how law enforcement can be trained to balance public safety and public trust (Owens et al., 2018). While the literature shows promise in determining how procedural justice improves officer legitimacy and interactions with the community, Nagin and Telep (2017) posit that empirical research is, in actuality, rarely incorporated into trainings, and these trainings rarely are evaluated thoroughly.
Essentially, both academics and law enforcement officials alike still are seeking answers to the long-standing question: “what works?” Given the social and political importance of this issue, the current paper examines three additional studies that have utilized randomized control trials to evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of police trainings that focus on issues of procedural justice and social interactions, both in general and with persons with mental illness. This analysis, with the hope of informing future research and policing practices, will review this empirical evidence to more thoroughly understand how training can be used to improve officer interactions with the communities they serve.
To begin, McLean and colleagues (2020) conducted a randomized control trial of social interaction training to evaluate the effectiveness of the ‘T3’ (Tact, Tactics, and Trust) program, which is based on training for US soldiers learning how to interact with people abroad. The purpose of the study was to determine if the program facilitated change in officers’ attitudes and priorities during social interactions, and subsequently influenced behavior, particularly use of force (McLean et al., 2020). This program consists of an initial 1-hour introductory session; followed by brief, biweekly video simulations of officer-citizen interactions that allow officers to practice decision-making in various situations; a 4-hour refresher course halfway through the program; and an 8-hour capstone session. These 45-minute video exercises were designed to fit into short periods such as roll-call, in order to easily fit into the existing organizational structure (McLean et al., 2020). The study utilized a train-the-trainer model at the two mid-sized participating police departments (Tuscon, AZ and Fayetteville, NC), so that officers could be trained by their colleagues and supervisors. The trial randomized 224 officers across the two departments to receive the T3 training and 227 officers to the control condition, the latter of which conducted “business as usual” without participating in the T3 program. Those in the treatment condition were then non-randomly assigned by district in each department to either a low-dose (3 months) or high-dose (6 months) program to measure if dosage effects exist (McLean et al., 2020).
Surveys were administered 1 week before and immediately after the treatment program finished (at 3 or 6 months later, depending on dosage assignments) to evaluate the effectiveness of the T3 program on changing officers’ attitudes and prioritization of taught skills during a citizen encounter. The survey utilized hypothetical vignettes and consisted of three measures to capture officers’ decision-making processes: 1) procedural justice priorities, 2) maintaining self-control, and 3) physical control priorities. McLean and colleagues (2020) hypothesized that officers who received the T3 training would report higher prioritization of more procedurally-just communication and self-control and lower prioritization of physical control during these vignettes. In addition, official use of force data was gathered from each participating department from 1 year prior to the training through 1-year post-training, to measure if training impacted actual field behavior. To analyze the results, difference-in-difference tests were conducted, which are used to determine if pre- to post- test changes in attitudes and behaviors differed between conditions. Interrupted time series analyses were used to evaluate the effect of the program on official use of force data, but the data for the departments could not be merged for these specific analyses because of the differing ways in which they reported these incidents (McLean et al., 2020).
Results showed that of the three survey measures, only changes in the procedural justice priorities were statistically significant for the treatment group at large, as well as in the Fayetteville Police Department. Changes in self-control and physical control in both the control and treatment conditions were insignificant. When taking dosage into consideration in the full model, however, there were significant effects on procedural justice priorities and maintaining self-control in the low-dosage condition and significant effects on physical control in the high-dosage condition (McLean et al., 2020). Sensitivity analyses by district were difficult to draw conclusions from, given such reduced sample sizes when evaluated at that level. Official use-of-force reports revealed that in Fayetteville, incidents remained static across groups and time, indicating no treatment effect. In Tucson, the control group had a statistically significant drop in reported use-of-force incidents immediately after the treatment was introduced, but surprisingly, there was not a statistically significant reduction in reported incidents in the treatment condition. In sum, despite mixed results and small effect sizes, the results do suggest that even small doses of brief, intermittent trainings, such as T3, can influence officers’ perceptions of social interactions and may be useful to incorporate into departmental education (McLean et al., 2020).
Similarly, Antrobus and colleagues (2019) sought to evaluate procedural justice training, this time at the recruit level. This randomized control trial, which took place with the Queensland, Australia, police department, evaluated the effects of a training program on officers’ understanding and use of procedural justice. Specifically, the authors hypothesized that recruits who received the training (n = 28) would engage procedural justice techniques more frequently and to a greater degree than those who did not (n = 28). The training itself was delivered to half of the academy recruits in the penultimate week of their training, while the other half in the control condition received other unrelated trainings, such as allocated information visits to a local courthouse. The treatment condition program consisted of a full day of lectures and classroom discussions on issues of procedural justice and an additional half day engaging recruits in role-play exercises to practice the tools and skills learned during the didactic portion (Antrobus et al., 2019).
The academy class of recruits (n = 56) were randomized based on a matched-pairs block randomization process, creating 28 pairs based on collected demographic data. All of these participants were surveyed prior to training, post-training, and post-deployment in the field. The survey asked questions using 7-point Likert scales that measured recruits’ attitudes on a variety of topics, such as perceived procedural justice effectiveness, procedural justice interactions, communication skills, and citizen focus (Antrobus et al., 2019). In addition, each recruit’s field training officer(s), who supervised them in the first 8 weeks in the field, provided ratings of each of the recruit’s encounters with members of the public on elements of procedural justice utilization.
Antrobus and colleagues (2019) utilized mixed effects models to evaluate both recruits’ responses about attitudes on their surveys and FTO ratings of the recruits’ interactions with the public. To determine how the training directly impacted behaviors, multilevel mixed effect linear regressions were used on the FTO ratings by interaction type. To evaluate recruits’ changes in procedural justice attitudes across the three surveys, the authors used repeated measures multilevel models. Independent t-tests found that experimental recruits were rated by their FTO as more procedurally just than their control condition counterparts. However, when evaluated by type of interaction, this effect did not apply to interacting with witnesses or victims, or when dealing with traffic incidents (Antrobus, et al., 2019). Additionally, of the procedural justice measures in the survey, only procedural justice effectiveness was significantly impacted by the training. Similar to the findings in McLean et al. (2020), these results show mild but favorable effects of training on attitudes and behavior. Once again, the results support that implementing training in procedural justice has promise and may feasibly help integrate procedural justice as expected protocol for new and emerging officers (Antrobus et al., 2019).
Lastly, Hacker and Horan (2019) conducted a proof of concept for an online training program for law enforcement that taught skills pertaining to interacting with persons with mental illness. The randomized control trial of the training sought to evaluate if the program would increase officer knowledge of mental illness, empathy towards persons with mental illness, self-efficacy in responding to mental health calls, and behavioral self-report. This online training, called DEFUSE, is a 2-hour interactive program which educates law enforcement on mental illness and teaches effective de-escalation in a citizen encounter through a six-step skill model: gather data and document the situation, set expectations, figure out feelings on the subject, demonstrate understanding, self-monitor, and use the environment (Hacker & Horan, 2019). Given that this study was a proof of concept, 24 participants were recruited, and only about 20% worked in the law enforcement profession. However, as this training would be offered to recruit-level officers, the authors argued that non-law enforcement professionals’ outcomes would be similar to recruits who had not yet fully been immersed in the policing culture (Hacker & Horan, 2019).
The authors utilized a delayed treatment control trial in which half of the sample was assigned to the treatment condition and given DEFUSE training, while the control group received access to the training after all data collection was complete (Hacker & Horan, 2019). Pre-training surveys were administered 7 days prior to DEFUSE delivery, and post-training batteries were administered immediately following training completion. These surveys included a performance competence measure of participants’ responses to simulated stressful encounters in order to address the study’s primary aim of determining the training’s effect on de-escalation skills. In addition, the authors utilized measures from Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, one of the most commonly used de-escalation trainings for law enforcement, to allow for potential comparison. These measures include the Empathy Questionnaire, Adapted Social Distance Scale, Self-Efficacy Scale, and a Behavioral Outcomes Scale. Supplemental DEFUSE measures included a general mental illness knowledge scale and a satisfaction survey (Hacker & Horan, 2019).
Univariate and multivariate analyses of variance (ANOVA and MANOVA) were used to evaluate the effects of the training on these measures. In terms of performance competence, the ANOVA revealed that the DEFUSE training did result in improved performance on de-escalation skills. Analyses also showed positive effects on each of the CIT training measures. MANOVA analyses found that the knowledge measure was significant, indicating that the training had a positive effect on participant’s knowledge of mental illness and de-escalation skills (Hacker & Horan, 2019). While limited in scope and generalizability, it is evident through this proof of concept trial that the DEFUSE online training program may provide effective means for improving officers’ knowledge of mental illness and subsequent behaviors when interacting with community members who are experiencing psychiatric crises (Hacker & Horan, 2019).
Conclusions and Implications
The current literature provides significant insight into the value of social interaction trainings for law enforcement at both the recruit and in-service levels. The results of the aforementioned empirical studies have indicated that trainings can impact both officer attitudes and actual behaviors in interactions with citizens, and specifically persons with mental illness. They also support the previous literatures’ emphasis on the importance of training in informing officers’ principles and organizational culture (Rosenbaum & Lawrence, 2017). The limitations of these studies, such as Hacker and Horan’s (2019) low law-enforcement recruitment rate, Antrobus and colleagues’ (2020) relatively small samples, and the agency turnover in use of force data reported by McLean et al. (2020), create some stipulations on the generalizability of the results. Nonetheless, given the relatively positive findings across the studies, the results still inform the field’s knowledge of the importance of social interaction training.
The policy implications of these findings are three-fold. First and foremost, it is evident that federal, state, and local agencies should require recruit and in-service trainings for law enforcement on issues of procedural justice, coaching and interactive practices of social interaction skills, and more thorough education on vulnerable special populations (such as those with severe mental illness). In addition, while most recruit level training, such as police academies, do already present some of this education, the number of required hours can vary significantly by department/governing agency and should be more consistently implemented (Reaves, 2016). For example, in the state of Connecticut, of the nearly 1,000 hours dedicated to recruit training (as determined by the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council), only 65 hours are dedicated to human relations trainings. This includes substance use, policing people with special needs, stress management, and mental health first-aid, among other trainings (Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council, 2020). Given these wide discrepancies in education, governing bodies should use the available literature to inform an increase in their social interaction training hours during recruit training, to more adequately prepare law enforcement to engage with the communities they serve prior to simultaneously experiencing in-field stress (Hacker & Horan, 2019; Antrobus et al., 2019). Lastly, governmental agencies (e.g., the National Institute of Justice) should increase grant funding for research, particularly on the impact of social interaction training and how to best implement these programs for maximum efficacy. These agencies should also encourage nationwide reform among state and federal training agencies to address the previously suggested changes as well as to promote executive level buy-in to innovative practices within departments to improve culture and officer behavioral outcomes.
Future research should evaluate these trainings further, particularly with regard to dosage effects and varying means of implementation. Larger samples from multiple departments or among several training academies may provide better insight into what works best on a large scale. Research should also more thoroughly evaluate organizational climate and cultural characteristics of law enforcement agencies, as this may inform the implementation needs of a given organization. The importance of understanding the department as a whole cannot be understated in its impact on how officers receive training and utilize obtained knowledge to affect their attitudes and behaviors in the community. Police training literature is consistently growing, and the studies reviewed here only further underscore the value of creating trainings that have the greatest impact on officer attitudes and behaviors, to improve their relations with citizens in their jurisdiction (Antrobus et al., 2019; McLean et al., 2020; Hacker & Horan, 2019). This analysis and the findings in the reviewed literature hopefully inform future research and dedication to widespread training reform by law enforcement administrations to address the needs of communities during this uncertain time in policing.
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