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Changing society dictates changes in law enforcement training, officials say

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, at 11:37 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, at 9:51 a.m.

Technology and societal shifts are driving significant changes in how recruits are being trained to be law enforcement officers, local authorities say.

When Felecia Norris went through the police academy in 1981, the course lasted 16 weeks and primarily focused on policies, procedures, rules and regulations.

Now, the academy course lasts 23 weeks. Add the “field training” the recruits receive after graduation, and the training stretches out for much of a year.

“We spend a lot of time just on communication – verbal judo, verbal defense, talking to people,” said Norris, now a captain in charge of the department’s training bureau.

That change was necessary, Norris said, because the verbal vocabulary for recruits in their late teens and early 20s isn’t nearly as large as the vocabularies for previous generations at the same age. Studies have shown that young adults in their late teens and early 20s today have a verbal vocabulary of less than 500 words, she said. A generation or two ago, the verbal vocabulary for a 15-year-old easily topped 1,000 words.

“It’s a huge change in verbalization skills” for kids who have been using texting on phones or instant messaging on computers, Norris said.

“What we see — not that they’re not smart — is that they struggle sometimes with their ability to express themselves,” she said. “What we’re doing, as much as possible, is putting the people in the roles of what they would actually do on the street.”

Studies have also shown that when people read material on computer screens, “the comprehension is not as deep,” Norris said.

That means more time is spent reinforcing instruction, or finding other ways to provide it, said police Capt. Troy Livingston, who has been involved with training academy classes in recent years.

Some recruits learn best through reading, others through oral instruction and still others through hands-on training, he said.

Police and sheriff’s recruits train together in the Wichita/Sedgwick County Law Enforcement Training academy. Recruits who went through the fall academy class in 1981 received 640 hours of training, Norris said. The class that will graduate in March will have received about 900 hours. State law mandates a basic curriculum of 560 hours for recruits and 40 hours of training each year for current law enforcement officers.

When he went through the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Reno County as a Liberal police officer in 1991, Livingston said, most of the instruction came in the classroom. Building searches, for example, were covered almost entirely by lecture and handouts.

Wichita and Sedgwick County recruits today do actual building searches, looking for a “suspect” who can fire rubber bullets at them. Recruits also engage in scenarios that feature simunitions — guns that fire paint pellets rather than live rounds.

“When you make a mistake, you know it,” said Livingston, who joined the Wichita police force in 1995.

The recruits also receive hands-on training in close quarters combat and fighting while on the ground, and it’s not unusual for them to sport bruises when they’re done.

While the police department still accepts recruits that have only a high school diploma, Norris said candidates with at least some collegiate instruction are viewed favorably. About half of the police force has college degrees.

Those with at least some college-level courses have demonstrated better logic, critical reasoning, analysis and problem solving skills, Norris said.

One of the biggest recent changes for both recruits and current officers is the development of what’s called “active shooter” training, Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said. For many years, he said, the standard response to the report of a shooter inside a school was to seal off the perimeter and call in a Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, team.

But that changed after the Columbine school shooting, in which many victims were injured or killed while law enforcement waited for the SWAT team to arrive and deploy.

Recruits now received 12 hours of training on tactics to use if there is a shooter at a school or business, sheriff’s Lt. Mark Pierce said, and training is frequently available for officers already on the force.

“We are now offering monthly defensive tactics training...in response to an increase in assaults on law enforcement officers across the country,” Pierce said in an e-mail response to questions.

Where recruits once used to be sprayed with pepper spray simply so they would know what it feels like, now they must complete a battery of tasks after being sprayed before they can wash the irritant out of their eyes.

After they are hit with a two- to three-second burst of spray in the face, police Lt. Don Phelps said, they must approach a mannequin and strike it several times, then advance and punch a kickpad several times, then draw a weapon on a suspect on the ground, give loud verbal commands and handcuff the suspect — all before washing the irritant out of their eyes and off their face.

Livingston called it “running a gantlet.”

“This training is tough,” he said.

But it needs to be, he said, to prepare the recruits for what they could face on duty.

Along those same lines, Hinshaw said, law enforcement and detention deputies are now receiving specialized training in dealing with people that may have mental issues to one degree or another.

“As our community changes, as laws change, as different issues rise in public safety; our training is constantly being reviewed and modified as needed to meet the expectations of our community and enhance officer safety,” Hinshaw said in an e-mail response to questions.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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