Imagine performing the duties of a police officer with no knowledge of the law. It probably wouldn't be hard to recognize when someone was breaking it if, say, you witness a break-in or a hit-and-run accident. But what about the murkier issues? For example, can you burst into a suspect's home unannounced and beat a confession out of him? And what if you come across a domestic violence situation where children are involved?
As you can see, the daily demands of police work constantly raise questions about how to properly enforce the law. It takes some muscle to shoot a target or wrestle someone down, but it's knowing when do so that defines a good police officer. For that reason, you need brains to go with the brawn. In fact, that's essentially why police academies were started in the United States a century ago [source: Dantzker] -- to give officers the intellectual tools to back up their physical ones.
Today, a significant portion of police academy time is devoted to academic and legal instruction. Los Angeles Police Department recruits, for example, take 105 hours of law classes, covering topics such as search and seizure, crimes against children and the California Penal Code [source: Los Angeles Police Department Police Academy]. Also, because of the large Spanish-speaking population in Los Angeles, some LAPD recruits learn Spanish as part of their training.
For a clearer idea of the required training courses, here's a sample from the New York Police Department Police Academy:
- Looking Closer: Enhancing Observation Skills at the Frick
- Police and the Media
- Courage Under Ire: Responding to Adversarial Questioning
- EEO: Fact, Fiction & the Issue of Civil Liability
- Hostage Negotiation
Academic classes also cover a topic that remains at the forefront of law enforcement: ethics.
A 1997 survey conducted by the International Association of Police Chiefs found that more than 80 percent of police departments devote time to ethics education during recruit training [source: International Association of Police Chiefs], highlighting use of force and cultural diversity. Without ethics training, officers are more at risk for lawsuits alleging excessive use of force, civil rights violations and racial discrimination [source: International Association of Police Chiefs]. One of the most common examples of this is racial profiling, when police officers apprehend suspects based on their race.
Ethics training also involves understanding how to make wise decisions in the heat of duty. Difficult situations constantly arise, such as belligerent arrestees or brutal violence, with little time to reflect before acting. Learning the police department regulations during this coursework can also guide new officers.
In the next section, we'll examine how police academies are regulated to ensure that their physical and academic training will produce qualified, able officers.