Online Police Academy?

By: - June 11, 2019

Bucking tradition, an online police academy launched in Utah is being touted as the answer to attract police officer candidates who live in remote outlying areas far from mainstay (urban area) police academies. Can such a concept hold muster?

The gist of the online Eastern Police Officer Academy operated by the Utah State University (USU) is for police aspirants who live in rural territory and are unable to physically attend a traditional police academy because of the geographic disconnect. Basically, recruits participate/study online as “virtual students,” joining live in-progress police academy classes taking place in the traditional sense (think Skype), held in urbanized cities several hours away from remote environs.

Naturally, the physical components such as defensive tactics, officer safety, arrest procedures, emergency vehicle operations, CPR, medical first-aid, and firearms training required by Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) can not be done online. The USU curriculum is engineered so that a consortium of partner law enforcement agencies agree to train said remote recruits at the police department nearest them. According to Deseret News, that is often in the rural town in which the online cadet resides—or, if living in unincorporated territory, the nearest local government.

The objective via this uniquely geared program is to hone police skills and potentially get hired by the outlying consortium-member law enforcement agency, mutually benefitting the recruit and the agency. That small agency fronts no funds; the cadet bears all costs.

Since academy training is rather universally administered to every police recruit in any particular state, the only variable training necessary is based on geography—learning the jurisdiction’s lay of the land. But if we’re talking about tiny territorial governments which do not have/can not afford their own police academy (or the funds to send a recruit or two afar for police training), then it is likely the geo-scope is not very challenging at all. Essentially, the only thing lacking in an online program is the camaraderie every cadet is immersed in when enduring the indoctrination into law enforcement at a traditional police academy.

In my neck of the woods, each Florida county’s community college has the responsibility to attract, process, and instruct basic law enforcement training (BLET) recruits. The for-profit college sets/gets the tuition fees thus saving police agencies the cost of basic training on their own (tax dollars) dole. It is mostly a pay-your-way state in terms of honing police skills at the local community college, thereafter testing for state certification—ultimately, graduates also tally college credits toward a degree, should they choose to further their education beyond academy instruction. According to the USU program, cadets also garner college credits toward a degree in criminal justice.

In Florida, the only exceptions still honoring tradition are the few state law enforcement agencies who accept applications, interview, and process those who look good on paper and pass background investigations (polygraph, psychological, etc.), funneling the chosen bunch into the state police academy (used solely for future state police agency personnel). Those “staties” are relegated to live in the academy barracks (Tallahassee) for seven months or so, with some weekend furloughs. Of course, they are also paid while in training and provided all equipment/uniforms at the taxpayer’s expense.

On the Florida Highway Patrol site I found the following excerpt explaining “Academy Life” and what state trooper recruits can expect: “Recruits are required to reside on campus while stationed at the FHP academy. They are also required to follow strict rules and protocols and remain on academy grounds during the work week, but are released on most weekends. Florida Highway Patrol recruits are full-time employees [of the state], which means they start earning a salary and benefits the moment they arrive at the academy. Full room and board is provided for the duration of the training program [emphasis mine].”

So, if a state police cadet from Miami is going to have to buckle down for more than half a year away from home, they are expected to traverse the roughly 500-mile journey north to Tallahassee where their new seven-month stint awaits, including a barracks bunk. Toothbrush not included.

That aforementioned Florida-based scenario underscores what lacks in the online police academy concept: the full-on experience assimilating a military version boot camp. The discipline goes a long way; ask anyone who has attended a traditional police academy and also ask anyone who takes any portion of college classes online. The former will assuredly claim the rigors and mandates molded them well while the latter likely utter how difficult it is to maintain the necessary discipline (stick-to-itiveness) to actually get the full monty out of their college studies—at least that is what I consistently read/hear.

But I get it: Not everyone lives close to the resources they need to meet muster. And the Deseret News reported on one such police aspirant who boasts about the USU online police academy to get where he wants to be.

Enter (ahem, log in) Giovanny Black, a police officer aspirant living in remote Blanding, Utah. It takes Black a three-hour round-trip to get to Walmart. And Blanding (two square miles, population of 4,036) is roughly a six-hour round-trip to the nearest law enforcement academy. So USU’s online program was a godsend for him and others in similar circumstances. Black completed his high-liability practicals (firearm qualifications, emergency driving operations, etc.) at Blanding City Police Department, a small police operation in Utah’s San Juan County.

USU’s program is in its infancy and just graduated five police cadets in April 2019.

I reached out to a Salt Lake County law enforcement buddy of mine, to ask him what he thought of the USU online academy. Although he never heard of such a program, we kicked around its efficacy. Ironically, that buddy owns/operates Lonestar Training, a firearms proficiency and defensive tactics operation held out on the range in Utah. Given police recruits must meet state-mandated POST standards via a state-recognized police training operation, Lonestar does not have the benefit of instructing any remote-based cadets. As Lonestar’s figurehead put it: “Everything would have to be POST…they have their own stuff that they have to teach.”

Too bad for that. Lonestar offers some unforgettable bang-up firearms coursework tutored by a contingent of highly-trained current law enforcement personnel, all of whom are former military members. A well-rounded bunch of professionals who could perhaps be an added benefit to the USU program defers to state government and its statutory stipulations regarding police commissioning. However, Lonestar’s leader, Alan Carpenter nonetheless instills his law enforcement experience by training traditional police academy classes at Salt Lake County’s academy.

Traditional police academy classroom where recruits are taught in Salt Lake County, Utah. (Credit: Lonestar Training)

And the beat goes on.

As the Deseret News reported, “The USU online academy may be the first of its kind in the country, criminal justice experts say, and could serve as a model for other communities.”

National Police Foundation Senior Program Manager Brett Meade praised USU’s online program: “This is cutting-edge stuff. If those home-grown candidates have the ability to stay in their community, to invest in their community while they’re going through the academy, that’s gold.”

Given geographic gaps in some states, I can see why the online police academy concept could fill such a gap. And I suppose the outlying partner agencies who can ill-afford their own academy redeem by offering (certifying) remote-based police cadets the field components and practicals necessary to fulfill state standards. I worry about the liability though. If a mishap occurs, who bears the burden, the responsibility, the costs of potential litigation? After all, a partner agency’s signature is upon documents claiming proficiency. But when one graduate errs in some way…?

My most peak performance ever was when I attended the full-time police academy, shaping my physical stature as well as my mental acuity. I’d never trade that and would do anything to immerse in the human experience, despite the ease of virtual reality options becoming more prevalent nowadays.

As Archilocos framed it: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Do you think online police academies are the new wave? Pros/cons? What-ifs?