Crossing the Chasm: Reforming Police Training for Today’s Economic Reality

Sandy Sweet
President, Canadian Police Knowledge Network

Sandy Sweet President, Canadian Police Knowledge NetworkIn an adverse economy, it’s understood that compromises must be made.  In policing, training budgets are often among the first and hardest hit.  Though this may provide some short-term relief, it’s contrary to the interests of both officer and public wellbeing.  But there are alternatives. Technology-supported learning is a bridge between destructive compromise and constructive innovation.  The real challenge lies in crossing the chasm.


In Canada, recent statistics indicate that $12 billion is spent annually on public policing. Of that, an estimated $1 billion – about 8% of the total police budget – is used to train police officers. But there’s a lot of uncertainty around that $1 billion figure.  When it comes to documenting the costs associated with training, reliable data is hard to come by.  In fact, the costs could be much higher.

What’s unfailingly apparent is that in today’s economy, tightening budgets and reduced resources demand a new approach.  So regardless of what the actual number is, there’s intense pressure to make it smaller.  In every sector, this environment is driving innovative solutions to increase productivity and decrease costs.   But to effectively assess new approaches, benchmarks are needed to calculate returns on investment.  In the police training world, those benchmarks are often hard to define. 

When it comes to innovating the police training model, understanding the economics around e-learning and other technology-supported approaches is becoming increasingly important.  While published statistics are scarce, the Canadian Police Knowledge Network (CPKN) has accumulated significant data on e-learning adoption trends and utilization metrics from the Canadian police community.   That data shows that in the last five years, learners registered to the CPKN online learning platform have increased by more than one thousand percent.  Learners are also taking more courses with course completions rising from 0.7 to 3.4 courses per learner within that same period.  On average, ninety-five per cent of learners report that online learning ‘works well for them’. Clearly, e-learning is well accepted at the learner level.

From an organizational perspective, there is growing evidence to support cost and efficiency benefits. Analysis of a sample group of Canadian police services shows that over a one year period, the average cost per user for CPKN courseware was just $13. As a collaborative network, CPKN has obvious advantages that enhance cost efficiencies:  partnerships with the Canadian Police Sector Council and other agencies enable CPKN to develop and deliver training to end users at no cost or at significantly reduced rates; discounting and licensing options provide increased savings on volume-based initiatives; also, CPKN’s highly experienced development team is able to turn out high quality courseware more efficiently, thus reducing the overall cost of production.

But the real value in e-learning is the ability to ‘build it once and use it many times’ and police services that incorporate e-learning into their training curriculums are seeing remarkable savings.  For example, when Ottawa Police Service transitioned its bi-annual Suspect Apprehension Pursuits (SAP) recertification program to an online format, annual savings were calculated to be $500,000.  Using a blended approach for general investigation training, Toronto Police Service reduced program training time by sixty percent while increasing training capacity by one hundred and eighty percent. With online delivery, in just four months the Ontario Provincial Police achieved a compliance rate of ninety-four percent among more than six thousand members on a mandatory initiative to reduce officer-involved collisions.  Time and again, the evidence shows that e-learning is economical, efficient, and effective.  

However, despite significant growth and an expanding body of supporting evidence, e-learning is still only a small component of the overall training model for Canadian police.  There is a tremendous opportunity to streamline and enhance police training but there is also a fundamental resistance to change.  That resistance is not unique to the Canadian police sector.  In a recent study  from the UK’s Cranfield School of Management, researchers discovered that when it comes to innovation, the justice system as a whole is limited by the innate traits of the industry.  Specifically, silo configurations, reluctance to deviate from established performance targets, and a traditionally risk-adverse culture have all been cited as barriers to innovation.  That’s not to say there aren’t examples of innovative applications within the industry – there are many – but rather specific mechanisms for managing innovation are lacking.  As a result, there is no process to proactively pursue and implement new approaches.

Beyond defining the barriers to innovation, that study, which surveyed senior level decision-makers from numerous European justice organizations and analyzed several innovation cases studies, identified some key elements for success.  At the top of the list was effective leadership.  While bottom-up input and acceptance are important drivers, like that seen in the e-learning adoption rates among Canadian police learners, a command structure that creates and supports a responsive environment for innovation is critical. Publicizing the benefits of successful initiatives is also key to raising awareness within the sector.  Sharing successes builds confidence in new approaches and provides other organizations with an opportunity to consider implementing similar programs.  In the Canadian context, this type of knowledge-sharing (by way of the annual Stanhope Conference which explores the issues and challenges surrounding e-learning in police training) has been a significant factor in increasing the acceptance of e-learning among police services.  Furthermore, the Cranfield study points out that on its own, technology is only a tool; effective adoption is the linchpin to realizing the true benefits of innovation.   

Until now, when it comes to technology-supported learning in policing we’ve been, at best, dabblers.  There are pockets of genuinely innovative application but overall adoption of available technologies has been make-shift and sporadic.  However the time is fast approaching when the reality of today’s economy will close the gap between ‘sampling’ the technology and a serious effort to reform a costly and outmoded system.  The successes and lessons learned from early innovators provide valuable insight into the path ahead and ongoing research from CPKN, the e-learning industry, and the sector at large will further facilitate the challenge of transition.  Making a change isn’t easy, but rest assured, it will be a change for the better.


About the Author
Sandy Sweet is the President of the Canadian Police Knowledge Network and Executive Director of Holland College’s Justice Knowledge Network.  Specializing in IT-related project management, Sandy regularly presents and writes about disruptive technology in the policing sector. He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


[1] David Baxter et al., Innovation in justice: New delivery models and better outcomes (Cranfield School of Management, December 2011).

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