The Police Federation study into the experiences of 2,000 police officers from five regional forces revealed no confidence in their training and appraisal. The report's author, John Dwyfor Davies, a professor at the University of the West of England, Bristol, called the training "an abject failure" and an "astounding waste of money".
Funds were being spent in the wrong places at the wrong times, he said. It was not unusual to find an officer with 15 years' experience who had received no training since his days as a cadet.
Last week the inquiry into the murder of the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, heard that none of the police investigating team had had racial awareness training. They repeatedly used words - such as "coloured", "negroid" and "negro" - which are offensive to black people.
Tom Williamson, assistant chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, speaking for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said: "We spend hundreds of millions on training. I would say 20 per cent of this training never needed to be provided, or else it was given too late."
The most serious effect of these failures is the number of suicides in police custody. Peter Moorhouse, the chairman of the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), believes many could have been avoided. At the recent launch of the PCA annual report for 1997/8, he said it was trying to improve training for identifying prisoners who might be at risk of suicide.
"[Although] the detention record of police in England and Wales is good, there is no doubt that a number of the 56 people who died should still be alive," he said.
Ian Westwood, the Police Federation's vice-chairman, said officers were often unprepared for the challenges of modern policing. Many would be unable to cope with the new, sensitive roles that will be demanded of them by the Crime and Disorder Bill, which focuses on young offenders, sex offenders and curfews.
A Home Office select committee on police training is planned in the autumn. The Police Federation wants a "Police University" based on a "virtual campus", with a 2,500-computer network, and inter-active terminals in every police station.