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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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If You Don't Learn This, You'll Die!

There are certain things that every cop needs to know, and they aren’t taught in the classroom.

March 12, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo by Kelly Bracken.
Photo by Kelly Bracken.

Linguistics guru Roger C. Schank noted that "We learn best when we want to learn information which helps us accomplish goals we have set for ourselves." If his offering is at first glance lacking in any particular profundity, then why is it that so much of the curriculum that we are exposed to throughout our lives is administered with little consideration as to our natural desires, inclinations, or talents? More importantly, why does it seem to ignore our actual needs and goals?

Throughout high school and college, students invest hundreds of hours in courses that rarely prove of commensurate import in their lives. Moreover, these same students are expected to memorize factual information so as to be capable of regurgitating it upon command. But little is ever given in the way of explanation for this need beyond the necessity to do well on examinations. What actual application such knowledge has for their lives, if there is any, is elliptically glossed over.

If the same students are lucky enough—or masochistic enough—to matriculate through some graduate program, they may actually learn to be discriminating in what to focus on; they may by then have gleaned that learning means fixating attentions to those particulars that will allow them to complete a specific goal. But they will be fighting against what has been pounded into them during the preceding 16 years.

In contrast, law-enforcement academies, for the most part, have it right.

Through trial and error, these institutions have refined their own courses of study to accommodate the very real needs of their students. Their recruits are introduced to the laws they are expected to enforce, trained in the tactics that will help them achieve them enforce those laws, and indoctrinated with a variety of codifications that will allow them to streamline communications while simultaneously allowing them to be circumspect in the process. Their memories are not encumbered with extraneous facts such as what date President Taft farted in his bath water.

Still, these academies remain saddled with one conspicuous deficiency, time.

Unlike the aggregate total of 10 years or so indentured academic servitude many of our youth are accommodated from about the age of 14 or so, law enforcement academy training is confined to a few months. Beyond that, the hiree may have a period of apprenticeship under the field training officer for a period of time generally shorter than that of the academy.

And so it is that for many cops much of their on-the-job learning comes down to a series of baptisms by fire. Obligated to investigate a series of identity thefts, the boot officer picks up on the various modus operandi involved; saddled with an influx of gypsy-related thievery, she becomes exposed to a previously foreign culture; tasked with an elder abuse case, he familiarizes himself with the nuances associated with it. That none of these eventualities were anticipated by his or her schooling does not mitigate their realities. He learns what is needed to do the job.

Unlike factoids learned by rote memorization, lessons learned in field conditions tend to register longer in the cerebellum. The officer who has been compelled to initiate a foot pursuit of the man he'd thought he had detained is more apt to better secure him in some manner in the future; the deputy who's been blindsided by some family member learns to be more parsimonious with her presumed compassions; the trooper who finds his unit sideswiped by a passing big rig takes greater pains in positioning his ride roadside thereafter.

In short, there is some practical application to what the police officer commits to learning.

I am not discounting the whole canon of academia. But its relative weights are obvious.

While the application of math formulas for the traffic investigator are obvious, and the importance of writing a coherent narrative plainly evident to the detective, my suspicion is that most cops could probably better profit from a re-run of the now-defunct Fox TV show "Lie to Me" than to any 10 hours devoted to any number of classes.

Of what relative import has geography or biology proven to be for the average street cop? Aside from knowing that meth labs can cause things to go boom, walls to fly outward, roofs to collapse, and skinny, screaming men to go running into the night afire, how much of a role does chemistry play in a cop's life? And all the art classes that are offered, I have rarely happened upon a cop's rendering that rose above the abstract. (Those that did usually garnered days off.)

There are areas that I wish more cops and administrators were routinely exposed to. High on my admittedly biased list would be philosophy and history. It would be nice if more cops understood the Judeo-Christian roots of the laws they enforce, and how these laws evolved and continue to do so. It would be nice if more understood the cautionary parables that history accommodates them, as it relates to certain quixotic pursuits such as prohibition. Their manumitted minds might prove better advocates for Second Amendment freedoms as opposed to espousing political sophistries.

It's been said that the street cop wears many hats: psychologist, sociologist, counselor, arbitrator; electrician, firefighter, judge, jury, and even executioner. But how much formal training has he or she been exposed to in these various capacities? It's ironic that as fedoras and Stetsons retreat in our sartorial memory cops are expected to wear more hats than ever before and our ever-evolving technology and science will only ensure more of the same.

And so we get to the crux of the matter. Just what do you plan to do throughout your career? What areas of specialization do you hope to pursue? What might prove most rewarding as a second career?

The earlier you contemplate your options, the better.

I get to thinking about all this when I hear about the announcements of promotions of men and women whose character I question. The other day my wife asked me what I would have done had been at a station where such a commander was assigned.

"Transfer…or stay and make both the commander’s and my lives miserable"

"Yeah," she laughed. "And mine, too"

Yeah, and hers, too.

Fortunately, I liberated myself from that prospect. How? By educating myself to certain political realities and viable life options.

To be sure I could do better. If my mind was more malleable, I would these days do a better job of acquitting myself on the technological front. This would avail me the additional peace of mind of knowing that my blogs were being adequately pimped so as to ensure their getting enough clicks to ensure my employment for the foreseeable future.

Otherwise, I might end up doing something kinda chickenshit. Like resorting to suspect headlines.

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