Have you ever asked a fellow officer where in the world they learned to do what they just did, and had them say in reply that they had been taught that in the academy? Or in some in-service class? Or had seen it in a training video? Here's one way that that happens.
Let's say that you're putting together a lesson plan for some relatively mundane training topic, such as crime prevention. You've written the lesson plan, and you've planned a couple of small group exercises, but you really need to come up with some audio-visual materials just to keep your class awake. You look through the department's training library, and you spot a videotape called "Crime Prevention through Neighborhood Watch" (I made that title up, by the way), and you think to yourself, "Ah-ha! Just what I need." You grab the tape, and play the first couple minutes of it, just to make sure it will run OK, then you set everything aside until class day.
On the day of the class, you arrive a few minutes late, but pretty soon things are moving along smoothly. Later in the class you show the tape, and finish with the lesson, then everyone goes home.
Several months later, an FTO comes to your office and asks you why you taught his new recruit to point a shotgun at someone's head during an arrest. You tell him that you never taught that, and he tells you that his recruit swears that he learned that particular technique in the academy, and he's pretty sure it was in your class.
How can that be? you ask yourself. I never taught anyone that!
In going over your materials for the two classes you taught at the academy, you review the neighborhood watch video, and guess what? There it is! As the narrator is talking about how successful neighborhood watch programs are, there is a little vignette going on in the background. Officers responding to a neighbor's call of suspicious goings-on at her neighbor's house come upon an escaping burglar, and during the arrest—portrayed in the video—one arresting officer levels a shotgun at the head of the bad guy while his partner puts handcuffs on.
This is a true story, and fortunately the recruit officer involved didn't shoot anyone. But, the problem is pretty obvious. You didn't check the entire video for "hidden" training messages. And, even if you had, you might not have noticed what was going on in what video production people refer to as "B Roll."
In his excellent book Training at the Speed of Life, Ken Murray refers to this sort of thing as "the unintended consequences of well intentioned actions." We see a lot of this sort of thing in law enforcement training. Here's another, more harmless, example.
I was once showing a training video on officer safety to a group of in-service officers. The topic was no laughing matter, and it's hard to imagine a subject that should be taken more seriously. When the video was done, I asked the class what important lessons they had learned. One officer immediately raised his hand and said that he noticed that the arresting officer in the video didn't have his hat on!
If you can't think of at least three similar occurrences in your own training, then you're not even trying. We really do create these sorts of problems for ourselves.
Here are three more:
Creating a course of fire for your firearms range, where you have officers move from one covered position to another, at each station engaging either two or three targets. What you're trying to show is how to fire from behind different types of cover, and how to engage multiple suspects. But, along with that, you're programming your people to leave cover when maybe they shouldn't, and to take on more bad guys than would be wise.
Showing officer survival oriented dashcam videos of confrontations wherein officers are shouting commands to subjects, ordering them to get on their knees, regardless of whether or not the subject is exhibiting signs of mental disorder. What you're trying to show is how to take control of a situation. But, along with that, you're programming officers to use loud, harsh verbal tones, when sometimes they should use their voice to de-escalate an unbalanced individual.
Having officers stand in one place—upright—while on the range, firing at a stationary paper target. What you're trying to teach is basic marksmanship. But, you are also programming your officers to stand still in a violent confrontation, rather than immediately seeking out cover.
You get the idea. While trying to teach something important, we miss the subliminal messages embedded in our own training practices.
What is the answer to this problem? You may never be able to eliminate everything like this, but there are a couple of steps you can take to reduce the problem.
First, always carefully review any multimedia materials that you intend to use. View them with other trainers, or have a non-police person look at them. What you're looking for is anything that looks dangerous or doesn't make sense.
Adopt a committee approach to training development, especially in the high risk areas, like use of force and vehicle operations. Discuss lessons with your fellow trainers, especially if you've invented a new technique or methodology, or if you're starting to train in a new subject. If you're the only trainer at your agency, run it by trainers from surrounding agencies. Make sure you tell them to be critical, since they may try to let you down easy. You don't want that. You can't fix it unless you know it's broken.
If you're developing a new lesson plan or a new course of fire, pilot test it with a small group first. Encourage them to "beat it up."
Here's the important thing to remember: This is no place for ego. If you're inventing something that can save your fellow officers lives, that same thing could also get them hurt. Make sure that you've carefully considered every angle before putting a new lesson or course of fire or technique out into the field. Someone's life may depend on you doing so.
Stay safe, and wear your vest!