I thought long and hard before actually putting these thoughts on paper. As a career police officer and police trainer, I am careful to not do anything that will make the lives of officers and trainers more difficult.
However, I—as well as many other trainers—am concerned about an insidious problem in the law enforcement training community. What I'm talking about here is the growing potential for misinformation in police training materials.
Don't misunderstand me—most police training is dead on, and very valuable information for officers and their bosses. However, with the best of intentions, some trainers are teaching stuff that just isn't true, or they're teaching things that are true, but don't support the premises that the trainer is espousing. This happens in many different subject areas, but two of the most common are legal issues and use-of-force training.
Most trainers make every effort to be accurate in what they teach and write, but some have developed a tendency to reach outside their immediate area of expertise, which can often lead to over simplification of concepts and exaggeration or misstatement of standards. That's bad from a couple perspectives.
First, wrong information is wrong information, plain and simple. Officers need factual info, and they need to be able to rely on the information they receive. If, in fact, they are getting distorted or untrue information, then they may base their decisions on that faulty info, and that could be catastrophic.
Additionally, once they become aware that some of the info they are getting is suspect, they then have to question all of the information they receive from that source. So, at least some of the training they are engaging in becomes a massive waste of time.
Secondly, that bad information will take on a life of its own. Some of those officers will become trainers, and they may pass on the bad info. Others will write memos or other interdepartmental documents based on the bad info. Some will get promoted, and department policies may begin to reflect the wrong info. Ultimately, wrong information can become so ingrained into the profession that it becomes a part of police culture. When that happens, even those who know the information is wrong have a difficult time dispelling it.
Here are two examples that I'll bet you've heard:
MYTH: If someone doesn't provide you with identification when you request it, you can arrest them for "failure to identify" themselves.
MYTH: If you break off a pursuit because you are concerned that it's getting too hairy, and the fleeing bad guy crashes into someone down the road, you're liable because you didn't continue the chase.
As stated, neither of these is a true statement. Why then do they persist as a part of the police culture? The most obvious reason is that there is a grain of truth in each.
Of course, it makes us angry when some individual refuses to cooperate with us on the street—we often see this as flouting our authority. However, we all know that the U.S. is not a "police state" where you are required to "produce your papers" like some Eastern Bloc thugocracy out of the 1970s. But, if you have the requisite "reasonable suspicion" you can sometimes compel identification as part of your investigation.
And we also know that officers will feel responsible if someone they are pursuing gets away and hurts someone else. However, holding an officer legally responsible for the subsequent acts of a criminal that gets away—especially when the officer acted in the interest of public safety in "allowing" the escape—is contrary to public policy. The alternative would be to force officers to continue a pursuit no matter how hazardous it becomes, and that's obviously not the answer.
Still, these sorts of misinformed ideas persist, along with many others.
Here are a couple more:
MYTH: If it's not written down, it didn't happen.
MYTH: The less you write in a report, the better off you are, since there will be less that "they" can use against you.
These two directly contradict each other. We teach the first in an attempt to get officers to write everything down in their reports, and we teach the second out of fear that we will give the "other side" too much detail, and that "smart lawyers" will then twist our words around and use them against us.
The fact is that some courts have made it clear that they prefer written documentation of officers' actions. However, anyone who's been involved in a lawsuit and had their deposition taken can tell you that there are many facts that come to light during that process that are probably not enumerated in the actual police report of the incident.
And the idea that we should minimize our written record of an incident in order to keep a plaintiff's attorney from hearing the details of a case is absolute foolishness. The fact is that the discovery process in a civil lawsuit is arduous for exactly that reason: to expose every detail of the incident. The more details an officer captures in the aftermath of an incident, the better the officer will be able to defend him- or herself two or three years later when a lawsuit gets to the final stages.
Of course, not all of these examples are learned in formal classes—some are taught by senior officers, FTOs, and supervisors—but many are. If you can't think of at least five more examples off the top of your head, you're not really trying.
Does this mean we're all doomed? Of course not. Does it mean we can't trust anything we're taught in class? No way. Most of the material taught by police instructors is exact, honest, valid, and right on the money. Most of the articles penned by police authors are accurate, viable, valuable additions to the police literature.
What it does mean is that law enforcement officers, and especially law enforcement trainers, need to remain vigilant and cautious, maintaining a healthy skepticism—especially about new and unproven concepts that they hear in class or read in print. It also means that, even with the best of intentions, it's easy for officers and trainers to pass along inexact information.
After all, this is the information age. Never in history has there been a time when so much information was available so quickly to so many people. We've all seen examples of wrong or incomplete information on the Internet, and some of us have even been the victims of a "rush to judgment" based on partial or erroneous information.
Cops are smart. Cops are also careful. That's how you stay alive. Apply that same caution and intelligence to your consumption of information. We'll all be better off in the long run.
Stay Safe, and wear your vest (and Buckle Up)!