I was talking with a friend the other day, and he was telling me how he attended a training program where he got "certified" in a certain subject. I asked him what that meant, and he just stood there, as if I had smacked him in the forehead with a two-by-four. After a few minutes, he admitted that he really didn't know.
Think about that. How often have you used the word "certified" during your law enforcement career? We typically start out by getting certified in a police academy, and we know what that means. Almost universally, it means that we have completed a course of study in basic law enforcement, and have graduated. The academy his "certified" us.
But does that mean that they guarantee our future performance, or even our current level of knowledge? How long is the warranty for?
Of course, neither of the above is true. By "certifying" us, the academy is only saying that we have passed our courses and our exams, and have been given a certificate, i.e. a diploma, that attests to that fact. The act of granting us a certificate has morphed into the concept that they have "certified" us.
Where does that lead? Most academy directors will tell you that, while they deliver the best training they can, they can't guarantee that their graduates will properly apply—or even remember—the knowledge that they have imparted. In effect, the minute a graduate walks out that door, they become responsible for their own conduct, regardless of what they've been told.
Why is that a problem? Because the idea that once we "certify" someone, we are somehow guaranteeing their competency is a subtext that runs throughout the law enforcement profession. Here's what I mean:
You send an officer to a firearms instructor school. You'd like to think that you have chosen the best instructor school, but sometimes, you've chosen the most convenient, or most timely, or closest. The officer returns to work, having been "certified" as a firearms instructor. How competent are they? Are they ready to teach? To train on the range? Are they safe? Do you actually know what they were taught at their instructor school?
"Well," you say, "They graduated from instructor school. They must be competent."
Now, please realize that I'm not saying they aren't competent. They might have attended the best school in your state, and they might be the best firearms instructor on two legs. That's not the issue. The issue is the degree to which we assume that they are, and the degree to which we—at least subliminally—hold the instructor school responsible for that officer's future performance as an instructor.
Many times we make an assumption that all is well, or we just never take the time, or have the time, to think about it. But, what do they know—really?
There are an awful lot of good trainers and instructors out there. Many courses are offered by training centers and community colleges, as well as academies. There are also many classes offered by various manufacturers. Most of us have attended many different classes put on by these different training institutions. Over time, we build up an informal body of knowledge—an understanding, really—regarding the different training schools and courses, and the people who teach them. That helps our comfort level, and reassures us that the training we're sending our people to is safe and sound.
But, unless we've been to that particular class, do we know that for sure?
If you travel around and attend different conferences and classes, you get an opportunity to interact with trainers from all over the country. But, if you don't—if you're basically a department-level trainer—then you may or may not know the individuals that develop and teach the instructor schools that you send your people to, the ones that "certify" your people.
In that case you're taking a lot on faith. That's especially true when we're talking about instructor-level training, because those individuals will come back and train all of your other people. They will have a significant impact on the working culture of your agency. They will, in effect, use their "certification" to train and certify your rank-and-file officers.
There's no real solution to this issue, since it's not necessarily a problem. The system works, and has for a long time. But law enforcement today isn't what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. It's a lot more technologically advanced, and a lot more complicated. Budgets are tighter, and the expectations of the public are a lot higher.
As the law enforcement profession evolves under these new conditions, we need to at least think about our expectations regarding "certification." What does it really mean? Where does the responsibility lie for assuring that the individuals that we allow to train our people are the best?
Does instructor "certification" mean that we have prepared someone to a certain level of competency, and that we bear some level of responsibility for their future performance as a trainer? Or does it simply mean that they have sat in a classroom, passed a test, and that we have handed them a certificate with their name on it?
Stay safe, and wear your vest!