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The State of American Law Enforcement - Teaching to the Test

Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

March 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Putting It All Together

Perhaps the biggest problem with the state of American law enforcement training is that students are taught to perform procedures and techniques as drills. For example, they learn handcuffing without having to apply physical combat skills to get the bad guy cuffed.

Team One Network training director John Meyer says that cops who learn how to perform techniques without applying them in realistic training scenarios are like figure skaters when they need to be more like hockey players. "A figure skater has a set routine to skate," Meyer says. "But a hockey player has to react to the actions of all the other players on the ice. They are both challenging, but a figure skater can't complete a routine if people are slamming into her."

Because police officers need to be able to use all of their training in the field, trainers advocate that instructors create scenarios that incorporate multiple skills. For example, a training scenario might start with a traffic stop. Then the student would have to go through all of the procedures necessary to conduct a proper traffic stop and to prevail when said stop goes bad.

At FLETC students are run through such scenarios and then the instructors ask them to discuss their performance instead of just having the instructors tell them what they did right or wrong. Bostain says the technique is called "student-centered feedback," and it is being refined into a powerful teaching tool.

"We start by asking the student what happened," says Bostain. "We ask them to tell us everything they were seeing, smelling, feeling, and hearing. Then we ask them, 'What did you do well?' At first they think we're setting them up. So they're reluctant to answer. But then we get them started by asking something like, 'How was your positioning?'"

Bostain say the results of FLETC's student-centered feedback program has been remarkable. "What we found in the limited research we did over the course of four scenarios is a 22-percent improvement in student performance on the fourth scenario," he says.

The FLETC program was primarily developed for training veteran officers. But similar techniques can also be used with academy students.

At the Los Angeles Police Academy trainers are using scenario-based training to replace classroom lectures. In the pilot program developed originally by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, students are taught law, department policy, combat skills, communication skills, and arrest and control techniques in scenarios that require them to perform the duties of an LAPD officer in front of a team of instructors encompassing all of the disciplines involved.

Greg Meyer, retired Capt. of the Los Angeles Police Academy, says the team-taught scenarios are much more effective than classroom lectures. "[In the team concept] you have tactical instructors challenging you about your tactics and law instructors asking you about the legality of your action," he says. "You really learn that way."

Dollars and Sense

Of course, FLETC and the LAPD have more money for training programs than the majority of American law enforcement agencies. So the programs they have developed may be financially prohibitive.

Money is a major reason why law enforcement training is so inconsistent in quality nationwide.

"Law enforcement trainers have always had to squeeze two dollars out of every dollar," says Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainer's Association. "Today we have to squeeze $2.50, maybe $3, out of every dollar."

But Nowicki and other experts say that spending money on training is a good investment for all agencies regardless of size. "It's a case of pay me now or pay me later," says Greg Meyer. "Whenever something wrong happens in a big way on the street, there are almost always training issues involved."

A quality training program also requires more than just money; it requires buy-in from the department's command. "The commitment to training must come from the top, from the chief or sheriff," says Greg Meyer. "Mid-level managers will say we need these guys on the street, we can't lose them to training. So the top-level has to be committed to the value of training or it will slip and slide."

The problem nationwide is that only some departments are committed to training their officers to survive street battles. Unfortunately, others—some experts say the majority—just teach to the test, giving their officers just enough combat education to qualify and be certified by their respective states.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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