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Columns : Editorial

Law Enforcement Training Crisis

The first thing cut from any police budget tends to be training and that can get you killed.

April 23, 2012  |  by Leslie Pfeiffer

Photo: Kelly Bracken
Photo: Kelly Bracken

Local law enforcement officers should receive training on an ongoing, mandatory basis. We all know that. But how many of our agencies provide it?

It's dangerous out there. Last year we saw a significant increase in the number of officers murdered in the line of duty. Training should be increased during these challenging times. Instead, training hours and budgets are often cut. Doing so is false economy.

We cannot measure in dollars the cost of having an officer murdered or seriously hurt. OK, we could count the dollars, but we should look beyond the bucks. We should look at the suffering of the surviving families. And the suffering of the friends and partners in the agency. The suffering of all in law enforcement who hear about the tragedy, and feel diminished to know that we lost another one of our first-defense heroes.

When we dissect the tragic incident itself, as painful as it is, we should look at precisely how it happened, why it happened, and what lessons can be learned. When we look at those things, we frequently find that training issues played a key role in the tragedy. We find that maybe the officer's agency did not provide that officer with enough realistic, specific, challenging, stress-inducing dynamic training. We find that the officer just didn't see it coming, and did not react in a way that ensured a better outcome.

Training develops skill. Training, if it's any good, is a dress rehearsal for the real deal. Dynamic training inspires confidence. Confidence allows the sympathetic nervous system to react better under stress.

I'd like to hear someone argue against providing solid, dynamic training. Or argue that we need less of it. I think there's a good argument to be made that training should actually be increased in these dangerous times.

State regulatory agencies set minimum standards for critical training areas, but those standards are the minimum requirements to keep officers certified. That is often not enough to keep officers safe.

Training is also a shield against liability suits. When officers and agencies are sued by plaintiffs' attorneys dialing for dollars, alleged deficiencies in training are often targeted.

Was the officer trained on the subject? How long ago? How often? Did the training adequately prepare the officer for the event? Did the officer follow the training? If the officer deviated from the training, why? Was the deviation objectively reasonable? Was the officer tested on the subject? Did the officer adequately explain what he or she did, and why? These are not things that can be learned and assimilated in short-cut fashion. They require an agency commitment to quality training, and an individual commitment to quality learning.

After Columbine there was a big push to train all patrol officers on active-shooter tactics to end the threat immediately instead of waiting for SWAT. Columbine happened 13 years ago. How many of you have had active-shooter training in the past 10 years? We simply cannot take a "flavor of the month" approach to training on critical issues that save lives. Tactics must be practiced over and over.

Local law enforcement training is essential and vital to delivering professional police service. It is afterall a profession, and professionals need training. But local training is often treated like a red-headed stepchild. Federal officers like Air Marshals receive training on an ongoing basis for no less than two days a month. The federal government devotes a shocking amount of money toward training. Yet local police agencies are often left to fend for themselves.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled police agencies can be held liable for failure to train. And it has been shown that a link exists between the lack of police training and liability. The better the training, the lower the risk.

The tide has to turn here. There needs to be a paradigm shift. Local police are facing more ruthless criminal elements and there are more felonious assaults on officers than ever before. This is not the time to cut the vital training resources necessary to ensure the safety of our officers. It is the time to increase them.

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