There's been a lot of discussion recently in the mainstream media about the need for improving the training of law enforcement officers. Much of this discussion was spurred by the Michael Brown and Eric Garner incidents.
After the Eric Garner "chokehold" death, the New York City Police Department implemented a new training program for all of its officers who have direct contact with the public. Proponents say this training will teach officers how to de-escalate situations and improve community relations. Opponents say the training is based on political correctness and is not realistic.
The NYPD's new training may be very effective or totally invalid. The editors of POLICE have not been privy to its contents beyond what has leaked in the press.
But we did think that because police training was in the news it was a good time to ask veteran officers and trainers how they would improve law enforcement training and make it more effective. The following is collected from the comments of more than a dozen sources. The editors of POLICE do not necessarily agree or disagree with these suggestions.
And let's get it out of the way before we even start. Everybody involved in law enforcement training would like to see more resources—budget, time, and equipment—allocated to training.
Now, here's the list.
- Start With the Right People
A number of training experts contacted for this story say one of the best ways to improve the training of law enforcement officers is to recruit individuals who have life experience and people skills. Many of today's recruits are directly out of college and have never faced any complicated situations or learned how to relate to people from different backgrounds. The majority of recruits have also never faced danger. To paraphrase one trainer's comment, When someone has been in danger, whether it be a fight or a car accident, he or she tends to learn to see the danger approaching and find ways to prevent it from happening or react to it.
- Establish a National Standard
Each state has its own standards for peace officer training. Some law enforcement trainers would like to see every officer nationwide trained to the same standard, kind of a national Peace Officers Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) program. Of course, the trainers who espouse this notion believe that the result would be better training for all and not a reduction of training standards to a lowest common denominator.
- Pool Training Resources
Precedent has been set for cooperation between agencies on a variety of operations, but often training isn't one of them. One way to cut the costs of training would be for agencies to share it. In addition to pooling their funds to provide specialized training, agencies could share training equipment from simulators down to padded suits and replica guns.
- Do the Research
There is realistic training and training based on reality. Several trainers that we contacted said one of the things that needs to change about contemporary law enforcement training is the inclusion of material that is based on hearsay and urban legend. Trainers say agencies need to take a scientific look at what their officers are facing, how they are performing, and how training can be improved. They add that agencies must do away with the "we've always done it this way" mentality.
- MMA is Not Training
Defensive tactics instructors encourage their officers to train in the fighting arts during their off time. But just because a move or technique works in a mixed-martial arts hexagon or in a jiu jitsu dojo does not mean that it is applicable to law enforcement. Trainers caution that unless an officer can transition from a fighting technique into taking an attacker into custody, then that technique does not belong in a law enforcement training program.
- Update the Methodology
The vast majority of law enforcement training is still conducted in the classroom or hands-on such as scenario and defensive tactics sessions. Many instructors are now talking about the concept of blended learning, which combines some online lessons and classroom, resulting in more time for hands-on training. The idea is to reduce "butt in seat" time and downtime between scenarios with online lessons divided into easily digestible chunks. This blended learning approach could be used to preload information for academy programs and to reduce classroom time for in-service training.
- Help Out New Shooters
It used to be that most police recruits had experience with firearms from military service, sport shooting, or both. That's not necessarily true anymore. Many contemporary academy students have never shot a pistol, and they have a hard time coping with the noise and the recoil. Trainers recommend a number of ways to help these officers become more proficient with handguns, including more dry-fire training and the use of .22 conversions as an intermediate step for teaching them trigger control and sight alignment before having them shoot their duty rounds.
- Complete the Scenarios
Practical scenario training with live subjects is extremely effective. But some experts say agencies are doing it all wrong. The scenario shouldn't stop the minute shots are fired, they say. Instead, the scenario should play out to the end, with backup arriving; suspects handcuffed, searched, and readied for transport; emergency medical called; and the other actions that would be taken in a real incident.
- Write the Reports
Documenting what happens when officers encounter the public is one of the most critical skills in law enforcement. But it is often given short shrift in academy, FTO, and in-service training programs. Trainers recommend that agencies spend more time teaching officers to produce quality reports. One way to incorporate more report writing into training programs is to require officers to write a report on what happened after completing a simulator or live scenario exercise.
- Do Away with Hours
Officers learn at different rates. So trainers believe it is counterproductive to have officers continue training on a skill once they have demonstrated proficiency in that skill just to satisfy the required number of hours.
- Teach to Case Law
Trainers contacted for this article believe legal instruction for officers would be more effective if the concepts were taught both in the classroom and in practical scenarios and defensive tactics sessions. One way this could be applied would be to have students articulate how their actions in the scenario would be legally justified once the scenario is completed.
- Train to Policy
If the agency's policy says officers can use carotid neck restraints in certain situations, the officers should be trained to perform that technique under those conditions. The same is true for any technique or weapon that is mentioned in the agency's policy.
- Don't Forget the Past
Research incidents where the outcomes have been both favorable and unfavorable for your agency. Then incorporate what happened in those incidents into your training. If your research reveals a gap in the officers' training, then make adjustments.
- Add More Scenario Training
Officers can watch videos, read case studies, study chunks of information online, and perform practical drills, but nothing drives home the lesson like goal-oriented scenario training. When properly structured and supervised, scenario training requires officers to use multiple skills and combine them to achieve a goal. And that can be a very memorable experience.
- Study the Criminals
Officers in training should be made very aware of the fact their criminal counterparts are training, too. Experts say officers in training need to be exposed to what actions their adversaries may take to counter the techniques and tactics you are teaching them.
- Be Creative
A hands-on technique in defensive tactics should approximate as much as possible the real thing without injuring the students. Creative trainers use blindfolds, blurry goggles, and other techniques to approximate the effects of a fight and then have students perform the fighting and control techniques they have been taught. They use attractive female subjects with hidden weapons to put officers off guard in scenarios. And they conceal weapons and contraband in the same innovative ways criminal have used during search training.
- Follow Up Afterward
Students often leave the training with additional questions or concerns. Some instructors have found that it enhances the quality of the educational experience to follow up with their students by e-mail. The e-mail should not be for evaluation purposes but to ask the officers if they have any additional questions or need any assistance.
- Practice Consistent Discipline
Some believe that disciplinary actions in the academy are not being consistently applied. One trainer said that recruits need to know when they have made a mistake and be given some discipline to correct the issue. "Handing out trail runs and assigning essays to correct mistakes does a lot more to build strong officers than hugs," the trainer said.
- Build a Training Culture
Agencies need to hammer home to their working officers that training is never completed. It should be normal for all officers to attend training on a regular basis. And more than one trainer contacted for this story said top staff should participate in the same training sessions with the rank-and-file officers. This drives home the point that all sworn personnel at the agency are officers on duty, and it emphasizes the importance that command places on the training.
- Teach Them to Move
Shooting from a static firing line is a time-honored way to teach new officers how to shoot. But once those officers start to gain proficiency with their firearms, they need to be taught how to fight and prevail in a gun battle. That means—with all safety rules adhered to—they need to learn to use cover and concealment and how to shoot and move. Standing still in a gunfight is a good way to get killed.
- Train Beyond Qualification
All officers need to qualify with their firearms. But if the only shooting officers are doing is to meet this requirement, then they are not being trained properly to use their weapons. Officers should not only shoot more, they should shoot from different positions, one-handed and two-handed, with their strong and weak hands, and under different conditions.
- Teach Communication Skills
This applies to the officers' ability to communicate with other officers, other first responders, and the public. With other officers and public safety professionals, proper communication skills are critical in disseminating necessary information. When dealing with the public, officers need to know when to be commanding and when to be friendly and reassuring.
- Give Students a Reason
There is a warrior tradition that says warriors never should ask "why." That may have worked for Old World armies, but it's never worked all that well with Americans, and it certainly doesn't work with 21st century American police recruits or officers. Trainers contacted for this story say officers and recruits will retain their training better if they know why the training is important.
- Call for Backup
One reason that a lot of officers get in over their heads in confrontations with suspects is they hesitate to call for backup. Calling for backup should be built into some of the scenarios used for in-service and recruit training.
- Teach Decision-Making Skills
In the academy and in-service training, officers need to learn how to analyze situations in ways that lead to the desired outcome. One trainer called this go/no-go analysis. He pointed out that officers need to learn how to conduct realistic and reasonable threat assessments that will lead to better decisions about when to use weapons, when to initiate vehicle pursuits, and when to undertake other dangerous actions. For example, the officer should know that TASERing a suspect running down the street could result in serious injury to the suspect and reason whether the threat presented by that suspect warrants the action.
POLICE wishes to thank the many trainers and other officers who assisted in the production of this article.