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Law Enforcement Training: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I have been involved in training law enforcement officers for more than 25 years. I helped train new officers before there were Field Training Officers. I was a training officer certified to teach Law Enforcement Firearms, Officer Survival, Emergency Driving, Tasers, Pressure Point Control Techniques, Nunchaku for Police, PR-24 Instructor, and other various subjects for officers. I taught a number of subjects including all levels of supervision and command at various police academies in various states, and I received my Masters Degree from a university where part of my program was a supervised teaching practicum. I have taught at universities, colleges, community colleges, IPTM, and high schools.


I have also published several articles in professional magazines, and I have spoken to numerous groups and organizations including state police chief associations and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. I have chaired training committees, and I have participated in legislative groups and committees to help rewrite legislation for law enforcement purposes.


The reason I provide this background is because I am going to discuss a variety of law enforcement training issues, and some of my views are certain to be controversial. I don’t expect readers to agree with everything I write, but I hope that readers understand that I have no agenda to promote. I am not offering my analysis because I am trying to protect my job or my relationship with some other professionals. I am providing the unvarnished realities as I see them, and I hope that they provide some valuable insight into the successes and failures of law enforcement training.


Basic Concepts:


On numerous occasions, I have seen well-meaning elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and members of the news media come out and blame police misconduct on a lack of training. When asked what to do about excessive force, we need more training. When an officer engages in a pursuit, runs a red light and kills innocent people, we need more training. When the police arrest and prosecute an innocent man, we need more training. It seems that virtually all police misconduct is blamed on a lack of training. I don’t believe this, and I don’t believe that simply mandating “training” is going to fix these problems!


I will devote another chapter to misconduct issues, but for now, I want to address training including the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Although the term “Training” does not need much explanation, it is necessary to put it in some context to understand how it can be wonderful solution to a problem, or it can exacerbate the problem that it is intended to solve. The generic concept of training has positive connotations, so it is difficult for some people to understand that instead of solving a problem, it may BE THE PROBLEM!


To begin this conversation in realistic terms, it is necessary to recognize that training is sometimes mandated by legislatures or administrative bodies that have identified a problem, and they genuinely believe that mandating training will ultimately fix the problem. However, these bodies often have no expertise, time, or inclination to design the training for the field that they are addressing. As a result, the actual training may be left up to individual trainers and departments to interpret the intent of the mandate, and to design and implement the required training.


Example: Cultural Sensitivity


Some states recognized that law enforcement officers often acted inappropriately because they had a limited understanding of the various cultures that they were policing. On a given shift, a law enforcement officer might deal with any level of socioeconomic status (rich, middle, poor), different sexual preferences and gender identities (straight, gay, transexual, other), different immigrants and customs (Southeast Asian, Mexican, Columbian… any and all others), different education levels, different languages, and the list goes on and on. To better prepare officers for dealing with these different issues, many legislatures concluded that officers simply needed more training in this area. If the officers better understood these cultures, then the officers would be better able to understand and police these groups and the individuals comprising the groups. This is a logical response to a perceived problem. Some legislators mandated annual Cultural Awareness or Cultural Sensitivity training for all law enforcement officers.


However, in some states, the subject matter was so large and so diverse, that each department essentially developed their own training for their officers. The freedom to design their own training was good in that it allowed them to deal with any specific cultures in their communities, and they could avoid training in cultures that did not really impact their communities. Resulting from a lack of standardization or approval process, some departments sought simple solutions that required little time and development. Some did not take it seriously, and the training amounted to a colossal waste of time. If the training was not well designed, presented, and evaluated, then it did not fix the original problems.


Process:


Effective training is typically presented in a particular pattern:

  1. Discuss and explain the ideas, concepts, expectations, positive results, possible problems, and open the floor for questions and comments;

  2. Demonstrate the desired behaviors and processes/procedures for everyone to see and learn; and

  3. Have the students perform the behaviors and processes/procedures to assure that they are able to apply what they have learned.

Of course, there are variations on this method of training, and there are some very complex and extensive behaviors and tasks that require a great deal of investment to achieve appropriate expertise on the parts of the students. But generally, these basic steps are effective in teaching someone how to perform tasks.


Authority:


When training a law enforcement department on various subject matters, it is essential to assure that the training, policies and procedures have the approval of the Chief/Sheriff/CEO. It can be embarrassing and confusing when trainers design and implement training programs, and the Chief/Sheriff/CEO either does not know the information in the class, or s/he does not agree with the information being taught. It is difficult to backtrack after the training has been implemented, and change the processes, procedures, policies, and/or interpretations.


Example: Tasers


I have had very positive experiences relative to the use of the Taser. I have purchased and implemented the use of Tasers in different departments in different states, and I remain a believer that Tasers can protect law enforcement officers and the people being arrested by law enforcement officers. I have also found different policies and procedures from one department to another.


There are many interpretations relative to when an officer should be allowed to use a Taser. Should it be used to overcome passive resistance? Should it be authorized for active resistance when a suspect is not trying to hurt the law enforcement officer? Should it be used strictly for an active aggression level of resistance or above? Should it be used for a suspect threatening an officer with a knife? The Chief/Sheriff/CEO needs to determine and endorse the appropriate responses, and having the Chief/Sheriff/CEO show up at training to voice approval and answer questions lends credibility to the training. A trainer can make recommendations, but the Chief/Sheriff/CEO ultimately needs to set the standards and meet the same standards s/he imposes on everyone else. I point out meeting the same standards because many departments have Chief/Sheriff/CEOs who cannot meet the same standards that they impose on their troops.


The Good:


Field Training Officer Programs:


One area of training that has gained nationwide acceptance and utilization is the Field Training Officer Program. When a new recruit is hired and completes academy training, the recruit enters the Field Training Officer program. The recruit is assigned to a trained, certified Field Training Officer (FTO) for several weeks. The FTO provides notebook to the recruit and teaches him/her how to perform some of the basic functions of a patrol officer, and at the end of each week, the recruit takes a written test to demonstrate that s/he has learned the required material. The recruit will learn everything from how to fill up the car with gas, how to make report, how to complete a time sheet, how to request time off, when to contact a supervisor, and much more. If the recruit fails a test, then s/he can be rephased and repeat the week of training that s/he failed. Too many failures may result in his/her dismissal.


Although the programs vary from one department to the other, the notebook assigned to the recruit has about 12 weeks of materials, and each week builds on the previous week’s lessons. Usually, the recruit is assigned to another FTO after the first 3 or 4 weeks, and then to another FTO after the next 3 or 4 weeks. At the end, the recruit starts handling the entire job on his/her own, and the FTO just watches and evaluates the recruit to assure that s/he is ready to patrol by him/herself.


Most FTO programs are examples of good training. The notebook provides a roadmap of the tasks must be learned and mastered, and the evaluation process assures that the recruit is absorbing the information. The recruit learns about a task, sees it performed, and then performs it him/herself. At the end of the training, s/he is ready to patrol the streets.


Caution: FTOs must be carefully selected to assure that they are good examples for recruits to emulate. I have seen FTOs who were abusive with recruits, and FTOs who thought that their job was to badger and criticize recruits without providing positive reinforcement. I have seen FTOs that had extensive disciplinary histories and had no business training new, impressionable officers. The position of FTO should be compensated well for the extra responsibilities, and they should be the best officers the department has to offer.


The Bad:


Training is supposed to be a positive, learning experience that prepares an officer for challenges s/he may face on the streets. But, there are times when officers have been taught to engage in extreme conduct that is not appropriate, necessary, or lawful in performing their duties.


Over the years, there have been several controversial high profile police shooting cases where the videos have been publicized, and the officers have been judged and maligned for their actions. In some cases, the officers were following the direction and guidance that they learned in training.


Example: Responses to Knives


We have seen several cases over the past few years where officers have shot suspects armed with knives or other edged weapons . Sometimes, shooting the suspect is the best course of action. However, there was training developed over the past 15 years that focused on knife defense. The rule of thumb was that if a person with a knife is within 21’ of you, then s/he can kill you. The result was the rule that anyone armed with a knife within 21’ of an officer should be shot. It makes the assumption that this is necessary for officers to defend themselves against attacks with edged weapons.


At first glance, this appears to be a reasonable action for a law enforcement officer. However, If you accept this rule, then officers should shoot little old ladies, children, suicidal teenagers, people in wheelchairs, and anyone else with a knife. This rule ignores the fact that every situation requires an assessment of the threat which includes an assessment of the individual who is the source of the threat. Hard and fast rules of engagement have led to some unnecessary and avoidable fatal outcomes.


Example: Rodney King.


In its day (1991), the majority of Americans viewed video of the arrest of Rodney King by multiple Los Angeles Police Department officers. What we saw on the video was a Black man being beaten in the middle of the street over an extended period of time, by multiple police officers. The man did not appear to be aggressive toward the officers, but he was not complying with their commands. After seeing this on the news, many citizens were incensed and appalled by the officers’ behavior, and the citizens were shocked when a jury found the officers “not guilty” of offenses filed in criminal court. How could these officers, who obviously engaged in this conduct, be found “not guilty?


Although many blamed the verdict on institutional racism, further inquiry revealed a much more plausible explanation. One of the constant themes throughout the criminal trial was that the officers were following the training that they had received by their department. It was alleged that their own department’s training staff directed officers to give commands to suspects while using various tools (Taser, Batons, Hands) to get the suspect to comply. The officers had been trained not to get on the ground and engage a non-compliant suspect to get him/her handcuffed or secured. According to the officers, the officers were specifically prohibited from grabbing the suspect and forcibly securing him. The officers claimed that they were faced with a suspect who would not comply with their commands, and they were trained to strike the suspect while giving him commands until the suspect complied. According to the officers, they did exactly what they were trained to do. Apparently, the jury believed that this created a reasonable doubt as to the officers’ guilt in this case.


Example: Shoot, Don’t Shoot Training


For law enforcement officers to learn and understand the Use of Force, the training typically starts with a review of the statutes and common law cases relevant to the subject matter. Recruits virtually memorize the legal authority and limits on their use of force, and they undergo written testing to assure that they have learned the legal facts regarding the use of force. This is reinforced during in-service training for experienced officers. Officers are taught defensive tactics and control techniques for dealing with resistant and hostile people, and the officers train with others to implement the techniques and training that they have received.


Having successfully learned the legal issues relative to the Use of Deadly Force, and after learning basic firearms skills and establishing an acceptable level of proficiency, the officers frequently undergo “Shoot, Don’t Shoot” training. In this context, I am not singling out a specific company, and I am using the terms to identify a general type of training. This is training where the officer is outfitted with a holster and firearm that is adapted with a laser, and the officer stands in front of a large video screen. When ready, the video advances with audible and visual cues, and the officer is supposed to react to the events taking place on the video. The officer or innocent civilians may be threatened by a suspect, and the officer has to make a decision relative to shooting or not shooting the suspect. The trainer running the videos may make modifications/decisions at certain points to change the course of the situation. This explanation is overly simplistic due to the various types of decision-making shooting systems on the market, and the options that each system offers.


This type of training is good in that establishes whether or not an officer is going to be capable of using and willing to use deadly force when called upon to do so. Some officers freeze up and are not psychologically able to use deadly force against another human being. If this is the case, then the officer needs to find another line of work.


The training also forces officers to collect and assess information quickly, and to make a proper decision relative to the use of deadly force. The training is stressful, but it allows trainers to assess officers’ performance and decision making in high stress cases.

However, there are a number of problems that may arise as a result of this training:


Shoot/Don’t Shoot Problems:


The typical lethal decision-making video has the officer walking and moving without any input from the officer. For example, as the officer enters a room in the video, there may be an armed suspect present. The video advances into the room, and this results in an armed confrontation where the officer is expected to engage the suspect with deadly force.


However, in real life encounters of this nature, when the officer recognizes that the suspect is armed, the officer’s best course of action may be to retreat to a position of cover and attempt to deescalate the situation. This may be tactically safer for the officer, the suspect, and the other innocent people nearby.


Some situations are set up for officer failure. One scenario may have a man with a gun shooting someone else, and the trainee has literally a split second to decide how to confront the man with the gun. The trainee shoots the suspect with the gun, and it turns out that the man with the gun is an undercover police officer. But, if the trainee does not engage the man with the gun, then the man with the gun shoots the trainee. And there is no cover or concealment available for the trainee to use.


Some video situations place the trainee in a no-win situation. The trainee must confront an armed suspect where there are several innocent civilians between them. If the trainee shoots, then s/he is endangering innocent people. If the trainee does not shoot, then the suspect shoots the officer. Again, tactical retreat or moving to cover or concealment are not options.


De-escalation is rarely an option. Most high stress situations are amenable to de-escalation techniques and tactics. De-escalation requires communication between the officer and the various people on the scene. This may require giving directions, moving people around, listening to suspects, victims, and witnesses. This interpersonal communication can help officers to avoid physical encounters, reduce conflict, and avoid the use of force. Officers are not able to establish interpersonal relationships and communication with a video screen.


In my opinion, the most devastating damage resulting from this training is when officers become traumatized and paranoid. If an officer is taking the training seriously, then s/he can be traumatized by the results. If the officer is “shot” during training, then psychologically, the officer responds, psychologically, to being shot. I was assisting in Officer Survival Training one night, and the class was engaged in building searches. An instructor was posing as burglary suspect hiding in a building, and the search team had searched the room in which the suspect was hiding, but they failed to find him. As a result, the suspect sneaked up on the search team and shot an officer, using a blank and not pointing it directly at him for safety reasons. The officer who had been shot told me that he felt the bullet go into his body, and he immediately fell to the ground.


As you might imagine, it was very traumatic experience for this officer. Departments typically provide critical stress debriefing counseling for officers experiencing incidents on the street, but I have never heard of stress or trauma counseling for incidents in training. When training results in psychological trauma, anxiety, and paranoia, officers may require professional assistance to remain emotionally healthy.


This type of training can create a hypervigilant state that affects the officers’ professional and personal lives. When officers are repeatedly put into situations where their lives are at risk, they become more and more suspicious and paranoid. When the threats include men, women, children, handicapped people, minorities, teenagers, etc., then they become conditioned to see everyone as a threat. If every encounter results in the officer having to shoot somebody to survive, then the officer will become conditioned to shoot every time there is a perceived threat.


Over the past few years, we have seen a number of videos showing officers excising poor judgment in deadly force cases. There have been a number of reasons for the poor judgment, but a few cases really stand out. In one case, an officer was giving directions to a driver who happened to be a Black male. The driver was not complying with the officer’s instructions, and the driver argued with the officer. There were no weapons… only verbal disagreements. The officer pulled a pistol and shot the driver. When watching the video, one thing was apparent: The officer was terrified! From the body language to the pitch of the voice, the officer was absolutely terrified of the driver. One has to question why an officer would be so frightened during this traffic encounter. Was the officer always afraid, or was the fear a result of training?


There have been similar cases where it was apparent that the officers over-reacted to perceived threats. I cannot help but wonder if these officers were already afraid of everything, or if their fear was a result of this training.


No Win Training Scenarios:


Some police training simply puts trainees in a “no win” situation. I have seen this in tactical training where SWAT teams were sent into buildings that were occupied by numerous suspects, each of which was heavily armed and prepared for the SWAT entry. I have seen officers in “shoot, don’t shoot” situations faced with a terrorist wearing a bomb with a pressure switch that will detonate if the terrorist is killed. I have seen training on domestic disturbances and robbery responses where the officer(s) were put in situations where regardless of their decision making, they were doomed to failure. During this training, students learn that no matter what they do, they may be severely injured or killed.


When an officer believes that s/he is going to face serious injury or death regardless of his/her decision making, it tends to be depressing and frustrating. Some officers become extremely paranoid, while others may adopt a fatalistic attitude that nothing matters, and their survival is merely a matter of chance. Either way, the psychological impact on the officer is likely to affect their behavior on the street.


The Ugly:


The Academy


When a law enforcement officer is sworn in, s/he is given authority to enforcement laws. Even more significant is the fact that the officer is required to adhere to and support the constitution, and to recognize the rights of others. Most recruits are required to memorize the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics to clearly articulate the responsibilities of each and every officer as to how they conduct themselves both professionally and personally. We constantly speak of equality, fairness, justice, truth, compassion, and service to our citizens and to our community. And then, we proceed to abuse, torture, and terrorize our new officers in the misguided ideology that this will make them better officers.


In some states, recruits are still required to live at the police academy during their basic training. This is a very expensive requirement, and it has been abandoned in many states without any reduction in the quality of their law enforcement officers. I understand that each law enforcement agency has a culture to teach and validate for new recruits. If the purpose of a live-in academy is to reinforce the positive virtues of the agency while encouraging bonding with the new recruits, then it may be a positive experience.


However, there are still mandatory live-in academies that are simply utilized to abuse, bully, and torture new recruits. In an attempt to emulate military boot camps, the staff appears to take great pleasure in dreaming up ways to abuse the recruits. Sleep deprivation, extreme temperature settings, public humiliation of individual recruits, not allowing recruits to talk, constant yelling and criticisms from staff members, and an overall atmosphere of suppression and brutality are the hallmarks of these academies. Failure rates are high, and staff members appear to enjoy telling the stories of the recruits who don’t make it. What do the recruits learn?


Recruits learn that when you have the authority to do so, then it is okay to be rude, offensive, abusive, officious, brutal, and downright mean to those who are less powerful. They might even interpret this as a requirement or expectation for trainers. If I am the teacher/trainer, then I am supposed to be a *#@$ to the students and new recruits. We can talk about all of those altruistic qualities that we want to embrace, but we learn from the actual treatment that we endure and we witness in others.


Defensive Tactics:


Historically, Defensive Tactics has been the pinnacle of brutality and abuse. Just to be clear, I taught defensive tactics for many years, and I had a great deal of firsthand experience with other instructors. It was my philosophy that having strong tactic skills combined with a mature sense of dignity, added to well developed de-escalation techniques, would produce a law enforcement officer who could handle conflict with professionalism and honor. To achieve these goals meant that I had to teach officers how to gain compliance with resistant suspects while protecting the officers both physically and legally. I considered it a great failure on my part if any officers were injured in one of my courses.


I remember attending a class with defensive tactics instructors, and it was an eye-opening experience to say the least. The course was a Pressure Point Control Techniques class, and all of the students were defensive tactics instructors. I recall my first shock when I saw and heard students make disparaging, sexist remarks to a female student that surely exceeded the threshold for sexual harassment. These students were profane, irreverent, rude, condescending, and it was embarrassing to be in the same classroom with them. I also noted one of their conversations about having given up on ever getting promoted, but how they could still get even with those command staff people during in-service training.


I also recall a particular defensive tactics instructor at an academy, and everyone knew that he simply enjoyed inflicting pain on other people. He was clearly a sadist, and everyone dreaded him demonstrating tactical restrains and techniques because he was going to hurt someone, and he was going to enjoy it. We are not talking about demonstrating a pain-compliance technique that necessarily results in pain. We are talking about someone who gets pleasure out of hurting people and causing injuries. Everyone, including the command staff, knew this, but they kept him teaching defensive tactics for many years. The students learned that it is fun to hurt people, and if you have the power, then abusing and torturing people can be great sport!


Law enforcement candidates, recruits, and officers should be trained and educated in a professional, supportive environment. Law enforcement officers should not be abused, injured or tortured as one of the rights of passage to entering police work. This does not mean that trainers should not set high standards for performance, or that some candidates need to be weeded out because they are not right for the job. However, creating an atmosphere that encourages bullying, abuse, and distrust does not send a positive message to students, and academies will lose some of their best recruits who are offended by the staff behaviors and choose not to participate.


And, there are some people who should not be teaching at any level. Any teacher who enjoys inflicting pain on other people for his/her own pleasure, should not be teaching at all.

Profiling:


My first real encounter with profiling was in a class of police training. We were taught that there was a particular pattern relative to drug traffickers, and we should use a drug trafficking profile to identify the suspects. The suspects were typically minorities (especially Blacks and Hispanics), driving rental vehicles either north or south on Interstate 95, and traveling at or below the speed limit. All an officer had to do was find a reason to stop the suspect, and then get probable cause or permission to search the vehicle. If the officer found a large amount of cash, then the cash could be seized without a warrant and without finding any drugs in the car. Seized cash or items could be turned over to the law enforcement agency to be used as revenue for law enforcement expenses.


Once officers obtained permission to search suspect vehicles, officers were taught to place the suspects in a patrol car where the suspects could not escape, the suspects could not withdraw consent, and officers could listen to suspects talking to one another by use of transmitters in the police car. Officers were encouraged to negotiate with suspects who wanted to recover their vehicles, money, and property. The acquisition of assets became a higher priority than prosecuting criminals. Some agencies interpreted this as great way to enhance revenues for their departments. They could buy undercover vehicles, pay for drug enforcement expenses, pay for training, and use the money as allowed by state law.


My point is that these strategies and tactics were being taught to law enforcement officers in officially sanctioned training classes. It is no coincidence that law enforcement agencies started engaging in prejudicial, unconstitutional, unethical practices associated with profiling. It was actually quite predictable that these practices would proliferate, evolve, and eventually be prohibited by the court system.


Gratuities:


I remember the first day at the police academy. I was looking forward to discussions of ethics, laws, constitutional imperatives, processes, and similar subject matters. I was more than a little surprised that one of the first subjects for discussion was where law enforcement officers could get free or discounted meals, free or discounted entertainment i.e. movie theaters, free or discounted living accommodations, and how to get out of traffic tickets. It was apparent that some students were clearly there for the perks. Instead of teaching students about the dangers and pitfalls of taking gratuities, the conversation was about the perks and advantages associated with taking advantage of their positions in law enforcement. When trainers endorse unethical practices, then they are lowering the performance standards of organizations and their students.


Above the Law:


The concern with this issue requires more attention than is feasible in this essay. As a result, there is another essay that specifically addresses this matter.


Overall Summary:


Training has been offered as a panacea for correcting and improving law enforcement throughout the country. The mantra is that if we just spend more time and money on training, then we can eliminate the problems of excessive force, brutality, bribery, corruption, prejudice, and misconduct. However, I recall a martial arts instructor who addressed the realities in a tactful manner when he pointed out that practice does not make perfect. He said that, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” When we apply this to law enforcement training, we arrive at a similar conclusion. If we practice doing things that are illegal, immoral, or unconstitutional, then we fail. If we practice strategies and tactics that result in paranoia and fear, then we fail. When we abuse students and treat them badly because we have more power than they have, then we fail.


Conversely, if our training is relevant, evidence-based, realistic, and ethical, then we succeed. If we teach and adhere to lawful, constitutional, and moral imperatives, then we succeed. And, if training is presented by ethical, moral, dedicated, educated, and professional individuals, then we succeed. Training will not overcome negative police department subcultures or a lack of fundamental discipline. But, law enforcement training is the first step in establishing a professional organization that will serve its citizens proudly, equitably, and fairly.





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