“PT gear! Two minutes! Move!”
The command echoes in my ears as a herd of police recruits bottleneck in the locker room door. Less than 45 seconds later, they’re standing on their blocks to begin a grueling series of push-ups. Sweat drips on the floor and hands begin to slide. A forearm hits the floor as a recruit loses all strength in his arms. Then someone shouts: “Flutter-kick position! Move!”
They must work like animals, being broken down, because one of them decided to write his BLET training objectives in pencil instead of pen. We call this training.
From this training, will they become strong? Absolutely. Will they learn to pay attention to detail? Certainly. Will they be instilled with the knowledge that the actions of one will be reflected on all? Eventually. Will they be reminded of the direct correlation between making an error and receiving a consequence? I’d say so. Will they be receiving appropriate stress inoculation for use later in their career? I hope so. Will they attain the confidence to make a decision without seeking prior approval?
I’m not so sure.
Why do we train this way? We train this way because we are a paramilitary organization and police officers must be instilled with the strength and mental fortitude to fight and kill a person. We train this way because to be a good commander you must be able to follow orders yourself. We train this way because we must be able to present a solid, unified line of law enforcement ability to the civilians we police.
But we aren’t soldiers. A soldier encounters dangers as part of a group, and when the leader says to shoot all must shoot. When the leader says to stand down, all must stand down. Police officers encounter dangers alone. There’s no leader telling them when to shoot and when not to shoot. A police officer must be able to make this decision by himself in the moment, and without hesitation.
Fear to Act
As a field training officer (FTO), I’ve had the same conversation with every trainee I ever received. It’s the same conversation that my FTOs had with me, and likely the same conversation future FTOs will have with their trainees: “This job is not about not making mistakes. You will make mistakes. There’s no such thing as a perfect call. The important thing is about how well you recover after you make a mistake.”
I spent a lot of time trying to unhinge that latent fear each recruit carried. No recruit ever really believed me when I told them that I wanted them to make mistakes—aggressive mistakes. I can fix aggressive, but I can’t fix a void. Training is the place to make mistakes.
Recruits unfortunately seem to view training as a pass/fail test. These recruits truly believe, as many officers do, that they can’t be seen to fail by making a mistake.
I spent months, riding in a car with a person who was afraid to tell me that he needed to use the bathroom. I watched him squirm in the driver’s seat doing a seated version of the potty dance. Then out of sheer masochistic curiosity, I waited to see how long it would take him to tell me he needed to stop. I must say while I was impressed by his fortitude, I was not impressed with the underlying implication. If you can’t make the command decision to use the bathroom, how then can you be trusted to make the command decision to take a life?
Recently I had the opportunity to speak to an officer who’d been involved in a shooting while he had been on field training. Like any officer worth his salt, this officer was Monday-morning quarterbacking himself. Asking himself what he would do differently if given the opportunity to do it over again. Now before I tell you what he said, I want you to take yourself back to when you were on field training. Take yourself back to that time when seeing an expired registration sticker made your blood start to heat just a little bit. That moment when you look at your training officer and the words “I want to stop him” slide past your lips even as you are reaching for the light bar switch. The implied question of “Is that okay with you?” hovering in the air. For some of us this trip back may take longer than others …
We spoke at length, and I was struck right down to my core by what he said. He felt there was a part of him that had wanted to shoot sooner, but his training officer wasn’t shooting. So he waited. He was looking to his training officer to tell him that it was okay to shoot, that it was okay to save his own life. Like many officers do, they both waited until the suspect had fired at them before engaging in a shoot out. I can’t help but wonder if the delay was in some way due to the engrained need for someone else to tell them when it was okay to start.
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in and fully support the training offered by our academies. Still, I wonder if there is there a fix for this police training paradox. I’ve seen, heard, and happen to work for one of the many departments that’s altering its training programs to make up for this training gap. By shortening the amount of time we spend breaking down recruits and increasing the amount of time building them up, these progressive departments are working to improve and increase the quality and delivery of scenario training during the academy. This can also be accomplished by adding regular ride alongs to the academy curriculum that will improve the recruit’s perception of police decision-making before they have to make those decisions on field training.
But is there more that we can do? I’m sure many of you thought of ideas while reading this article. I encourage trainers and officers to put their ideas into the world for judgment. Don’t allow yourselves to be satisfied with the status quo. Do for your department what you do for yourself: strive to be better and take action.