Training vs. Learning

November 16, 2016

On October 29, in Haddon Township, N.J. a police officer made a traffic stop on Edmond Brown Jr., 38, of Camden. The reason was displaying a handicap placard while driving.

“Do me a favor. Shut the car off,” the officer said while standing outside the driver’s window.

But instead of complying, Brown hit the gas. Instinctively the officer reached into the car, presumably to prevent Brown from driving away. Perhaps the officer’s intention was to grab the keys, maybe he was going to try and put the car in park, but it’s possible the officer had no conscious plan as he dove headfirst into the interior of the car.

This isn’t meant to disparage this unnamed police officer. It’s to make what I think is an essential point. Why?

Training: Not What We Think

Why did he reach into a car when all training tells you not to do it? I’ll even bet that if asked his opinion about reaching into a car on a traffic stop the officer would unhesitatingly say that it was a bad idea. Perhaps he would add, “I’d never do that.”

So why did he, when training and common sense tells him not to?

Two reasons. The first is instinct. The second is: We really don’t train not to reach into cars.

Let’s deal with instinct first.

When Brown hit the gas the officer’s innate reaction wasn’t self-preservation but rather ‘control and contain.’ In other words: “He’s trying to get away, there’s a reason, and I must stop him!”

So, dive and grab was his instinctive response. Common sense abandoned him as did conscious recognition that reaching into and grabbing a moving car is dangerous.

Second: We don’t really train not to reach into moving cars. Let me explain.

On July 29, 2015, University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Sam DuBose as DuBose hit the gas and attempted to drive away from a traffic stop. He was charged with first-degree murder shortly thereafter. Last week the jury voted to acquit 9-3, ending the proceedings in a mistrial.

At the heart of Tensing’s argument, his justification for shooting, was that as DuBose sped away the officer felt himself being dragged, which caused him to feel as though his life was at risk.

The prosecutorial argument was: The only reason Tensing felt as though he was being dragged is that contrary to training, he reached into the car as DuBose attempted to flee. If he followed protocol and training and avoided reaching into the car, he would never have been in the position to perceive a deadly threat. said in an article: “Both sides agree that Tensing … made a tactical error when he reached into DuBose’s car before shooting him in the head…”

They continued: “Seven months before Ray Tensing shot and killed Sam DuBose … Tensing underwent training on how to handle such stops. Among the images in a PowerPoint presentation shown to officers: ‘NEVER.. NEVER.. NEVER.. NEVER.. reach into a vehicle.’”

And they’re right. Tensing did see that slide and did listen to the instructor. I’ll bet Tensing even wholeheartedly agreed with the concept.

But as good as the instruction and instructor were on that day—Chief Scott Hughes and his Tactics in Traffic program is one of the absolute best—Ray Tensing, as I would expect with the officer from N.J. in the accompanying video, were never actually trained not to reach into a vehicle.

They were told not to reach in. They were introduced to the reality of the dangers. They were shown examples of how doing so could result in injury or death.

But they weren’t trained.

Learning vs. Training

This is one of the biggest misconceptions by those both in and out of law enforcement. It is also one of our greatest failings.

We don’t train as much as we tell. We don’t practice in reality but rather check the box that we understood. Training happens at the subconscious level. Checking the box is, on the other hand, a very conscious action.

Both Tensing and the officer in N.J. reacted to the moment. They instinctively reached out to stop something that was moving away. The fact that they were told not to, that their cognitive processes understood they couldn’t physically hold back a moving motor vehicle, didn’t matter.

And it’s that reaction, that innate behavior that led to the subsequent events. Both resulted in guns being fired and citizens being hit, one fatally.


Knowing consciously does not automatically result in reacting appropriately when under real stress, unless actual training has taken place. Training—doing, feeling, and practicing while experiencing stress.

Classroom exposure to concepts and realities is a first and necessary step in training. The second step is in the doing, and this is where we fail. In the Tensing case, I believe this is what the jury came to understand: knowing is different than applying.

We, as a profession, need to commit to more dynamic training. Anyone can listen and pass a test. But the true test is on the street, in the reality, and we must train for that.

Related Posts

Should Cops Learn How to Fight?

Should Cops Learn How to Fight?

Silent No More: The FATAL 10 of Law Enforcement Suicide

Silent No More: The FATAL 10 of Law Enforcement Suicide

Hick’s Law and the Quagmire: Understanding Decision Making in Law Enforcement

Hick’s Law and the Quagmire: Understanding Decision Making in Law Enforcement

Lessons Learned After Two Suicide By Cop Shootings

Lessons Learned After Two Suicide By Cop Shootings

VIDEO: Cop Gets Stabbed in the Neck. What Can We Learn?

VIDEO: Cop Gets Stabbed in the Neck. What Can We Learn?