When I first became a supervisor I attended a course where the instructor spoke about private businesses compared to government organizations. And I tuned him right out.
“We aren’t private industry,” I said to myself. “Apples and Oranges. So move on, no point in this discussion.”
And I was stupid. It took me years of being a boss and a degree in higher education to understand the point he was trying to make. Which is: Private companies are focused on producing a product or providing a service while government focuses on avoiding overt failures.
The best private companies self-evaluate, pay attention to the market, and consider what their customers need and want constantly. They invest in research and development, and—perhaps most importantly—they train those who provide the service in the most important aspects of the business.
In contrast, too many law enforcement agencies invest almost nothing in training. Few cops would deny that when finances are tight, usually the very first line item cut by administrators is the training budget. What’s left is just enough money to do little more than maintain the skills mandated by law.
And even when there are available funds, we fail to concentrate on, and train in, the area most necessary for true success in law enforcement: Dealing with people!
Human Behavior & Stress Specialists Required
We seem to misunderstand why we exist as a profession: To assist, serve and protect the public as well as controlling, redirecting, and influencing other people’s immediate behavior.
And what is it that our employees do while engaged in this purpose? Deal with people. Often people in crisis and experiencing stress.
Our officers regularly interact with people who are hurt, scared, confused, addicted, disoriented. They repeatedly get involved with the profane, the belligerent, the uncooperative, the combative, the threatening, the suicidal and the deadly dangerous.
These are complicated scenarios requiring we employ officers with unique human interaction skill sets and an abundance of common sense.
Indeed, mistakes have and will be made. When occasioned in the private sector there’s an examination—decisions and adjustments beyond simply writing a new policy. If training is required, a commitment to that training is initiated.
In law enforcement we need to do the same thing.
Upon examination, in my experience, when officers make mistakes most of the reasons for errors can be narrowed down to two glaring issues:
- Communication: Failure to read people accurately, understand what is needed situationally and the inability to communicate effectively; and
- Stress: An under- or overreaction while experiencing stress
So, if we were a private company that needed to keep both our clients and employees safe, and if our continued existence was based on successful human-to-human interactions, without question we would have both an organizational culture and training philosophy committed to these two fundamental aptitudes:
- Effective and complete communication skills steeped in reality; and
- A functional understanding on the actualities of stress
Think about it: Knowing that our job is all about people then shouldn’t our employees be masters at dealing with them?
True Communication Skills
We need to hire, educate, and retain officers who are able to determine and diagnose, often in the blink-of-an-eye, a person’s intentions, motivations, mental state, and needs. We would ensure that our personnel were expert at determining what a person wants and needs so the appropriate course of action and communication style can be employed successfully.
But communication skills are more than a one-day class attended by officers who have angered a citizen or boss. They have to be more than lip service as part of a check-the-box approach.
Effective communication must be an organizational value: A cultural commitment, practiced from the top down.
It’s an art to be mastered: science to be understood and utilized.
Law enforcement must make a commitment to train officers on understanding stress on every level. In particular, what happens physically, mentally, emotionally, and—most important of all—how to manage it in real time!
Our officers must be able to recognize how stress can negatively affect their own performance while engaged with others. We need make it clear that a maladaptive reaction to stress is a major reason failure occurs and that this is where our highest level of liability lies.
Private businesses and athletes train constantly for, and understand intimately, their mission. The good ones do anyway. They prepare for stress in order to perform efficiently when it counts. That’s how you win a game and survive as a business.
But in law enforcement, where the stakes are so high, we somehow hope that commonsense and an unlearned skillset will magically kick in when it matters most and under the most intense stress imaginable.
This way of thinking is pure insanity. Why are we this way? Because we have no competition, no one will get fired for doing nothing, and we can’t go out of business.
Even the lawsuit payments don’t seem to change our organizational behavior patterns. Cities seem to prefer paying out tens of millions annually rather than spend a fraction of that on improved training.
Here’s the thing: This job is like no other. As civilian peace officers we are entrusted by the public to protect, serve and use force as necessary. We can lose, save and take lives during a single incident. And we can, and do, make mistakes.
We need to ponder that as a profession.
We need to think differently. Let’s talk about focusing on success rather than limiting liabilities. Let’s discuss how to accomplish our purpose.