Academies Don’t Fully Train Rookies…Alone.

January 17, 2020

When my cell phone rang, I was glad to answer. The call was from a buddy – not some robocall promising lower rates or baiting me into giving up banking information.

But it didn’t take long for that to change.

“Are you still teaching at the academy?” he immediately asked.

“Of course,” I answered.

“You guys have to start giving us fully-trained police officers.”

“Great idea,” I replied. Then I hung up, knowing that would make my point.

My friend called back. “You hung up on me,” he said, somewhat indignantly. “You’re right,” I answered, tempted to do it again. But I didn’t. Instead, I took it as a chance to educate a brother about what we trainers do, and – perhaps more importantly – what we can’t do.

Agencies and supervisors must change the way they view academies. They are only Phase One of an officer’s training. Basic recruit curriculum brings them about one-third of the way forward in their quest to become a whole cop.

That’s 33 percent. Score that on a test and you fail.

But it’s a start. It gets the “book learning” out of the way. You know – the definitions, statutes, ordinances, and procedures, along with a smattering of tactics and (depending on the instructor) some real-life situations to which those things apply.

Phase Two is field training. The FTO process, during which recruits still have that umbilical cord tied to a senior officer, is the “safety net” phase of their training. If they fall, there’s someone right there to catch them. Passing FTO means a recruit has made it about two-thirds of the way there.

That’s 66 percent – still a failing grade in anyone’s book. But the new officer is getting there.

The final – and the most important – part of a recruit’s training is the probationary period they spend under the tutelage of a good sergeant or lieutenant. During this time, they are functioning as a fully autonomous law enforcement officer. They are making their own decisions (and some mistakes) but still learning (as I hope they do for the remainder of their career). During this last phase, officers learn safety habits and other skills which will last them a lifetime.

There is no experience like experience.

A few years ago, one state flirted with the idea of creating a basic recruit curriculum with the goal of producing officers who have learned the equivalent of two years of on-the-job experience.

Despite its lofty but noble goal, the program didn’t fly.

The well-intentioned course involved the creation of a virtual city and county which would be central to every scenario the recruits would face. But it was poorly executed. Trainers found the scenarios unwieldy because of unrealistic time demands.

For example, let’s look at traffic stops. For a class of 30 recruits, how many scenarios can be completed in a day involving traffic stops designed to take 10 minutes each?

Even if the “driver” being cited is totally compliant, it would take a couple of minutes to debrief the situation, give instructions to the next group for its turn, etc. Each scenario would realistically be around 15 minutes long. The best you can hope for is four or five scenarios in an hour.

For a class of 30, just getting them through a basic stop scenario – with a ticket or warning, and absolutely no other wrinkles – is close to an eight-hour day. And that’s for only one repetition per student. At this rate, it would add a week to the academy to get each student five scenarios which might include two or three “easy” traffic stops and a couple with an arrest, some verbal resistance, a search, or whatever.

With that in mind, how many weeks, months or years would have to be added to the academy to produce a fully functioning police officer who has the equivalent of two years of experience? It would be an expense in both time and money that few agencies would be willing to bear.

So, equal responsibility to train new officers will continue to fall on our supervisors and mid-level leaders. And shouldn’t it anyway?

Most of us will always remember our first supervisors. We learn from the great ones and even the lousy ones. The really good supervisors make a lasting impression. If you are really good, your people might even quote you years later.

And great mentors are needed today more than ever, as our profession is being attacked from all sides. There are safety issues everywhere out on the streets and a constant anti-police barrage from people with political agendas doing everything in their power to make our agency or profession look bad.

Our first-line supervisors – especially those assigned to work with first-year personnel – must take this task seriously. The future of our profession is at stake. You cannot expect the academy and the FTO to send you a trouble-free, fully experienced officer. You can’t just conduct roll call, tell them, “see you in eight hours,” or however long the shift is, and expect them to avoid dilemmas.

You can’t just sit around and expect them to develop, trouble-free, on their own.

Show up on their calls. Not every call, of course, but establish to new officers that it won’t be unusual for them to see you on a frequent basis. Watch how they handle stress, how they talk to people, how they interview, how they interact with their peers, and how they perform in use-of-force situations. Are they the officer who can deescalate a situation, or do they throw gas on the fire?

Read their reports. How do they write? Is their report clear and understandable? Does it contain all pertinent facts? How are they on tactics? What kind of public image do they project on behalf of your agency? And on, and on, and on.

I laugh at the idea of a supervisor who conducts monthly performance evaluations on a probationary employee but never shows up on their calls. How is that evaluation meaningful? Is it even valid?

You have a duty to monitor your people. No, you don’t have to be a helicopter parent. In fact, letting them make a mistake or two helps them learn – as long as the situation is not dangerous, immoral, or illegal.

We trainers don’t have magic pixie dust in our toolbelts that we can sprinkle on a new officer to make him or her a “whole cop.” We can’t instantly produce fully functional officers who all have zero issues and who are ready to take on everything this crazy world can throw at them.

It takes the combined efforts of every single person who has the opportunity to influence the career of a rookie officer. That time spent is an investment – not an expense – in the future of our profession and the safety of our society.

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