Modern policing faces numerous challenges. Officers are required to be many things, including law enforcers, counselors, social workers, medics, tour guides, investigators, report writers, mediators and leaders. The list could go on, but you get the idea. The point is, police officers are expected to wear many hats, and if our communities expect them to perform these duties well, officers need the training that goes along with each of these responsibilities.
For years, police managers and supervisors have been asking for “well-rounded” police officers. They want officers who can interview victims and interrogate suspects, make traffic stops, identify drunk drivers, engage in community policing and conduct investigations. These are all critically important to our communities. Generally speaking, these are the skills and activities officers need to master on patrol and to advance into special assignments or promotions. Most of the time, managers and supervisors who want “well-rounded” officers have good intentions, but in practice, “well-rounded” all too often means someone who is mediocre in a whole bunch of areas — the quintessential jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Maybe what we need are a few more subject-matter experts who can provide excellence in certain critical tasks.
If all you have are well-rounded officers, then you have a department without any expertise.
One of the reasons managers say they want “well-rounded” officers is because they realize officers are asked to do so many different things while serving their communities. If a citizen doesn’t know where to turn with a question or request for service, they call the police. Do you have a child custody question? Call the police. Do you believe your neighbor built his fence on your side of the property line? Call the police. Do you feel trapped on your front porch by a scorpion? Call the police (yes, this was an actual call for service I took earlier in my career). This profession has become increasingly complicated, and each officer needs to know where to find answers. The best answer a supervisor or FTO can give their subordinates is frequently “Where do you think we can find the answer to your question?”
Add in the actual in-progress criminal calls, mental health calls, requests for officers to speak at schools, traffic enforcement and special patrol requests, and it’s easy to recognize that we don’t do a very good job training officers for all the tasks they are expected to do well. I’ll give you another example. Ask yourself what the average person believes about the firearms training officers receive. The average person in your community doesn’t realize how low state-mandated minimum training standards are, so they don’t understand why officers can’t shoot a gun out of a criminal’s hand. Most people believe all officers are expert marksmen, expert drivers, MMA experts and capable of conducting criminal investigations as if they were Columbo. (If you don’t know who that is, where do you think we can find the answer to that question?)
Well-rounded police officers are important to our departments, but what about having some subject-matter experts mixed in? If all you have are well-rounded officers, then you have a department without any expertise. Sure, they can make traffic stops, but how many of your officers are proficient at recognizing drivers under the influence of marijuana or controlled substances? You may have officers who are good interviewers, but do they have the training and expertise of a polygraph examiner? Your subject-matter experts should have industry contacts throughout the nation and not just hang their hats on a basic instructor certification class. Subject-matter experts increase the professionalism of your department, help retain experienced and veteran officers, and can develop future talent for the agency. Additionally, departments that encourage officers to pursue areas of special interest can help prolong careers and increase career satisfaction. This investment can pay immediate dividends by keeping officers invested in their department.
Mark Linville is a retired police officer who is a standardized field sobriety test (SFST) and Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). He was recognized as the Oregon DRE of the Year, as well as the DRE Instructor of the Year. He trained throughout the Pacific Northwest and is widely recognized as one of the best in the country. Mark believes departments want officers who are well-trained to do every function of the job, but they should also want to develop officer expertise in a variety of areas. Mark used the example of how a SWAT officer with specialized expertise can help spot talent for future SWAT positions.
Mark believes trainers should strive to develop subject-matter expertise. He told me that basic instructor schools are the beginning, but “you can’t stop there if you want your trainers to be at the top of their game.” He believes great trainers motivate people and inspire them to be better.
Unfortunately, there are many supervisors and managers who are threatened by their people establishing expertise. This seems odd, considering how managers in command positions claim to encourage the development of their people, speak of mentorship and declare how they want officers who are problem-solvers. While it’s true that law enforcement agencies spend millions upon millions of dollars each year on “leadership” training, it seems like there is a distinct leadership vacuum in many of our departments. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are insecure supervisors and managers who feel threatened by the expertise of their subordinates.
The bad news is that this type of manager will not appreciate your work and will continue to haunt you because of jealousy. But there is some good news for current and future subject-matter experts: You can overcome the pettiness of these managers through hard work, courage and constantly striving to do the right thing for the right reasons.
Kevin Davis is a retired police officer, author and nationally known use-of-force trainer and expert witness. He offered some of the best advice I’ve heard: power through. Kevin encountered many roadblocks from jealous managers and supervisors with “eggshell” egos. He said, “Many of us who pursue competency, then excellence, in a chosen area of law enforcement are oftentimes attacked by those who choose the promotion track. Their ambition to be in control does not include excellence, mastery or advanced study, unless it is studying for a promotional test. I simply did not let self-centered careerists get in my way.”
If this sounds highly cynical or negative, think again. Kevin was quick to point out how there were some leaders who were confident in their own knowledge and abilities. He told me these leaders sought out experts when they knew it was outside their lane, then tasked the experts with a mission, stood back and let them do what they did best. He said, “It wasn’t about ego; it was about what was good for the agency.”
I asked Mark Linville what advice he would give officers seeking to become subject-matter experts. His advice was similar to Kevin Davis’: Stay hungry. Stay committed to what you believe is important and focus on being the absolute best you can be in your chosen field.
Mark recognizes how it can be hard for leaders to admit there are people who know more than they do. “Some supervisors seem to think that with rank comes an expectation from their subordinates that they’re an expert in everything. However, it’s just the opposite. The troops want to utilize their skills to help other officers do better. When the officers are given the freedom to use those skills, it’s empowering to the officers, helps the agency succeed and everyone wins.” Mark said the best supervisors and leaders recognize the value of having subject-matter experts. These supervisors ask how they can help their experts achieve goals and become better. Then they make it happen.
It’s true our departments need people who are well-rounded. These people carry the daily load of the department, have most of the public contacts and are generally the face of the department. They are assets to our agencies, and their contributions should be valued. However, we also need small groups of subject-matter experts who can provide a unique resource and perspective to our departments. Their value and efforts should be respected and appreciated by supervisors and leaders, instead of letting the jealousy of managers create obstacles to excellence.
Todd Fletcher is a retired sergeant from central Oregon with over 25 years of law enforcement experience. He presents firearms training and instructor development classes nationwide. Todd has presented at regional, national and international conferences, including multiple ILEETA conferences and IALEFI events. He owns Combative Firearms Training, LLC, providing firearms training, instructor certification and instructor development classes to law enforcement, military and private security. He can be contacted at Todd@CombativeFirearms.com.