As new officers, most of us are full of energy and can’t believe someone is paying us to do this job. It’s fun and exciting. Each call is a new and different experience, and we can’t wait for the next one. As time goes on, we continue to love the job, but we become less and less excited about going to those calls. We begin to realize the common characteristics between calls and apply that knowledge to maintain safety and conduct better investigations. We begin to gain valuable experience that can benefit new officers. If you are at this stage in your career, maybe now is the time to consider becoming an instructor.
If you’re interested in becoming an instructor, decide what it is about this job that you’re passionate about and pursue that specialty. If you’re passionate about teaching and enjoy seeing people grow early in their careers, being a field training officer may be perfect for you. If you enjoy rolling around on dirty mats with sweaty and stinky cops, there’s no better job for you than being a defensive tactics instructor (save your nasty emails; I’m a DT instructor too). Whatever topic you’re passionate about, there’s an instructor spot waiting for the right person. But do you have what it takes to be a professional instructor?
There are many instructors who are good at the nuts and bolts of their training material. Their physical skills are top-notch, they’re knowledgeable and they stay current with the latest information available. This includes firearms instructors who perform demonstrations well and convey “the why” in a way students understand. Unfortunately, I’ve also observed trainers who fail to lead by example. During classes, they say the right things, but as soon as class ends, they fail to practice what they preach.
Even more important than having a passion for their area of expertise, law enforcement instructors must recognize they are leaders and work to promote leadership skills and behaviors.
Start with leadership
On the street, how many defensive tactics instructors have you seen do lazy pat-downs? There are firearms instructors who routinely fail to carry off duty, and vehicle operation instructors who are constantly texting on their cellphones while driving. Finally, my pet peeve: instructors who fail to work on their own skills to the point where they no longer do demonstrations for their students out of fear of failure. This undermines what the instructor teaches in class and results in a lack of instructor credibility.
In the firearms training world, I refer to these folks as nothing more than a red shirt and a Sharpie. A credible law enforcement trainer must “talk the talk and walk the walk.” To be credible instructors, we need to set a positive example for students during classes and in our daily lives. This includes continuously working to improve our skills, modeling the behavior we want to see from our students and practicing what we preach.
Even more important than having a passion for their area of expertise, law enforcement instructors must recognize they are leaders and work to promote leadership skills and behaviors. Instructors who fail the leadership litmus test are worse than useless. They actively work against our officers, our departments and the values of our profession.
There are many reasons why some law enforcement instructors fail the leadership test. Lack of role models, lack of leadership training for instructors and lack of ability to self-evaluate all contribute, but the primary reason some instructors fail as leaders is because it’s hard. Too many instructors take the path of least resistance because it requires less time, less energy and less effort. It’s easy to fail to practice leadership skills because leadership behaviors require work and self-discipline.
Raise your standards
Once you have earned the coveted title of “instructor,” your commitment to continuing education and training have just begun. There are many in command positions who believe that once you become an instructor, you know everything there is to know about the topic. You went to instructor school, didn’t you? What else do you need?
When you become a law enforcement instructor, it’s like earning your first black belt. All it means is you have advanced to the point where you’re finally ready to learn. Unfortunately, when you combine the management staff I mentioned earlier with instructors who don’t know what they don’t know, you have training that is doomed to fail. This is how training becomes dogmatic and we continue to do what we have always done. If the instructor doesn’t know any different, all they do is regurgitate the same material over and over. This training vomit is why most law enforcement in-service training programs lack quality and learning value compared to training programs available to the general public.
Many law enforcement instructors get their feelings hurt when I point out how much better the driving programs are in the public sector compared to in-service training. Firearms training, defensive tactics training, leadership training and basic instructor development are all better in the private sector compared to law enforcement in-service training. Until we stop being offended by this and work to make it better, our officers will continue performing at a subpar level. The primary reason a lot of private-sector training is more advanced than in-service training is because it doesn’t train down to the LCDs, or lowest common denominators.
The private sector doesn’t train to minimum standards, but that’s exactly what we do during in-service training. As a firearms instructor who conducts classes all over the United States, I can’t keep track of the number of times an instructor has told me they can’t do “advanced” training because their officers can barely pass the qualification course of fire. Since a qualification course of fire is nothing more than a minimum standard, if all instructors do is teach to the minimum standard test, is it a surprise to anyone that their officers have trouble passing the minimum standard test? If we continue to saddle our officers with the curse of low expectations, they will meet those expectations. However, if we raise our expectations and ask more of our officers, they will rise to the occasion. Expectations can determine outcomes.
Education and training
Too many officers and instructors take the position that if the department isn’t going to pay for the training, then they don’t need the training. I would ask you to reread what I wrote about LCDs, minimum standards and leadership. If you take the position of law enforcement instructor, you take on the responsibility for the well-being of others. It’s not about you. It’s about the people you train. But it goes further than that. It’s about the spouses, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins of the people you train. You owe it to the families of the people you train to be a better instructor and to help make their loved one the best officer possible.
Professional instructors will spend their own time and dime to be better. Go to classes outside the law enforcement fishbowl and see what’s working in the private sector. Join professional organizations in and out of law enforcement. For example, all instructors would benefit from Toastmasters International. If you want to practice and improve your communication, public speaking and leadership skills, Toastmasters International probably has a local club near you filled with folks who want to help make you better (toastmasters.org).
When it comes to a professional law enforcement instructor organization, it would be hard to beat the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA). ILEETA is an organization dedicated to the continuing improvement and effectiveness of law enforcement instructors. If you’re a law enforcement instructor, you owe it to yourself and your students to join ILEETA and attend the annual ILEETA Conference (ILEETA.org).
Just be better
Law enforcement is a noble profession, and instructors must ensure they uphold the principles of leadership, commitment and excellence. If you want to be a trainer, conduct yourself professionally and live by the ethics expected of a leader. Be the example you want to see in others. If you start here, you will have what it takes to be a teacher, trainer, mentor, leader and instructor. Or do you just want to be a red shirt and a Sharpie?