After any high-profile use-of-force incident, a familiar mantra is soon repeated. Police critics and politicians decry the officer’s actions and declare that “Police officers need more training!” Assuming there is a problem to begin with, proposing that officers need “more” implies that the problem is simply a matter of the quantity of the training.
Any experienced officer can point out the flaws in this mantra that the police need more training. First, just because a particular use of force goes viral or does not look good, that does not necessarily mean the officer’s performance was somehow lacking and they need additional training. That is something that must be determined through an objective analysis of the facts by a competent investigator. Second, if the officer’s performance was poor, sending them to receive additional training may not solve the problem nor lead to better performance in the future. That is because doing more of something that is not effective will not magically make it effective.
For example, imagine your son is a high school senior who is struggling in his honors trigonometry class. Sending him to receive after-school tutoring in basic addition and subtraction will not help his performance on his upcoming trigonometry finals, no matter how much more addition and subtraction tutoring he receives. He needs specialized training that is designed to help him master trigonometry. The same is true for police officers. Sending police officers to more training will not necessarily fix a performance issue, because perhaps quantity was never the real issue to begin with.
As the laundry list of mandatory topics grew, our allotted hours to train did not.
After some quick math, I determined that the amount of training I have undergone in the past 24 years as a police officer adds up to thousands of hours. From conventional topics such as firearms and criminal investigation to exotic topics such as weapons of mass destruction response, the subject matter has spanned the gamut. In a cycle that has repeated itself each one of those years, new mandatory training topics were added on a regular basis. It became more challenging to maintain my proficiency in core skills because I was constantly inundated with new subjects to learn. Many of those new topics evolved from the ever-growing list of mandatory training that officers like me were to receive. Lobbyists, activists, legislators and the so-called “good idea fairies” would decide what new topic police officers in my state should be trained in and voilà, a new training topic would be added. The problem with that is as the laundry list of mandatory topics grew, our allotted hours to train did not. This meant that any discretionary training time, or time to train in basic core skills, was eaten up by the need to satisfy the ever-growing list of new mandates. More importantly, police training is often focused on satisfying the mandate and checking a box instead of whether learning occurred or whether the training will improve performance in the field. Too often the discussion about police training is framed in terms of hours, not efficacy. Police officers do not need more training, they need better training.
What may come as a surprise to some police critics is the fact that a lot of law enforcement officers are equally frustrated by the current state of law enforcement training. Officers crave high-quality training, yet they are often forced to sit through ineffective training, if it can be called training at all. Perhaps it should more rightfully be called compliance activity. Police officers deserve better than training that is only designed to maintain a minimum certification or satisfy a new mandate. They deserve training that will improve their ability to perform.
Let us change the mantra from “Police officers need more training!” to “Police officers need better training!” Our society has tasked police officers to make split-second, Olympic-level, Ivy League decisions in some of the worst circumstances imaginable. Said plainly, officers are required to be professional and effective. Can we agree that their training should be equally professional and effective?