By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
I’ve been around for a while. I’ve worked with officers who were around before anybody paid much attention to the 14th amendment. That means pre-Miranda, pre-Escobedo, pre-Terry. The day I was sworn in began my three week field training. It wasn’t quite “here’s your badge, a map, and the car keys – stay out of trouble” initiation that many of my era got, so I felt well prepared! Seven months later I attended a three week police academy, although I was exempt since the mandatory training law went into effect after I was hired. I was in the very first class that the law mandated, hosted by our state law enforcement agency.
Thereafter, I snapped up any training I could get, read everything I could find that I thought was relevant, and spent hours studying through my courses and sat in classrooms earning my degrees while working my full and part time jobs. I share that characteristic with a lot of officers, in this era when cops are accused of being poorly trained and minimally educated, who eagerly and sacrificially pursue knowledge.
What Cops Don’t Know
Former Defense Secretary McNamara raised eyebrows in 2002 in commenting on progress on the war on terror when he said “There are known knowns, things we know that we know; and there are known unknowns, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don’t know.” Despite the roller coaster verbiage, there is a lot of truth in that statement.
With community policing back in the headlines, there’s no skill more essential than collaborative problem solving to reach into the community in the current season of demands for police reform. That 8 hour block on community policing very likely gave little or no attention to the collaborative process.
To be fair, hardly anyone does collaboration by the book. In its purest form, collaboration is the work done among people who consider one another equal in value and contribution, resulting in the definition of a problem, and construction of a solution satisfactory to all collaborators. There are several roadblocks to that process. The first is the question of who gets to define what the problem is. The second is who gets to invite those who will be working on the problem. The third is that a resolution that makes everybody happy can be so watered down that in the end it makes no one happy.
Collaboration is at the other end of the decision-making process opposite coercion. Police officers are trained in the art of assertiveness and coercion. They are taught command presence, using a confident tone of voice, and schooled in martial skills to be used in extreme situations. Even when believing they are collaborating, officers are often leveraging their training in coercion by sitting at the head of the table, choosing the members of a team, bringing a definition of the problem for the group to address, and strongly advocating a pre-determined outcome. That may be a certain brand of leadership, and it may create an effective solution. But it is not collaboration.
Supervision and management
A common theme among the rank and file is that once a patrol officer is promoted, they forget where they came from. In those cases where that is true it is truly a shame. But what often happens is that that newly minted supervisor is suddenly faced with all of the realities of decision making that they never knew, and never read about in management books.
In due course, patrol officers will have the opportunity to gain experience in supervisory roles. For the officer on the career track through promotions, there are schools and courses that will prep them for those stripes, bars, and stars. But what patrol officers really need to know is what kind of obstacles and challenges those currently holding leadership positions are facing. Officers on the front lines deserve to know the reality of politics, budgets, morale, training priorities, cultural clashes, and a host of other interwoven complexities that result in the policies and procedures that guide their work.
Among the wonders and tragedies of human behavior is the world of the brain. Behaviors always serve a purpose, and the main purpose of the brain is short term survival. Understanding how the brain works can help officers better understand violence, memory, deception, self-care, and decision making. Understanding brain function can help transition an officer from feel-good training that talks about emotions and feelings to practical methods of dealing with stress and depression, perhaps saving their own lives and relationships.
Principles of learning, habit, motivation, and retention can accelerate training effectiveness and efficiencies. Poor teaching methods and poorly executed scenario training are serious impediments to the current state of police education. This applies to basic academy training as well as in-service and specialty training.
The politics of police reform will necessarily include legislative edicts about course content and titles. Influencers from policing must guide these efforts away from meaningless mandates and develop education and training that will carry law enforcement through the balance of this turbulent century.