Money Won’t Fix Police Training

In one of his recent weekly newsletters, Greg Ellifritz (who writes excellent content) at Active Response Training posted a link to an article about police training in Ohio. It’s worth reading in its entirety. The short version is that, since people can’t be two places at once, conducting training pulls police officers off the street.  

For the police administrator, this means that not only must the department fund the training, it must also pay another officer (usually overtime) to replace that person out on the street. In addition, the officer attending training may also require overtime pay.

When you start adding this up across an organization, the costs multiply quickly. In many cases, they become unmanageable.

These are the types of issues most people tend to overlook when they rant about police and police training. However, they are very real issues.

Off the internet and out in the real world, these are issues that are just as real and just as impactful (though less acutely newsworthy) as the occasional failures of training and performance that manifest very publicly and painfully.

This is one of the reasons for BUILDING SHOOTER‘s existence and involvement in the industry. A series of similar experiences, spanning a variety of environments and organizations made these fundamental issues painfully clear.  After repeatedly experiencing the same problems, and watching others go through the same thing in other places, we started looking for real solutions that actually work.

There is so much out there in the training realm that isn’t much more than fairy dust. It sounds good in theory and may even work great given the right environment and resources. However, it’s just not realistic in the real world that most people inhabit. 

There’s a great saying that this author “reallocated” from a former co-worker. “Anything is possible for the person who doesn’t have to execute it.”

High minded declarations of intent are great. However, once you need to actually do it, hyperbole and fairy dust tend not to cut the mustard.

If we want positive change to happen, we can’t just identify desired outcomes and then mandate that resources which don’t exist be thrown in the general direction.  Instead we need to do things that are not only effective, but that are possible given the resources levels that are available, or at least reasonably attainable.

In response to the article, Ellifritz’s commentary is that he doesn’t see a long-term solution to the issues raised. We respectfully disagree. The bigger challenge is finding a short-term solution.

The long-term solution is there, it just requires us to make some big changes to how we do things.

Circling back to our own commentary above, declarations and fairy dust can be fun on the internet but have little to no actual value. Therefore, let’s talk specifics.

If we want to address the training issues in law enforcement for the long-term, the first thing we need to do is completely change the structure of the entry level (academy) training programs.

Bill Lewinski’s Force Science Institute has done some great work on this recently. We encourage you to read his research but the simple fact is that people don’t learn effectively the way we train them today.

This means new police officers are often not going into the workforce with the base of knowledge or skill proficiency that the public has every right to expect. It also means that the time and resources spent on the training are largely wasted.

We can’t just train people. We need to make people learn.

This issue of training design is one of the most fundamental issues facing the industry today. It is our bread and butter here and is the subject of our 2016 book Building Shooters.

The book is essentially a “terrain map” of the human brain.  It is written specifically around the subject matter of firearms and tactical training, but the principles are universal. It is about how the brain works.

This is admittedly tooting our own horn, but if you want to know how people learn (and how to make them learn), there’s not a better, more succinct resource out there on the subject. This is especially true if you’re in a field that (like firearms and tactics) requires preparing people to make decisions and perform under stress.

The bottom line is that if we shift to a brain-based training model like the one laid out in Building Shooters, we can make academy students learn effectively during training and retain this information for the long-term. We can also do this using more or less the same time and resource levels that exist today if we change the way we use what we already have.

There’s no way around it. What we do now doesn’t work because it doesn’t match up with how the human brain learns. It really is that simple. If we make our training methods align with the brain, amazing things are going to happen.

The second thing we need to do is take this same approach and apply it to in-service training.

This, admittedly, is more difficult. One of the advantages to academy/schoolhouse students is that they are a captive audience, all the time. They don’t usually have other priorities. Out in the workforce, this equation changes.

While the logistical challenges and resources associated with in-service training are somewhat different than those in academy settings, what’s not different is how the brain works. We still need to match our training methods with how the students’ brains learn and retain information.

This sounds challenging and, being blunt, it is.

This is especially going to be painful during early implementation.  However, the simple fact is that, just like during academy training, most of the resources (time, money, facility access, etc.) that we spend now end up being non-productive.

We don’t disagree that more time and resources can be used to improve training. However, we do push back against the notion that simply adding time and resources into the current structure will have any measurable long-term impacts on performance in the field. It won’t.

More resources can certainly be beneficial, but they are NOT a solution to the problem.

This is also why we disagree with the notion that there may be a short-term solution, but long-term solutions are a bridge too far.

We think it’s closer to the opposite. There’s no way to avoid the short-term pain that accompanies change. However, there IS a clear path forward to making things better.

Solving the training problem isn’t about more time or money. It’s about using time and money efficiently.

Fortunately, this is something we can do.  Again, let’s talk specifics. Fairy dust helps nobody…

First, we must dispense with the notion that training time and working time are necessarily separate for armed workforces. They can be. They do not always need to be.

Virtually every job has periods of operational inefficiency and/or downtime that either exist already or that can reasonably be built into existing workflows without compromising operational capability.  We must learn to leverage time and resources that already exist to our advantage.

While it may seem counterintuitive at first glance, the reality is that restructuring training in this way can improve more than the efficiency of the training delivery. It can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the training itself.

Think of a time when you may have been asked to memorize a speech or presentation. It probably took time and effort, even if it was a relatively short one. And, unless it was very recent, you probably don’t remember much of it today.

Yet, you can probably recite most of the lyrics for a significant number of relatively recent songs in your music genre of choice. You can also sing along with many dozens of other songs, even ones you haven’t heard in years.

One of these “memorization” tasks required dedicated, blocked-out time and effort and produced minimal long-term results. The other required little to no conscious or dedicated effort, yet it produced effective and long-lasting learning.

Without getting into the brain functions here, incremental and distributed learning structures simply work better than attempts to “firehose” information. The reason is that they match how the brain receives and processes information at a neurological level.

Second, we must abandon the notion that effective training requires high resource environments and long time periods. This assumption is false and hampers our ability to produce effective results with the resources we have.

High resource training environments can be extremely valuable, especially for advanced students. Similarly, long training periods can provide great value when students have achieved the necessary level of mastery to benefit from them.

Neither, however, are required to produce effective learning. In many cases, they can interfere with learning or even injure students who aren’t at the level of proficiency necessary to benefit from them.

Instructors must learn to leverage low resource training methods and techniques that can be effectively applied virtually anywhere. This can occur either within downtime that already exists or within “created openings” in existing workflows and environments.

Third, we need to leverage cost-effective technological tools. Some training requires in-person instructors. However, with today’s technology, much of it does not.  Technology can help us both reduce costs and improve learning.

For everyone reading this who is currently rolling their eyes, most of whom have probably dragged themselves through some sort of extraordinarily painful online “training” (or who frequently must do so in their profession), we feel your pain. However, just because these tools are not effectively utilized at present does not mean they cannot be.

Much like in-person training, cyber-based training can be aligned with how the brain naturally learns information. With the application of AI, some learning systems are now being used to purposefully develop in-depth knowledge and proficiency in new ways through application of brain-based models.

These technologies should be developed and tested for purpose, improved if necessary, and ultimately included as components of training, especially in areas where the development of detailed declarative (conscious access) knowledge is required.

Similarly, new technologies can help us apply similar, more effective learning methods to skill and decision training. If this concept interests you, either follow us or sign up for our newsletter – more to follow!

Fourth, we need to push primary ownership of the readiness and performance of the “armed” part of the armed skillset down to the operational leadership. At present, training ability in these skills is considered a specialized skillset. We don’t disagree. We do, however, question why it’s not considered a basic requirement for supervising and leading armed professionals.

To be fair, there are real logistics constraints with our traditional models of training. There are also valid concerns (liability-based and otherwise) about the content, structure, and quality of training in these subjects when the instruction and evaluation is distributed outside controlled schoolhouse settings.

Nevertheless, the general inability of field leadership across the armed professions to view, evaluate, or impact the “armed” component of armed skillsets is a significant contributing factor that interferes with efforts to address law enforcement proficiency and performance issues. 

Applying new training structures and using new technology appropriately can effectively address the issues that prevent this from being the case today. If we really want to improve operational performance we need to give leadership both personal ownership of the problem and the tools to solve it. Please see our newest book, On Training, for a more complete discussion of these issues.

Fifth, and finally, we need to change how and what we measure.  We consider this to be the second, fundamental, industry failure

At present, not only do we use training methods that don’t work, we train people to do things with firearms that would be virtually irrelevant to the job if they didn’t actually make it more difficult to achieve operational proficiency. Note that this is particularly true as it relates to making good decisions and de-escalating levels of force.

It is the nature of professional organizations with liability concerns that employees must be tested before they can do dangerous and impactful jobs. It is the nature of tests that they must be passed. It is the nature of people to practice for tests they need to pass in order to get or keep a job.

These things can’t be changed. We can, however, change the tests so that they are relevant to the job and so that preparing for them prepares students to actually do the job. Again, if you’re interested in this, follow us or sign up for our newsletter. There will be much more to follow on this subject and we have some really exciting things coming that we believe will fundamentally change training forever.

Both within the United States and globally, law enforcement is facing a period of extraordinary challenges with respect to training and performance expectations.

It is often the default position of any organization when deficiencies in performance are highlighted that more resources are needed to solve the problem. Law enforcement agencies are no exception to this rule.

More resources may indeed add value, but, in this case, they won’t solve the problem. 

Pouring additional funds into systems that don’t work won’t make things better. It is also a poor use of the taxpayers’ money.

We would be better off to make the changes that are necessary to achieve a long-term solution.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition