Why a Field Training Model Fails

We received a great piece of commentary on our recent article about why money alone won’t fix or improve police training. The comment compared law enforcement to the medical profession and asked why we can’t model law enforcement training after how doctors are trained. The example being years of school, multiple rounds of competitive entry, years of baseline training prior to entering the workforce, and then supervised, under instruction, performance by an experienced expert for multiple years after the school phase is complete.

It is an interesting comparison that, depending on what field you are working in and what set of life experiences you have, may provide an immediate and visceral reaction. For example, even ignoring the logistical and pay related issues, it would be easy to point out that medical errors are the nation’s third leading cause of death, where police killings aren’t even on the list. Or, perhaps, to throw some numbers together and compare the roughly 1,000 people per year killed by approximately 800,000 active police officers across the country with the roughly 250,000 people per year killed by medical errors made or overseen by the approximately 1.1 million doctors in the country.

These responses, however, ignore the actual value of the question. The question is an important one.  As a matter of pure fact, law enforcement actually IS structured in a similar fashion, though without the lengthy pipeline from uninvolved and untrained to member of the workforce. 

Law Enforcement is hugely dependent on training in the field to produce operational competency, and new officers are typically assigned a field training officer. In fact, with respect to use-of-force and firearms skills the system’s dependency on this structure to produce competency is a huge part of the problem.

On the job training and mentoring programs work when two conditions are met. The mentor must know both how to do and teach the task well and the task must be frequently performed on the job.  When it comes to firearms skills, neither of these conditions apply, certainly not at a systemic level. 

As we mentioned in the previous article, there is no firearms instructor requirement for field training officers. In some agencies, anyone who is not actively filling a billeted firearms instructor position is actually prohibited by policy from conducting firearms training for liability reasons.

Furthermore, even if field training officers had the knowledge, skill, and ability to conduct firearms training with new police (some do of course), they are severely restrained by a combination of available time and resources. This is especially the case as it relates to integrating thinking and decision-making into the development of firearms skills.

In reality, firearms skills are rarely used by law enforcement. The vast majority of officers will never use a sidearm in the line of duty throughout their entire career.  Therefore, it’s simply impossible to develop proficiency in these areas through on-the-job application in the same way one might for crime scene investigation, interviewing suspects, mechanics of arrest or, in the medical profession, removing gall bladders or repairing heart valves.  

Then, add to this mix, the fact that firearms and use-of-force skills have some very unique circumstances where they are used for real, circumstances that are always high stress and chaotic. This significantly changes the requirements around what it takes to learn these types of skills effectively, because certainly memory storage systems are not accessible under these conditions. If you would like to know more about this subject, our book Building Shooters is a good primer that walks through the science of it all.

The simple fact is that if you want to develop proficiency in “armed” skills throughout a workforce, the only way to do it is through training; it can’t happen on the job. Unfortunately, most of the methods and tools used for doing this today require a lot of resources and specialized facilities. This makes accessibility, and therefore the development of true competency, difficult to achieve.

This limitation is particularly relevant for training that involves thinking and decision making in conjunction with the physical skill performance. (Note that we are working very hard right now on solving this problem—follow us or sign up for our newsletter to stay apprised of future details.)

The reason that our reader’s question is so important is because it is not nearly enough to simply deliver information. It is also not enough to provide experiences.

Neither of these are bad (in fact, they are critical). However, if we don’t understand how our training is structured or how the structure impacts student performance, long-term learning, and our dependency on high resource settings, we are going to continue to struggle mightily to achieve small short-term gains with no long-term solutions in sight.

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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