Why is Police Training so Awful?

Law Enforcement in the United States has been under an increasingly intensifying spotlight and has faced an increasing level of criticism for much of the past decade, especially regarding its use-of-force against private citizens.  While some of this criticism has been, in our opinion, either unjustified altogether or greatly overblown, it is also a statement of fact that police officers, in the aggregate, have a great deal of room to improve with respect to their tactical skillsets and related decision-making.

We submit as but one example the video of a recent police shooting. Please take a moment to watch it, with a specific focus on gunhandling.

We will refrain from making any commentary here on tactics, judgment, positioning, or decisions made by any party involved. We have no more information than anyone else with internet access and interest and uninformed criticism from the internet’s distant bleachers tends to have no value (at least not positive value). Therefore, we steer clear of engaging in it as a general rule, especially in a public forum. 

In any case, even (or perhaps especially) fully informed criticism of any operational action during a critical incident can be incredibly unfair to all parties involved. Critical incidents typically involve both sympathetic response and highly compressed timeframes for decision-making, often based on “not enough” information—much of which may turn out to be forensically untrue after the fact (our sensory and information processing systems are downright spooky sometimes).  Neither of these factors contributes to fully informed, cognitively reasoned decision-making.

However, we do feel that it is appropriate to comment here on the pre-engagement gunhandling and fundamental shooting mechanics exhibited in the first part of the video.  We won’t get into specific mechanics and techniques but, bluntly—at least one of these officers was simply not very well trained, at least with respect to clinical tactical skills with a handgun. As the quote goes, we don’t “rise to the occasion” when the chips are down. We fall back on our training, and here the results of that training are available for all to see—final outcome of the critical incident aside. 

The physical skills themselves may or may not have been relevant in any way to the progression or outcome of this specific event. That’s not appropriate to discuss here, nor do we have an informed opinion on the matter. However, there’s also zero question that the skills demonstrated can and should be significantly improved. Nor is there any question that improved skillsets in general for law enforcement officers tend to improve tactical outcomes across the board—for ALL parties concerned (excepting, of course, those who unquestionably deserve and require dropping the hammer).

Notice that we don’t assign any blame to the individual officer here.  This isn’t to suggest that individuals who carry guns for a living don’t or shouldn’t share a measure of responsibility for their personal skillset and skill maintenance. They should. It is also statement of fact that every armed professional in the United States is trained and qualified in the “armed” part of their armed skillset by the agency they work for. This means that it is ultimately the agency’s responsibility to appropriately train, qualify, and maintain its workforce—including the “armed” part of the employees’ armed skillsets.

An individual may own a measure of responsibility for their skill level, and certainly does so for their decision-making and actions on the job; however, the agency owns responsibility for their employment, job title, and duty post. If an individual with inadequate job-related skills is still on the job—it’s not at all their fault that they are still employed or on duty.  And, in fact, even the inadequate skillset may not be at all their fault—especially if they were “damaged” during their entry level or in-service agency training through poor training structure and delivery methods. (More on this concept applied to remedial training here.)

The fact of the matter is that, while there are many highly skilled police officers and many equally skilled and dedicated police trainers, aggregate police training, especially with respect to use-of-force and clinical tactical skills is, in a word, bad. 

This isn’t usually because there’s something necessarily wrong with what’s being taught. It’s because the training structure is broken. Fundamentally, training delivery in most law enforcement programs is misaligned with how the brain learns information—at a neurological level.

In other words, during most police training, students can’t learn this part of the job effectively.  Unless a student arrives at the training possessing a pre-existing skillset in these areas, it is physiologically impossible for them to develop a high-level one—at least based on the official program of instruction.

Don’t take our word for it.  For but one other source, we recommend reading about the Force Science Institute’s recent studies on police training effectiveness. 

Spoiler alert—it’s not good.

This leads us back to the question: why?  One would almost think that there are no alternative training methods available. Though…that’s not true.

Heavy public scrutiny on law enforcement actions is here to stay. Video evidence, both from body worn cameras and citizen cell phones is here—to stay. Social media is here—to stay.

Law Enforcement must adapt, and it must adapt with more than administrative platitudes, funding shifts, political expediency, and flailing away at the problem by throwing money in its general direction.

Nothing will ever create an environment free from imperfection; however, serious and fundamental structural training changes can go a long way towards creating significant improvements in the prevalence, actions, and outcomes associated with police use-of-force.

In the aftermath of these types of tragic events, there is a tendency for the discussion to immediately devolve into two diametrically opposed “sides.”  This is also a tragedy. Perhaps both sides could instead try uniting behind demanding the use of improved training methodology for law enforcement at both the academy and in-service levels.  That sort of rhetoric might do some real good—for every side.

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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