On average a cop loses his life in the line of duty every 57 hours in the U.S.A. The majority of those losses happen when the cop is in or around his vehicle. Too many of them are one-car crashes where the cop lost control. If you refuse to believe that distracted driving is the root cause, then I believe you are living in a sad fantasy land.
My goal here is to focus on improving. It is not my desire to crucify an agency, a company or anyone else for the situation in which we find ourselves. For the most part, technology training in most cop shops today is a joke. And it is a bad joke, at that. The agency and the cops would receive more value if the crew was sent to the bar at the end of the shift and the department picked up the tab.
People are losing their lives because of failed training, a/k/a: the training gap. In the last 5 years, we have lost 5 cops and 1 civilian (that we know about). As technology spreads more deeply into agencies, the number of deaths and injuries will climb - unless we take action to change this deadly course.
The proliferation of technology into the patrol car and public venues is just now emerging. Mobile computers became real factors with the advent of the wireless internet, i.e. the 3G network from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others. The notion of a mobile office was made possible with the creation of the wireless internet.
It is important that we recognize the realities of this new environment so that we can adjust training and policies to match.
WHERE ARE WE?
If we look back to 1960, police officers did not have radios in their cars or on their belt. They communicated with dispatch using call boxes. They were required to call in once an hour to receive any calls waiting for service. State and national systems (e.g. NCIC) did not exist until nearly 1970. Back then, a cop could only check for warrants on a subject in his/her own department.
The famous MDT (small orange screen) was in use in large agencies starting around 1980. Mobile computers which enable inquiries, display pictures, allow us to write reports, capture fingerprints, and use GPS have only been widely in use for about 5 years. Yep - just 5 years.
Technology has radically changed almost everything about cop work on the street. The rate of change is increasing. As one very wise man said, "The technology bus is rolling. You can choose to be on it or under it."
Many / most cops are more proficient with a keyboard than with a pen. They grew up with a mouse and/or a joystick in their hands. The reality of life has come to this fact: patrol officers who have a mobile computer use it more than any thing else. That includes their radio, their pen, gun, TASER, etc.
THE MOBILE COMPUTER IS THE MOST-USED TOOL FOR A PATROL OFFICER IN THE UNITED STATES TODAY.
Now, as a point of interest: check the syllabus from the basic academy where your recruits are trained. See how many classes are taught that relate to the computer. That includes keyboard skills, various software products, and equally important is the tactical impact for cops of using this technology in a public venue.
I bet that I know how many hours of instruction you will find in your local academy on computers: NONE.
For that matter, in your department's annual in-service training schedule, how much time is devoted to technology training? I see: none there, either.
WE TRAIN OUR COPS ON COMPUTERS
Yeah, sure you do. Let's go over the most common scenario: it's called train-the trainer. I will use some real-life examples based on the roll out of a computer-based traffic crash report that has happened in southeastern Michigan. It was facilitated by a consortium of over 100 agencies covering multiple counties. At their size and self-proclaimed excellence, management of this consortium should know better.
A member agency sends two cops to a train-the trainer session at the computer center. In a scant four hours, these two receive the 130 page user guide and are turned into "experts" on the new computerized crash report.
One of the cops on the afternoon shift returns after 5 days off (by the way, he is a friend of mine). One of the new "experts" takes my friend aside to train him on the new software. My buddy is shown which icon on the screen to click to get access. He is shown how to get into the report writing screens and where to click to draw the diagram.
Voila! In less than 5 minutes, my friend is now an expert, too. (aaargh) However, my friend did NOT get 4 hours of classroom time. He also was not offered (or even told about) the 130 page user guide. He was left with this parting directive: if you need any help on your first report, hookup with someone else on the street that has already used the software to get your questions answered. And THAT, my brothers and sisters is what this department calls technology training.
A neighboring agency took a little different approach. The designated expert who went to the computer center is now charged with working one-on-one with any officer who requests help. He reports that completing a traffic crash report used to take about 20 minutes.
As of this writing, most cops are spending about 1.5 hours on the same task - using a computer. An added note: the designated expert now spends most of his working day helping others in his agency struggle through the new reporting system.
Our current failed training methods are quietly stealing the benefits we most desire from our investment of time and money in the new gear. It frustrates the cops who must adapt with little preparation and the administration who must listen to the complaining.
This training style needs to go the way of call boxes, carbon paper, typewriters and index cards in dispatch. It is outmoded, ineffective, and inappropriate. Worse, it is getting people killed.
BUT THAT'S NOT ALL
This sad story is not just about the failure of our current training methods when it comes to the "how" of using the computer.
More important, it is about the failure to train "when" and "where" to use a computer while remaining tactically safe about it.
You think that's not important? Really?
Do you think the spouses of Sgt. Mark Renninger, Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, Greg Richards and Mark Sawyers would agree that technology tactics are not worth training? These cops are all gone from our midst, in part because of their use of computers in public settings. We will find their names on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. in May.
Four of them are from Lakewood, WA. One is from Sterling Heights, MI. All are dead. We mourn their loss. But, now what are we going to do to avoid a repeat?
"BUT, TRAIN-THE-TRAINER DOES WORK," YOU SAY
Yes, it does. We are accustomed to using this approach when an agency sends officers for training to be their point person on their sidearm of choice. We have used it with chemical spray, expandable batons, and a host of other topics.
But, there are a couple of significant differences. First, in these other areas, the trainer becomes certified to teach others. He has studied and passed an established course of material in order to be qualified to teach others.
This is possible because of one key factor: there is an existing body of knowledge that can be drawn upon to develop curriculum, teaching aids, testing materials, and other items germane to the teaching/learning process. This body of knowledge is governed by a state-level commission on law enforcement standards.
Mobile computers are an emerging technology. They involve hardware, software and decisions about how/when to use them. This technology is dynamic and rapidly evolving. Many agencies still select hardware that doesn't come close to matching its intended use. Software? We will just adapt something from records. Training? These kids already know how to use computers. That's good enough - right?
There is no vast body of knowledge. There has not been decades of experience from which to learn. Academies across the country generally leave computer training to the FTO, thus ignoring what will become the recruit's most used tool.
Cops are trained with great frequency throughout their careers. The training usually falls into a few categories.
- Cops are sent away to school, i.e. radar certification, field sobriety, intermediate weapons, etc. They are taught in a structured setting, like the advanced classes at the local academy.
- A short list of cops is sent to a school where the officer is certified to teach others. They learn about the product or device and they also learn the nuance of teaching fellow officers. Such classes are held by Glock, Sig-Sauer and TASER, to name a few.
- Another more costly method is when a certified instructor is brought into the agency and classes are held for the troops.
I have been conducting technology & tactics classes for over 10 years. Most student evaluations indicate that the student cops view the class topic as primarily covering officer safety and secondarily, how to use technology to help improve it. There is a curriculum, outlines, handouts, hands-on training, and audio-visual aids to drive the message home. Written student evaluations enable continuous improvement in delivery methods.
Could I train a trainer to produce a similar learning experience for their agency? You bet! It takes 32-40 hours of class time for a person to receive my certification that he/she is prepared to deliver the goods. Most administrators question why proficiency cannot be achieved in a couple of hours. Pose that question to the chief in Lakewood, WA. I am sure that he can tell you.
THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND
I have spent many years teaching cops about using technology in their cars and in public. About half of the class time deals with the specific mechanical issues of the software being taught: i.e. electronic crash reports, ticketing, NCIC inquiries, etc.
The remainder of the time covers using the technology safely. We must learn from the deaths of the 5 officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Now, there is an added risk: On November 5, 2009 a Jefferson City, MO officer struck and killed a pedestrian. He had been glancing at his computer while driving.
The typical knee-jerk reaction from most administrators: write a policy telling cops they cannot use the computer while driving. Uh-huh. Sure. I bet that policy will be violated within the first shift after it takes effect.
It is not practical. It is not reasonable. Going back to Detroit PD in 1960, when they got the first mobile radios that Motorola had to deploy. The general order came out shortly after the first crash: don't use the radio when the car is moving. I could imagine doing that, couldn't you? Uh-huh. Sure.
The computer is a critical communications element. Dispatch sends runs to the cops on the computer. The sergeant and other officers communicate important information on the computer. Cops know if a car is stolen or the driver is wanted - before making the stop - all using the computer.
Don't use the computer when the car is moving, you say? I might as well sit down at the coffee shop and take my runs from there, if that is the new rule. The bottom line: such a rule is not realistic, it is not practical and it is not safe.
WHAT TO DO
First, recognize this is NOT business as usual.
We are not training cops on how to use a typewriter or a fax machine. There is no huge legacy of knowledge and experience on which we can rely for guidance. There is no one else whose footsteps we can follow. We are feeling our way, collectively.
There are many analogies between computer technology today and where we were with TASERS when they were first introduced. We collectively recognize that a cop must understand how to activate and use the device. We must know how to load the cartridge without shooting the probes into our own hands. Equally important are the legal, practical and other implications of when we should (and should not) use this device. They are inseparable. Think of mobile technology training in the same manner as you think of TASER training.
Generally, most cops have grown up with computer hardware. A mouse doesn't throw anyone for a loop. However, cops have to learn how to use new software. It changes constantly. The 100+ agency consortium I mentioned earlier: they are on the cusp of deploying a 4th new report writing system in ten years. So far, each attempt has been a miserable flop that the cops had to endure. Wish 'em luck - but their track record isn't very encouraging.
Some software is absolutely wonderful for use on the street: large boxes, labels, fields light brightly on entry. Others, not so much. (ugh) To be sure: software designed for mobile computers is vastly different from the stuff used on desktops. It is deployed, used and trained very differently.
In addition to how the technology works, we MUST TEACH the tactical implications of using it in various settings. That's where our failure is greatest.
Trainers should be required to demonstrate that they are skilled with the technology and its tactical use. We must develop curriculum, standards, course materials and certifications. Our failure has cost us the lives of 5 cops and 1 civilian. There will most certainly be more if changes are not made.
A five minute discussion in the locker room while getting dressed for the shift can no longer be considered acceptable training for technology.
Most of us have been exposed to class offerings from Col. Dave Grossman, Street Survival Seminars, etc. Is there anyone among us who believes that you could send a cop or two off to one of these seminars and then expect those attendees to reliably provide the same experience to everyone else on their return? Of course not. Such a notion would be pure hogwash.
Why then, do we think that we can get away with it when it comes to technology?
Cops use their computers more than anything else at their disposal. They need to know how to make them work. They need to know where it is safe (and more importantly not safe) to use them. They need to be taught specific methods for maintaining situational awareness. They need to learn how to use the computer safely while they are driving.
The training gap, i.e. our failure to properly train is resulting in funerals, losses, and grieving families. We absolutely must begin to provide training that meets the needs, is structured, and holds the instructor accountable for producing students that are both proficient and safe.
It comes down to this simple goal: save just ONE LIFE. Keep just ONE NAME from The Wall in D.C.
It is now the time to take action. YOU can play a role in closing this training gap - TODAY. I am happy to help you save a life. Feel free to contact me by email (click on my name below). I am able to spend some time with you talking cop-to-cop about your specific situation.
I am aware that there are a couple of technology vendors who have stepped up to meet this need. I'm happy to share their identity with you. ASK BEFORE YOU BUY: What will this device or training do to directly improve officer safety?
Any technology that does not directly help in getting us home safely has no place in my car or on my belt.
That's my .02 worth. Your mileage may vary. As always, your comments are both welcome and appreciated.