Deer in the Headlights

You're a field training officer on the midnight shift with a rookie in your cruiser. He seems smart enough and you've heard that he excelled in the academy. His shoes are shined and he's respectful. The radio crackles your call sign, sending you to an intrusion alarm at a nearby liquor store. You pull up on scene to find an empty parking lot and an open rear door. After directing other incoming units to set a perimeter, you say, "Let's go" and start toward the building. You turn to tell the rookie that you'll buttonhook right and he should go left--only to see him standing stock-still next to the cruiser, eyes like saucers.

Most of us have had at least one or two experiences like this. We all know about the brainiac recruits who effortlessly ace all the law exams but can't put a round on target to save their lives, or the hulks who regularly thump the instructor in defensive tactics but can't write a simple shoplifting report. But then there are a few who seem to do everything well--they're book-smart, they're fit, they shoot and fight class. But when you get them out on the street they fall apart, freeze up, and melt down.

Those are expensive failures. What does it cost to put a brand-new recruit through the academy and field training? The actual dollar cost varies according to the length of basic training, salary and fringe for the recruit, uniform costs, cost of training facilities, and so on, but an overall price tag of $50,000 to $100,000 per rookie is not out of the ball park. In these days of tight budgets and vanishing training dollars, we can't afford to put people through the academy only to have them wash out on the street--and that's just if they don't also get someone hurt--or worse.

What is going on? How can people make it all the way through the recruitment process, background checking, and weeks of academy training with nothing short of glowing reviews, only to crash and burn when they have to perform for real? Are our selection and training processes so badly screwed up that we let these clunkers through?

I don't think that's the problem. I think our selection and training does, for the most part, exactly what it's designed to do. We have reading comprehension and physical agility tests to ensure that recruits will be able to handle the mental and physical demands of the academy--and the job. We do background checks and psychological examinations to screen out the felons, cheaters, and psychopaths. We provide focused training in constitutional law, criminal code, investigations, emergency vehicle operation, firearms, and other areas to prepare recruits for the many tasks they're expected to perform in their jobs.

What's missing? Ask yourself exactly what makes police work both so difficult and so rewarding (and even, some would say, so addictive)? If you ask a hundred officers that question, you'll get variations on these three themes:

Every day is different--You never know when you go to work what the day will bring.

It never becomes "old hat"--No matter how long you've been a cop, you keep running up against something you've never seen before.

It draws on all parts of you--You get to use your mind, your body, and even your emotions on the job, sometimes all at once!

If we look at these responses, we can identify four characteristics of police work:

  • Variety
  • Novelty
  • Breadth
  • Concurrence

Our present selection and training processes do a pretty good job of addressing the first three of these characteristics. Let's take variety. Compare a typical academy curriculum, for example, to the curriculum for any other profession--even other emergency service professions--and you'll be amazed at the variety in the law enforcement curriculum. I recently went through the required training to receive state Firefighter 1 & 2 certification (I'm a long-time volunteer firefighter). Just about everything covered fell into three categories:

  • Organizational structure (for fire companies and incident management)
  • Fire behavior
  • Fire equipment (ladders, hoses, pumps, etc.)

Compare that to the typical police academy training. While organizational structure and police equipment are certainly part of it, so are tactics, law, investigations, domestic violence, crisis intervention, and a host of other widely divergent topics.

Closely related to variety is novelty. By the time a recruit is through the academy and field training, she has probably dealt with a dozen kinds of calls, some of which required her to put together knowledge and skills in new ways. Just because you've put one drunk under protective custody and taken him off to Detox, that doesn't mean that the next one will behave exactly the same way. Maybe the first one was combative and you had to combine knowledge of the law with fighting skills. The next one may be despondent and weeping, and you'll need to add crisis intervention or counseling skills into the mix.

We also prepare recruits reasonably well for the breadth of demands that police work presents. One of the reasons that the police academy curriculum is so much broader than the typical fire academy curriculum is that unlike firefighters (and any other profession, for that matter) brand-new police officers are given enormous autonomy and authority. No firefighter fresh out of the academy is going to be incident commander at a large structure fire. But could a rookie officer find himself first on the scene at a triple homicide? You bet. And if he were working midnights, might it be a while before a supervisor got to the scene--or even a veteran officer? If shift pick goes by seniority, absolutely. Police work demands broad knowledge and skills to handle whatever comes your way--even if it's your first night on the job.

What the typical selection and training process does not do well is prepare officers for concurrence--a lot of different things coming your way at once. We teach crash investigation in one class, crowd control in another, interview and interrogation in a third, first aid in yet another, and traffic direction in still one more. Yet consider an injury accident on a major thoroughfare. The responding officer had better be prepared to use all those areas of training at once. The victim who's bleeding can't wait for help until the VINs have been run. The drunk at-fault driver needs to be controlled now--not after the officer has interviewed witnesses. But the witnesses have to be identified before they wander off, and traffic needs to be managed before a second crash occurs.

The successful officer must be able to rapidly assess a situation, establish priorities, and start taking action. Training skills in isolation, as we typically do, does not develop the ability to make complex decisions involving competing values. So how do cops learn to do this? The usual answer is by experience--and as the saying goes, "Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from...bad decisions." Most of us screw up a few times and then improve. However, a few can never learn to juggle several things at once, no matter how much experience they have. Some people simply cannot multi-task. Those are the ones who freeze like a deer caught in headlights, unable to act under stress.

If we incorporated scenario-based training into the academy from day one, I believe we would find these people sooner--before they had consumed thousands of dollars of training resources and potentially mishandled a crucial incident on the street. I'd even recommend incorporating some simple scenarios into the selection process--and not just as a written scenario or an interview question. What if we required a prospective hire to role-play a simulated law-enforcement call? Obviously, we could not expect the applicant to know law and police procedure. Who cares? We know we can teach those things. What we would be looking for would be the ability to size up a situation, identify priorities, and choose a course of action--even if it wasn't the best one.

Pre-hire scenarios would need to be simple but not trivial. For example, you could have a homeowner who has discovered a homeless man asleep on her front porch. The homeowner could be instructed to be very upset and frightened for her safety and the homeless person instructed to comply with orders, but to leave only if ordered to. Throw in a nosy neighbor for good measure. Such a scenario would give a good idea of the prospective recruit's ability to function in a confusing situation with several people competing for attention.

As a bonus, you would get a quick sense of the recruit's ability to think ahead about the consequences of decisions--if he just boots the homeless man off the porch, where will he wind up next? Does the recruit think about problem-solving and long-term solutions to problems?

Once a person was hired, scenario-based training built into the academy from the beginning would help the recruit develop scene-management skills. As recruits move through basic training, they could be presented with increasingly demanding situations. By the time they graduate, even before they've spent any significant time on the street, they would have accumulated an experience "bank" that would improve decision-making--or make it clear that a particular recruit should consider a different career.

One instance of a recruit being unable to function should not necessarily end a career--we've all made mistakes and learned from them. But repeated failures should not be ignored. Without scenario-based training, the only way to find out if a rookie can hack it on the street is to put him out there--for a long enough time to see if he or she can learn from experience. Too often the cost of failure is measured not only in dollars, but also in damaged public confidence, and even in lives lost.