Deer in the Headlights

We've all seen them--the ones who do everything well...in class. But when you get them out on the street they fall apart, freeze up, and melt down.


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 well...in 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:

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