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.


  • 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.

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