“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.” - Margaret Thatcher
I train thousands of female police officers and civilian employees every year, and the other day as I watched people enter my classroom I noticed that one of the major differences immediately visible in each student is their level of “confidence.” Some walk in and immediately “own” the room; they are comfortable, curious, and interactive with strangers. Others enter the room with hunched shoulders, eyes down or darting nervously, and they usually make a beeline for the back row. Some look angry, some seem defeated, others absolutely bubble over with optimism. What is it that determines this behavior?
I once read that “confidence is learned, not inherited.” I believe that to be true. How confident are you? What kind of impression do you make when you walk into a training class, into the roll call room, into a domestic dispute? Does confidence matter in this profession? Absolutely! It can be essential to your very survival.
I was supremely confident when I started the police academy on a cold Monday morning in early 1981. I was in great shape, I had a good education, and I possessed the youthfully naïve view that if I worked hard and did what I was told, I’d be rewarded with a great academy experience. That was on Monday. By Friday, I was the only women who hadn’t quit, and the extraordinary “hazing” was just beginning. It was going to be a long winter, and for the first time in my life, my confidence started to erode.
Let’s face it; it takes a certain level of confidence to even apply to become a cop. You know right from the beginning that the training is going to be tough, you’re going to spend your career dealing with the dregs of society, and you may quite possibly get hurt or even killed. And women who pursue a career in law enforcement also know that it’s a male-dominated profession, so supreme confidence is a must. So what happens to so many female police officers after they get hired that erodes their belief in themselves and their abilities?
Training, Equipment and Confidence
It’s no secret that men and women are very different physiologically. As police officers, we must be able to perform the same functions, and that includes physical tasks such as subject control and gunfighting. However, there are gender differences in the way we perform some of those tasks, and many trainers are unaware of those differences. Many women (and smaller men) are issued handguns that don’t fit their hands, often because of antiquated policies, a simple lack of knowledge or occasionally as a misguided tool to “weed out the weak.” I’m no firearms expert, but I do know that an ill-fitting handgun affects the shooter’s accuracy. Those poor shooting scores then lead to students who dread training, who are frustrated, and who begin to lack confidence.
Defensive tactics is another area where both men and women must be ready and able to take control of violent subjects quickly and decisively, but too often we’re training officers to perform “moves” or learn a “system” instead of teaching them to win fights. Instructors not only need to know how to perform various control techniques, but they need to know how to teach them to different people. Veteran police trainers like LouAnn Hamblin (the 2009 ILEETA “Iron Cop”) and “Little Joe” Ferrera have taught me (and thousands of others) that size and sex have very little to do with effective subject control. Methods like theirs need to be embraced and adopted universally by academies and police departments. Instead what we often see are “one-size-fits-all” tactics or DT methods designed not to train, but to humiliate the student or show the class just how tough the instructor really is. I’ve also seen too many tactical trainers who coddle female students, and these women end up learning little about defending themselves or others. Poor training methods directly affect the confidence of the officer; if you don’t believe you can win a fight, you probably won’t.
Regaining Your Confidence in Your Competence
Whether you have 2 years or 20 years on the job, it’s never too late to take control of your own skills and abilities to increase your confidence. As we teach in the “Street Survival” seminar, “Competence Builds Confidence.” If you have a handgun that doesn’t fit, approach your range master or administration about getting a different one. You may experience resistance at first; after all, law enforcement is very much a “that-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” profession. Before you approach anyone, do your research; find out what’s out there that will fit your hand and still provide the firepower similar to your current duty handgun. Then use what Dave ‘JD Buck Savage’ Smith calls “The Power of Positive Annoyance.” Find out the costs involved (not only for the handgun and ammo, but for new leather gear, training, and maintenance) and find a few area departments who use that handgun successfully and ask for a copy of their policy. Document in a positive light why this handgun should be adopted for use by your department; IE: it will make you and other small handed officers safer and better able to win gunfights. Be prepared to have to purchase it with your own money (after all, what is your survival worth?). It took me nearly a decade to get a duty gun that fit my hand, and another decade to get one that I really loved, but what really helped me see myself as a “gunfighter” was attending an all female pistol class put on by one of the only woman-owned police training companies in the country. Being in that socially safe environment (provided by LouKa Tactical Training) put the icing on the cake of my confidence on the range.
The same goes for your subject control skills. If you lack confidence in this area, first assess yourself. Do you need to get into better shape, lose or gain a little weight? Would a martial arts or a boxing class help? Do you need some one-on-one work on your handcuffing skills? Figure out what you need and then seek it out. Don’t rely solely on your less lethal tools like TASER or OC, you need to be able to depend on yourself, and so do your fellow crimefighters. If your department doesn’t provide the kind of training you’re looking for, get it on your own. Again, you have to decide what your own safety and survival is worth. Is it worth a week of your vacation time and a few hundred dollars to build your confidence back up? I believe strongly that it is, and the more personally you are invested in your skills, the harder you’ll train, the better you’ll become and the more confident you’ll be.
“Confidence” is also one of the many traits of a good leader. Next month I’ll take about being confident in yourself not just physically but administratively. Until then, stay safe!
About The Author:
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 29-year veteran of a large suburban Chicago police department. Recently retired as a patrol supervisor, she has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training. As a sergeant, she supervised her department's K-9 Unit, served as a field training sergeant, recruitment team sergeant, bike patrol coordinator, the Crowd Control Bike Team supervisor, and supervisor of the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit.
As a patrol sergeant, Betsy served on the Elderly Services Team, the Crisis Intervention Team, and was a supervisory member of the Honor Guard Unit. From 1999 - 2003 Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network and served as a content expert.
A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy writes for numerous law enforcement and government publications including and is a regular columnist for many police websites including Police Link. A content expert and instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar since 2003, Betsy also serves as an on-air commentator and advisor for Police One TV and was a featured character in the Biography Channel’s “Female Forces” reality show. Betsy has been a law enforcement trainer for over 20 years and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences throughout the United States and Canada and beyond.
Betsy is the lead instructor for the Calibre Press “Street Survival for Women” seminar and manages Dave Smith & Associates. Together, Betsy and Dave teach courses through “Winning Mind Seminars,” an Illinois based company. She can be reached through her website at www.femaleforces.com.