Train for your life

It’s boring, really: doing the same thing over and over until it becomes reflexive, until it can be done in your sleep, eyes closed, hands going through the motions like they belong to someone else. And then one day you shoot out most of your load while crouched behind some dubious cover. Suddenly, all that training kicks in and you drop that nearly empty magazine, pocket what’s left of it, slam home a full one and you’re back in the action. Just. Like. That.

Sure, maybe you fumbled a little. Yours hands are sweaty and you’re under fire—and honestly, as much as your instructors talked about this, you didn’t really expect it to happen, at least not here, not tonight. But the thing is, you trained for this. Over and over and over until you were bored to tears and wanted to boot that insistent firearms instructor right in the tail end due to the number of times she made you do it again. You could have been home watching a game or spending time with your kids or even on patrol, actually policing. Who would have ever thought that all of that repetitive training would one day save someone’s life? Maybe even yours.

Your chief did. Your sheriff did. Your training officer did. Your supervisor did. Your state’s training academy did. Other LEOs who came before you did. The people who came up with your training courses did. And thank goodness for their foresight, because without them, you and the people you protected with that muscle memory response and those shooting skills, refined while sleepy-eyed and complaining in the cold, might be dead.

But shooting isn’t the only skill for which law enforcement trains, and with cuts shredding a lot of agency’s budgets, some critical training is being shoved to the side for when things get better. That, say the experts, is one heck of a mistake, because if you neglect training then things will never get better. In fact, inadequate training will only make policing more dangerous and infinitely less effective.

Reasons to train and train and train again

Sometimes you just have to remind yourself and your troops why you keep on doing this. You train because if you don’t, you can make mistakes. And all training doesn’t revolve around firearms, even though the experts say police tend to associate one with the other. Use of deadly force is only a small part of the whole training package, although admittedly, the most visible.

And what can happen to departments that don’t train like they should is scary, unless being sued is in your personal Top 10 list of things to do in the New Year.

Take a look at some of these cases drawn from an article compiled by Jack Ryan and published on the Police Agency Training Council’s website. Here’s what a look at the court documents in those cases revealed:

A woman who claimed that police violated her right to receive necessary medical treatment during an arrest processing sued an Ohio city. In part, the suit claimed the city had failed to properly train its officers.

In a New York City case, a district court held that “failure to train and supervise city employees can only constitute deliberate indifference by the city….”

In a third case, police were taken to task for allegedly training its officers to use a knee to the back of a subject’s neck while effecting handcuffing, despite one officer claiming in a report that they adhered to a different formal training standard.

A Denver case involving an off-duty officer brought into focus the need for and lack of off-duty training in the case of officers who are expected to remain armed and in on-duty status when off-duty.

The take-away is that the failure to train at all and the failure to properly train (which sound similar, but are really two different things) can be fatal to an agency. And, while training may look like an easy place to pilfer money when city officials are insisting on slashing your budget, you can’t afford not to train your officers because the costs of defending a lawsuit, both in terms of dollars and agency public relations, can make the tiny amount of money you plunk down for a training component or training officer…or even just occasional incremental training in tinier agencies…money that’s not simply well-spent, but often critical to your survival.

Here’s another thought from California State University at Long Beach professor and retired L.A. County sheriff’s deputy, Daryl Meeks, who says that back in the day he and his fellow officers were given 30 rounds once a month and sent to the range to shoot. Then budgetary cuts changed everything and the agency cut back by sending its officers to the range once a trimester.

“What they found out was that (individual) accuracy and the officers’ proficiency…diminished (because) you were no longer handling your weapon on a routine basis,” Meeks says.

He believes agency heads need to reassess cuts in their training budgets and find better ways to mitigate those reductions. “I think many of our executive leaders in law enforcement have not been able to harness this balance,” he says.

Meeks also believes that keeping training current, relevant and accessible should be one of an agency head’s priorities. He says supervisors with fewer dollars may want to find unconventional ways to train their officers, such as using time that might otherwise be used less productively in order to squeeze in extra training.

“We bought video training tapes…designed for that 15 to 20 minute briefing or roll call,” he says. Other agencies use the time to refresh officers on changes in the law, reinforcement of skills, introduction of new weapons, changes in criminal behavior and review both the law and departmental policies.

From the other side of the fence

To critically evaluate the importance of good training to police agencies, consider the views of one of the country’s leading policy liability consultants and expert witnesses. G. Patrick Gallagher of The Gallagher-Westfall Group has testified in dozens of lawsuits against law enforcement agencies. Gallagher also audits and reviews departments often working both with the agencies and their insurers to keep risk at manageable levels.

“I say you have to worship at the altar of performance because policies, training, supervision, discipline, review and revision are inputs, and the only output that we want is high-level performance,” Gallagher says. He says civilians don’t necessarily correlate new policy manuals and training to better policing: they simply want to see the results of those components with more competence and fewer lawsuits. Gallagher says many departments simply don’t understand this concept.

One area of training that’s often neglected, says Gallagher, and which has been the focus of a number of police lawsuits, is training aimed at off-duty behavior. He says that the public has grown to expect an off-duty officer to intervene, even if the intervention could make matters worse. “We’re talking about the issue of officer safety…(even if) the chances of success are slight,” says Gallagher.

He acknowledges that sometimes the officer wins, but adds that in many cases where the officer does get the drop on the perpetrators, officers responding to the scene can misinterpret what they find, resulting in officer-upon-officer shootings. “There’s more chance that we’ll be attending a police funeral than a medal ceremony.”

His recommendation: Assess departmental tasks and the skills officers are expected to maintain. Determine what level of performance is acceptable. 75 percent? 95 percent? (Note: Gallagher readily admits this is a trick question; what chief or sheriff is going to settle for less than 100 percent?) Then, train accordingly.

Do it economically

The North Carolina Justice Academy main campus sits on a flat, sprawling area of land adjacent to the small town of Salemburg, N.C., just outside of Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg’s U.S. Army base. Mark Strickland, the academy’s director, is unapologetically biased when it comes to his belief in the importance of police training; but then, he sees the results that good training can make in a department every single day.

“We at the academy really pride ourselves in providing good quality training (using) cost effective measures for the entire state of North Carolina,” says Strickland. In addition to basic skills like defensive driving, firearms courses and investigatory procedures, the academy also has specialized offerings. And the best part of the package is that this training costs state law enforcement nothing except the price of meals and transportation.

The NCJA also provides specialized training in agency settings, as long as the agency covers the costs instructors incur traveling to the site and staying in their jurisdiction. For agencies with large groups of officers to train, having the instructor come to them is a worthwhile expenditure and much cheaper than shipping officers out of town en mass.

Most states have similar access to state or regional law enforcement training facilities, but surprisingly, not all agencies take advantage of this low-cost way to beef up their training. Strickland says that smaller agencies, especially towns with only a small complement of officers, often find it difficult to operate shorthanded. But even small towns can be—and are—hit with lawsuits.

Academy Deputy Director, Wayne Ayers, agrees with his boss, but he adds that while good training helps mitigate insurance costs and aids the department in other areas that grow out of liability, it also creates a better officer. “It increases competency and the confidence of the officers themselves, which equates back to how they service the public,” Ayers says.

Both Ayers and Strickland point to the state’s community college system—one that is mirrored in all 50 states—as another inexpensive source of training for local agencies. Many turn to their local educational institution to supplement in-service training.

A final thought on critical focus

How to focus that training? N.C. Associate Attorney General Dave Shick, who has seen plenty of police lawsuits, offers this piece of advice to administrators who’d like to make their agencies as legally bulletproof as possible: Train the trainer.

“Considering the field training officer—I think that is an amazingly critical position on both a practical level and on a risk management level. That role is key, not only in terms of the agency’s risk, but also as a guardian of the public, because that FTO has the power to (turn) loose either someone who is a very qualified professional or someone who is not qualified and not well-trained,” he says.

Shick, who teaches a legal block to field training officers, says he believes they should be the agency’s best and brightest because they’re the ones who ultimately decide whether an officer is able to handle the demands of the job. He says that if an FTO turns loose an unfit officer, then it is essentially reflective of departmental policy and sets the department up for future legal liability.

“That is deliberate indifference, and that is what causes agencies to be liable for constitutional torts,” he says.

By the same token, says Shick, that same FTO can protect the community by refusing to turn loose officers whose skill sets aren’t what they should be, protecting both the agency and the community.

The ultimate message: training counts. And budget cuts notwithstanding, no agency can afford to cut training without also cutting its chances of staying out of court.


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at