On-the-Job Training Fallacies for Law Enforcement

April 3, 2024
Hearing that on-the-job training is all a police or law enforcement officer needs will one day haunt that agency as it has to defend the failure to train or failure to prepare segments of lawsuits.

I keep observing a disturbing trend throughout the history of law enforcement. This is most prevalent in smaller and even some medium-sized agencies. The mistake is built upon the tradition of “this is the way that we have always done it before.” A total lack of training due to not trusting the process of new leadership training and/or sometimes a lack of a training budgeta leadership school is a major investment in the future. I have heard the “we train them, and they leave us” mantra. A final few are overtrusting their luck, “nothing ever happened before, so why?” Your lucky past will fade away with one bad critical incident. Once the seal is broken, prepare for the other past practices that will be reviewed by every lawsuit happy and hungry opportunist.

Officers are being promoted or positioned without proper training and little if any preparation. Hearing that “on-the-job training is all they need” will one day haunt that agency. Write that quote down! The depositions will start, and the agency has to defend the failure to train or failure to prepare segments of the lawsuits. 

What can you afford?

Can your agency truly “afford” an on-the-job training plan? It is not often the cost of the course but the backfill of personnel that most pennywise, but pound-foolish executives squawk about. Sending an officer to a muti-week leadership training can stress the agency’s staffing and overtime budget. Yes, the overtime backfills and the course with travel and lodging expenses will be needed to be planned within the training budget. But then weigh the long-term costs if you do not invest in staff preparation. Training is often viewed as an inoculation from lawsuits. It may not prevent a lawsuit, but it can make your defense stronger. Trained officers will more often make less mistakes, henceforth lessen your exposure to the litigious world. How long can your agency hold its breath with its fingers crossed?

Too many hats

One excuse for not sending your rising stars to training is that they are viewed as indispensable. If something happens, who would handle a particular task? Face it, some officers wear far too many hats! When I evaluate training exercises of any scope and I keep hearing the same name as the officer that handles multiple tasks, I feel that they are heading for a disaster. This is when I will pull that officer out of the play. I declare him on vacation with no cell connectivity or sick and non-deployable due to quarantine, or just plain sidelined due to my inject into the scenario. Now, let’s see how the department shares the hats and who is prepared to fill the void made.

A recent example was within a medium-sized municipal agency. The captain of investigations was also the agency’s public information officer. The PIO function can be a round-the-clock assignment of herding reporters, interviews, managing social media and rumor control. But this captain also oversaw the agency’s tactical unit. I inquired why, he has the most experience and since detectives will handle warrants he can oversee this as well. OK, why is the captain in “the stack”? How does this captain oversee investigations, tactical operations, and PIO at the same time and for an extended operation period? Who is his relief for the next 12-hour shift? No answers except “that has never happened before.” My next question then was what if due to some medical tragedy he becomes ill and has a long-term recovery, where are you at now? He must share his institutional knowledge now while he is able to do so. Allow his second-in-command or upcoming stars an opportunity to shadow him and learn.  

Full-scale training exercises are not designed to only test the staff, policy, and protocols but to test the resolve of the decision-makers. A critical incident can become a career-defining or career-ending opportunitythis is why we train. Another outcome of good training is that it can provide the stress and anxiety we want to create. Training pressure can allow training in real-time and allow it to become a pressure inoculator. You must remember that pressure is man-made; we often put too much on ourselves to perform, but remember pressure is often self-inflicted. There are some who stress themselves out needlessly. Trust in the process and in yourself. There are vast numbers of quotes regarding training and preparation. The Greek poet Archilochus (680BC-645BC) said, “We don't rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.” Returning to the agency in question, they had no plans and were just trusting this one captain. To be honest, they were ‘winging it’ in my view. The vast majority of the time all is well, but when (not if) it happens, they will fail. 


How long do you have to prepare the upcoming supervisors?  You should evaluate your staff’s longevity projections. How many key players are planning on retirement within the next five years? Who are your potential rising stars who are destined to fill the shoes of your senior staff? If you are lucky, you could have several vying for that key promotion. The longer the retirement window increases your opportunities to select possible replacements. Allow shadowing and let them ‘test the waters’. There are always those who claim they want the job, but do they really understand what they are seeking? I have seen those who clamored for a job but once they had an opportunity, they then regretted the career move. Having temporary assignments to special units for shadowing could be a testing ground. Do you have time for shadowing the soon-to-be retiree? 

An agency’s leadership has got to face the realities that this world is changing, whether they are on board or not. What may have been ‘the way we’ve always done this’ is no longer sustainable meeting the new and future demands. The last thing you want is to become that agency that never came into the future. So, reach deep down and bring forth the changes to make your agency the one everyone wants to be like.

About the Author

William L. "Bill" Harvey is a U.S. Army Military Police Corps veteran. He has a BA in criminology from St. Leo University and is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute of the University of Louisville (103rd AOC).  Harvey served for over 23 years with the Savannah (GA) Police Department in field operations, investigations and completed his career as the director of training. Served as the chief of police of the Lebanon City Police Dept (PA) for over seven years and then ten years as Chief of Police for the Ephrata Police Dept (PA). In retirement, he continues to publish for professional periodicals and train.    

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