The Art of Police Training is the Ability to Move Officers Through the Fog and Complexity of Human Interaction

The purpose of all police training is to develop officers that can solve societies complex problems. The fundamental objectives of policing (also referred to as the mission of the police or the core functions of policing) are the ultimate purposes for which police agencies have been created. Herman Goldstein was one of a number of scholars who recognized and articulated the breadth and complexity of the police mission. He synthesized the understanding of the multiple objectives of the police in his seminal work; Policing a Free Society, a precursor to his writings on problem oriented policing. Drawing from earlier work he had done, Goldstein (1977) characterized the fundamental objectives of the police in free societies as follows:

  1. To prevent and control conduct threatening to life and property (including serious crime);
  2. To aid crime victims and protect people in danger of physical harm;
  3. To protect constitutional guarantees, such as the right to free speech and assembly;
  4. To facilitate the movement of people and vehicles;
  5. To assist those who cannot care for themselves including the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the elderly, and the young;
  6. To resolve conflict between individuals, between groups, or between citizens and their government;
  7. To identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious for individuals, the police or the government; and
  8. To create and maintain a feeling of security in the community.

While there are other ways to characterize the police mission, both in greater and lesser detail, Goldstein’s formulations remains a comprehensive and useful reference illustrating the complex nature of policing. Complexity John Locke described as:

"Ideas made up of several simple ones put together, I call Complex; such as are Beauty, Gratitude, a Man, and Army, the Universe."

This quote fits Goldstein's observations on policing and the numerous other simple factors that influence policing such as; mental illness, substance abuse, child neglect and abuse, domestic abuse,  crime and punishment, conflict, violence, quality of life,  love and hate, persuasion and force. All these factors and more ebb and flow, escalate and de-escalate, shape and reshape, affect and effect a police officers understanding, or lack of understanding of human interaction and behavior.  Human interaction is chaotic. A multitude of ideas, agendas and wills, sometimes competing subtly, sometimes at odds, coupled with external pressures and the uncertainty and ambiguity of the future. Police leadership has the responsibility to move police organizations through this complexity and uncertainty,  with direction and purpose. Education and training is the way to this end.

Training, and education therefore is the key to police effectiveness and should be the focus of effort of police departments, if they truly seek to solve the technical problems and adaptive challenges our society faces. However, training should not stop with the commencement of confrontation; training must continue during confrontation to adapt to the lessons of conflict. Hence police training must be realistic, consistent and experiential in nature.

All officers and police leaders undergo similar entry-level training which is, in effect, a socialization process. This training provides all officers with a common experience, a proud heritage, a set of values, and a common bond of camaraderie; It is the essential first step in the making of a police officer. Its what the police academy is suppose to be all about.

Basic individual skills are an essential foundation for police officer effectiveness and must receive heavy emphasis. At the same time,  collective skills and the ability to work together are extremely important. Collective team skills are not simply an accumulation of individual skills; adequacy in individual skills does not automatically mean unit or collective skills are satisfactory. Leaders at each rank must allot officers sufficient time and freedom to conduct the training necessary to achieve proficiency at their levels. They must ensure that higher-level demands do not deny officers adequate opportunities for autonomous training and that over supervision does not prevent mid-level leaders (sergeants) from training their shifts or units as they believe appropriate.

In order to develop initiative among  officers, the conduct of training— like conflict— should be decentralized.  Police leaders influence training by establishing goals and standards, communicating the intent of training, and establishing a focus of effort for training. As a rule, they should refrain from dictating how the training will be accomplished. Training programs should reflect practical, challenging, and progressive goals beginning with individual and small-unit skills and culminating in fully combined drills and exercises. This all helps to develop the implicit and explicit communication necessary to be effective when handling the complex nature of crisis.

Collective training consists of drills and exercises. Drills are a form of small-unit training which stresses proficiency by progressive repetition of tasks. Drills are an effective method for developing standardized techniques and procedures that must be performed repeatedly without variation to ensure speed and coordination, such as gun drill or immediate actions. In contrast, exercises are designed to train units and individuals in tactics under simulated crisis conditions. Exercises should approximate the conditions of conflict and crisis as much as possible; that is, they should introduce friction in the form of uncertainty, stress, disorder, and opposing wills. This last characteristic is most important; only in opposed, free-play exercises can we practice the art of crisis response. Dictated or “canned” scenarios eliminate the element of independent; opposing wills that is the essence of conflict. This type of training ensures that officers are not being told what to do but are indeed being taught how to think and do.

"Leaders and organizations can never attain perfection. Development involves a series of trials and errors, triumphs and mistakes, steps forward and back, in a long journey toward becoming better through learning." ~Christopher Kolenda 

Critiques or after action reviews are an important part of training because critical self-analysis, even after success, is essential to improvement. Their purpose is to draw out the lessons of training. As a result, we should conduct critiques immediately after completing the training, before the memory of the events has faded. After action reviews should be held in an atmosphere of open and candid dialogue in which all hands are encouraged to contribute. We learn as much from mistakes as from things done well, so we must be willing to admit and discuss them. Of course, an officer’s willingness to admit mistakes depends on the leader’s willingness to tolerate them. Because we recognize that no two situations in crisis are the same, our critiques should focus not so much on the actions we took as on why we took those actions and why they brought the results they did.

The purpose of police leadership boils down to one central reality: human organizations produce excellence where they create teams of people who can decide under pressure in complex situations. Christopher Kolenda in his book Leadership: the Warriors Art says "experience is valuable only if it is imbued with meaning from which one can draw salient conclusions." I will let those reading this, reflect and be the judge of their own experience.

Stay Oriented!

Fred