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Use-of-force training in trying times

Like small, entrepreneurial, businesses, smaller police departments are sometimes best able to pioneer innovative training

In times of economic distress, when training budgets often fall victim to immediate political needs, police departments of any size have an opportunity to pioneer new and effective training techniques. Innovative trainers should recognize this as a favorable time to develop training that integrates the full spectrum of law enforcement functions and activities. One area that is especially ripe for this type of approach is the use of force.

Most current law enforcement training is focused on certifying officers in a particular tactic, technique or procedure, with new technology driving many of the innovations. The technology and training are often, and rightly, seen not only as a tool to help protect officers, but also as a necessary edge against potential lawsuits. Use of force is the issue at the root of many of these lawsuits.

Increase in Specialized Training
This, in turn, has contributed to an observable increase in specialized training certifications. Much of this occurs outside the department and is sponsored by any one of a number of different organizations that are either promoting a particular technology (such as TASER International) or have developed specialized expertise in areas like “Verbal Judo” or firearms or defensive tactics.

Specialization is a natural byproduct of the evolution of law enforcement practice. But this also means that it is increasingly rare that officers attend outside training that encompasses integrated use of force options, from presence to deadly force. Such training is time consuming and often not as dynamic as many officers would like. Yet, solely training in separate disciplines does not prepare officers for daily law enforcement work. Instead, the responsibility for this more complex, integrated training has fallen on individual departments.

If statistics alone mattered, departments probably over-train for the use of force. Department of Justice statistics from a variety of years show that law enforcement officers rarely resort to force to resolve a conflict. The public’s view, however, is shaped not by reality but by the press that often sensationalizes the rare contact between officer and citizen that turns violent.

What’s made use of force such a public issue is not surprising: it’s why departments and officers get sued and officers — and some law enforcement leaders — lose their career and reputation. In the most tragic of circumstances, it’s also when officers lose their lives. This is why officers must be prepared for these violent encounters.

With popular but often out-of-context criticism, the public’s inability to understand an officer’s choice to use force can drive a wedge between the police and the community they are sworn to protect. With this in mind, departments should spend as much time educating officers on the ways to use and articulate use of force as they do on how to use particular force techniques.

A Small PD's Advantage
Like small, entrepreneurial, businesses, smaller police departments are sometimes best able to pioneer such innovative training. Their inherently flatter organization, where senior leadership is often in daily contact with street officers, allows for good ideas to take shape and win approval more quickly than in an organization where there are bureaucratic layers which may not necessarily foster good ideas or initiative if they conflict with organizational uniformity.

For example, smaller departments should consider inclusive scenario-based training that has everyone in the department participating, including the Chief and non-sworn administrative personnel. With some training, administrative assistants can morph into scribes during critical incidents, freeing up officers for other duties.

In smaller departments, it’s also possible to integrate training with the full range of the department’s capabilities in an inclusive training scenario. These scenarios could give officers the opportunity to train as individuals and in small groups. The scenarios should not have a pre-determined outcome (i.e., cops shoot knife-wielding suspect in room), but should instead be designed to offer officers the chance to resolve the issue based on their ability to use all their skills. Time must also be allowed for officers to repeat the scenario in order to exercise alternate options that could result in different outcomes.

To make this work, trainers need to plan several months in advance and develop scenarios with clear and achievable objectives. The scenarios must reflect, for the most part, the daily situations faced by the department. Although the most obvious are traffic stops and domestic disputes, other less likely but highly dangerous scenarios should not be ignored. Once effective training techniques are established, they should not be abandoned in better economic times.

Relatively quickly, small agencies should be able to develop focused training solutions to a wide number of different problems, not just in the area of use of force. Once tried and evaluated, these lesson plans and training scenarios should then be rapidly shared throughout the law enforcement community.

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