Is it possible to erode a police officer’s situational awareness and to train a police officer to fail? Absolutely! I have seen it often. In fact, I still see it at police academies, on YouTube Videos and during police officer training sessions.
There was a time when I didn’t see it. In fact, I was one of those instructors who were training police officers to fail. I didn’t realize I was doing it. No instructor would train a police officer to fail on purpose. But, accidentally, it’s happening all the time and the consequences can be catastrophic.
I remember when I was in the academy and we would do a variety of training to get us ready for our careers as police officers. One of the drills we would train on was felony stops. Felony stops were intended for when we would pull someone over that had just committed a felony level crime or had a felony warrant.
We would first learn to put space between our squad car and the suspects car. This was to give us more reaction time and create a safe distance from the suspect. We would then exit our squad, take cover behind our driver side door and call the suspect back to us. We would then either have the suspect lay on the ground or kneel. Our partners would come up and handcuff the suspect, search, and secure them in the back of the squad car. The drill would run smoothly, and officers would feel good after it was all done. However, without even knowing it we were training to fail.
How were we training to fail? Well, in law enforcement we learn the difference between cover and concealment. Cover is something we can hide behind that will stop bullets from hitting us (e.g., a brick wall, the engine block of a vehicle).
Concealment is something we can hide behind that bullets can penetrate (e.g., a car door, bushes, sheetrock). In the felony stop drill we were concealing ourselves behind the car door of our squad, which bullets can penetrate. Instead we should be angling our squad cars and hiding behind the engine block of the squad, while giving the suspect orders. We were training to fail, we were placing ourselves behind concealment instead of cover. This could have catastrophic effects if a suspect were to exit their vehicle and begin shooting at us.
The lesson here is that under stress, we become creatures of habit. Our brain will instruct our body to perform exactly how we were programmed to perform based mostly on memorization and repetition. This is true when recalling cognitive information (e.g., people’s names and email addresses). It is also the case with muscle memory (i.e., the physical movements tied to performing a task). Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent! This can lead to eroding a police officer’s situational awareness and in stressful environments police officers can revert right back to how they were trained. Let’s train for success not failure!
Think of when you trained a friend or your teen on how to change a flat tire on a vehicle. This training usually takes place in nice the controlled safe environment of a clean garage (unless it’s my garage). In reality, they will probably be changing a flat tire on the side of a busy road with a lot of traffic cars passing by, often at a high rate of speed. Have they been trained when it is unsafe to change that tire and call a tow truck instead? If they haven’t been trained on this alternate decision, this could lead to poor situational awareness and they could get struck by a passing vehicle operated by an inattentive driver.
- Look at your department’s training programs. Can you identify areas where you may be training to fail?
- If you can identify areas where your department is training to fail, discuss solutions so that officers can avoid catastrophic mistake. Example: Have your officers ever thrown stop sticks during training from behind cover? Remember practice makes permanent.
The most important objective is for police officers to go home at the end of their shift. Training for success plays an important role in improving situational awareness and high-risk decision making.
Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.