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The trainer’s gift: How all cops play a role in peer-to-peer learning

If a police officer fails to realize they are already an influencer – no matter what their rank or status – they may be missing the point


Bringing a training point alive with a real experience creates instant relevance and emotional attachment.


“And then I remembered what you said” is one of my favorite things to hear. My training responsibilities came early in my career, and have been among the most rewarding. When I hear that a tip from one of my college or academy classes or FTO led to a good case or an avoided injury, the feelings are real.

We can talk professionalism, adult learning, college credit and police academies all day, but becoming an effective police officer relies largely on apprenticeship for the development of the skills of the trade. Learning from our peers and veteran officers is as important as any formal training process.

Here are some thoughts to help the gift of training keep on giving.

You are a trainer

I have often heard from police officers that they would like to be an instructor. There is a status to being a certified trainer, but if any officer fails to realize they are already an influencer – no matter what their rank or status – they may be missing the point.

Parents know that when it comes to molding character into their children, more is caught than taught. The same is true in law enforcement. Everyone is an example of something to those around them.

Influencers don’t have to have rank or certification, nor must those who learn have to learn from someone who is senior to them. There are too many life lessons out there to be channeled only through someone with “trainer” on their resume.

You’re planting seeds, not transplanting a forest

You can’t disgorge everything you know about life on patrol or being a new detective. Just a nudge here and there to help your colleague be a little smoother, a little smarter and a little safer may have more impact than trying to cram their head full.

Some lessons are mission critical. Those need to be repeated past the point of annoyance: Watch the hands, search and search again, don’t trust anybody, watch your six.

If you weren’t a careful learner, you’ll be a poor teacher

Trainers with an ego can value confidence over competence, especially when they think they have a lock on a certain subject compared to their lesser informed students. Remembering from whence we came, back when our knees were knocking on our first hot call, can keep us at a proper level of humility.

Being a lifetime learner with an unending curiosity gives life to a trainer’s teaching. Don’t ever come to a place of satisfaction, or your influence will diminish.

Tough love sometimes trumps patience

I am not a proponent of military drill sergeant tactics in police training. Yelling and intimidation do not replicate the stress of street encounters, and are therefore of very limited value in most training scenarios. However, I am reminded of the philosopher who shared a magnificent sunrise with his son, then struck him with a rod. When the son asked why the father had pained him so, the father said, “I want you to always remember this magnificent sunrise.”

While I don’t advocate corporal punishment or routine humiliation, there are some lessons so critically essential that an indelible personal memory must be created with a reluctant learner.

Little things are big things

I could not wait to be released from initial field training. My FTO made me put everything just so, and just like he did. My first day on solo patrol I put my nightstick, notebook and flashlight where I wanted them with great satisfaction and independence. But I did learn that those things mattered – especially when my shiny new aluminum citation holder slid under my brake pedal. Small things can be a big deal.

War stories are legit (even stories about dumb mistakes)

Bringing a training point alive with a real experience creates instant relevance and emotional attachment. Admitting mistakes and their consequences can be one of the most credibility building moments in the life of a trainer.

For every cop that says thanks, there are many more who are thankful but silent

There is a biblical account of ten diseased men who encountered Jesus and were healed. They went on their way, but one returned to say thank you. I’d say Jesus was lucky to get one out of ten. If you get a thank you for what you’ve taught another officer, remember that ratio – there are a lot of others you’ve helped along the way.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.