Why chiefs and trainers should be learning from street cops

Working street cops, supervisors, and FTOs who transition new officers from the academy to the street are the real experts in the assessment and training of new cops

There’s a disconnect between street cops and their agency heads in the front office. This serious issue negatively affects day-to-day enforcement activities, basic and in-service training, and the way we screen and hire new officers.

Each management level of a police department can think themselves the “real experts” on how the job should be done. When you’ve promoted beyond the street-officer level, it is natural to assume your increased rank, years of service, and probably formal education, make you the “expert.”

My 30+ years of experience — ranging from patrolman to chief — has taught me to respect most highly those cops currently on the street doing the job on a daily basis. I value the opinion of the officers and first-line supervisors whose butts ride a car seat, not the cushion of a swivel chair. Picking the brains of street experts is crucially important in two areas of police operations.

1. Training
I’ve developed a reputation as a top trainer and training program developer. 
When I develop a training program, I talk to the street cops/supervisors and use their advice and ideas. I know that’s a radical concept, but trust me, it works.

As an example, several years ago our agency’s promotional school for newly promoted sergeants received the lowest reviews of any academy program. The worst segment was a four-hour block on how to fill out a workman’s comp packet for an injured officer — talk about a snoozer!

The academy commander asked me to incorporate a few hours of our hands-on critical incident management class. I did that with my favorite team-teaching partner and one review comment was gratifying: “Give all week to Fairburn and Murphy and throw out the rest of the crap in this class.”

Eventually, we got most of the week and built the only hands-on sergeant-level leadership school in the country

The material in that groundbreaking class came from working cops who were out there performing the job well enough to get promoted to first-line leadership positions. Who better to know what they need to know to be effective on the street? Now the sergeant’s school gets top ratings.

2. Hiring
A second crucial disconnect is in the way we screen and hire our new officers. Our academy trains both state police officers and recruits from local agencies in parallel but very different basic programs. We all recruit from the same pool of candidates, but some agencies are much better at screening the wheat from the chaff. 

One agency in particular always sends us stand-out performers. The agency doesn’t have the highest pay scale or nicest equipment but somehow they recruit and select the cream of the police candidate crop. 

Another agency — which has top pay/benefits and a “first class” reputation — suffers a significant washout rate of ill-suited candidates. In each class, several of their new hires won’t pass minimum standards, ranging from poor academic performance to being so physically uncoordinated they miss the whole target at four yards. Academy washouts waste precious training time and funds, both of which are in short supply these days.

The boards appointed to screen potential candidates typically seek out the advice of experts to determine what skills are needed in new cops. The boards often chose their “experts” from the senior command ranks and/or academia.

Who are the real experts in the assessment of new cops? I believe they are working street cops and supervisors — and foremost in this case, the FTOs — who transition new officers from the academy to the street.

Real Experience Matters
Sorry if I’m insulting you — chief or professor — but your butt has probably sat too long on a chair cushion instead of a car seat. Check your ego at the door and go get some advice from your real experts.

I will never forget the advice of a wise old trainer on the day I graduated from the academy 31 years ago: “You will soon be lectured by some old salt who will tell you about his 20 years of experience, but remember this: some of them truly have 20 years of experience but many have merely accumulated one year of experience 20 times.”

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