Getting to the root of officer performance issues

What if training isn’t the answer? Three questions to find out


By Ben Smith

An officer fails to properly handcuff a suspect. Another officer pats down a subject without legal justification. A third officer leaves essential information out of a report. When officers’ actions fall short of agency expectations, consequences may include internal affairs investigations, lawsuits, lost court cases, damaged reputations, or inefficiency within the agency. Often, the solution to such performance issues includes remedial training, but is that always the best response?

The decision to prescribe training as the remedy for performance problems suggests a number of underlying assumptions that may provide only a partial explanation for the performance issue. Worse yet, these assumptions may deflect attention and resources away from areas that would have been more effective in improving performance.

Answering three simple questions can provide a preliminary understanding of underlying factors that could have contributed to an officer’s poor performance.
Answering three simple questions can provide a preliminary understanding of underlying factors that could have contributed to an officer’s poor performance. (Getty Images)

For example, the discovery that an officer conducts unlawful frisks may lead to the assumption that the officer doesn’t understand search and seizure law. Consequently, that officer may be sent to remedial legal training. Likewise, the discovery that an officer isn’t handcuffing suspects using an approved technique may lead to the assumption that the officer doesn’t know how to apply the technique, resulting in remedial skills training.

While knowledge and technical skill are necessary prerequisites for effective performance, studies have found that up to 90% of employee behavior can be attributed to what is learned outside of a formal training environment. If these factors go unaddressed, even well-trained officers may act in a manner inconsistent with their training.

WHERE LEARNING COMES FROM

What accounts for the 90% of employee performance that is not attributable to formal training? Peer influence, supervisory guidance, agency culture, written directives and the officer’s own experiences can heavily influence performance.

This means that despite an agency’s rigorous training program, officers may continue to perform below acceptable standards if these other areas are not also addressed. To see this phenomenon in practice, you need look no further than the field training officer who tells their trainee, “Forget everything you’ve learned at the academy,” or the supervisor who allows poor performance on a squad to go uncorrected, or the department policy that contradicts what is being instructed in formal training sessions.

Each of these examples sends a strong message that what is taught in training is not necessary on the job. Consequently, sending officers through formal training may be unlikely to yield significant performance improvements because the barriers to exceptional performance lie elsewhere.

This is not to say that remedial training is never part of the solution to performance issues; often it is. It is only to say that overreliance on training as a one-size-fits-all solution to every performance issue may create a tendency for decision-makers to believe that once the training is complete, the performance problem is fixed.

Before investing time, money and staffing in a training solution, consider this simple approach to exploring other possible root causes of the performance issue: build a case to support the officer’s actions.

THE THREE-QUESTION ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a process for uncovering the underlying causes of a problem. The goal of RCA is not just to solve the problem at hand, but also to prevent the circumstances that caused the problem in the first place.

Although many books and articles have been written about RCA, the basic concept does not need to be complicated. Seeking reasonable justification for an officer's actions forces leaders to scrutinize ways in which culture, supervision, or policy could have contributed to the performance issue.

In other words, it removes the de facto assumption that the officer is uninformed or unskilled and instead assumes that the officer knew exactly what was expected and how to do it, yet still performed below the standard. Starting with this assumption forces leaders to temporarily eliminate lack of training as an explanation, and instead ask, “What else could have caused this poor performance?”

Answering three simple questions can provide a preliminary understanding of underlying factors that could have contributed to an officer’s poor performance. The answers to these questions may then lead to a more in-depth root cause analysis.

1. Where else does this performance issue exist?

The phrase “everyone is doing it” is a well-worn excuse for bad behavior, and for good reason: social norms are powerful influencers. As human beings, we desire to fit in, so we look to those around us for social cues about how to behave. Despite the best training, contradictory behavioral examples by peers or supervisors are likely to influence officers’ actions more heavily than what they learned in a training environment.

To answer this question, actively seek out other examples of the performance issue. Look beyond known cases or formal complaints:

  • Is the behavior common with the officer’s peers or supervisors?
  • What about others in the same division or station?
  • Is the behavior common among newer or veteran officers?

Identifying patterns where deficient behavior occurs can help identify social groups that may see the behavior as acceptable. If the behavior is widespread, there may even be good practical reasons for it, which could lead you to consider if current training and policy represent the latest best practices.

2. What happens when the officer engages in this behavior?

Some research suggests that more than two-thirds of employee behavior can be attributed to on-the-job experience. If an officer is attempting to practice what they learned in training, but it isn’t working as intended in a real-world environment, they are likely to revert to what they know is effective. Conversely, if it has been a significant time since an officer has practiced what they learned in training, they are likely to be less proficient than they once were.

To answer this question, seek out hard data that helps you understand how much real-world experience the officer has with the behavior in question:

  • How frequently does this officer perform this particular behavior?
  • Is it usually performed correctly?
  • If not, did anyone discuss the performance with the officer?
  • Does the officer routinely seek out/avoid situations that require this behavior?

A supervisor who recognizes that an officer’s behavior falls below desirable performance standards, but who does nothing to correct it, signals that the behavior is acceptable. And such implied acceptance provides little incentive for the officer to make behavioral corrections.

3. What agency documentation (policies, procedures, etc.) supports the officer’s actions?

Even the best-written policies won’t single-handedly correct poor performance, whereas incomplete, ambiguous, or contradictory policies are almost guaranteed to be a barrier to exceptional performance. When a performance issue is identified, policies are often cited to show how the officer’s behavior fell short of agency expectations. Leaders who use policies only to point out behavioral inconsistencies risk missing ways that policies and other documents could have legitimately guided an officer into poor performance.

To answer this question, consider seeking the opinion of someone who is disinterested in the performance issue you are trying to improve. Explain the officer’s actions and then ask them to search department policies, procedures, handbooks and other documentation with the intent of finding information that supports the officer’s actions.

In other words, ask them to imagine themself in a pseudo-defense attorney role for the officer:

  • Do policies and other documents address the performance issue in sufficient detail?
  • Are they worded ambiguously?
  • Do training materials or other published documents contradict policy?

The purpose of this exercise is not to excuse officer behavior, but to strengthen and clarify agency documentation. Doing so reduces the potential that unclear documentation will lead to similar performance issues in the future.

Bonus question: If this officer's life depended on it, could they perform the deficient skill in the way the agency expects it?

This last question acts as a failsafe. If you can genuinely answer “no” to this question, then remedial training is likely an important part of the solution because the officer could not perform the deficient behavior even given a compelling reason.

If you can answer “yes” to this question, the solution likely doesn’t require additional training. The officer already knows what to do and how to do it, but there is another barrier that stands in the way. Sending the officer to remedial training will likely reinforce what they already know, but they will be left to face the same barriers when returning to work. Diagnosing what these barriers may be is exactly where the other three questions become crucial.

CONCLUSION

When officer performance falls below agency standards, the temptation is to assume the officer doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. Such an assumption naturally leads to the conclusion that additional training is necessary. While lack of training may indeed be part of the problem, taking the time to consider the root causes of the issue can help eliminate other barriers to exceptional performance that may exist even after training is completed.

The three-question root cause analysis described in this article provides a simple and convenient way to assess possible causes for poor performance, such as peer influence, supervision, or agency culture.

The intent of this article is not to suggest that training is never an appropriate method for correcting deficient performance; rather, it advocates for a more robust view of performance management. A concept that includes not just sending an officer to training and assuming the problem is fixed – a phenomenon known as check-the-box training – but attempting to get at the circumstances that allowed the problem to manifest in the first place. Even when training is necessary, neglecting to look in other areas for solutions may result in continued poor performance and, consequently, larger problems in the future.

Giving an officer the benefit of the doubt does not mean foregoing discipline. Exactly the opposite is true – seeking out the root causes of performance issues promotes a more disciplined system in which the same problem is less likely to occur in the future because the root causes have been identified and resolved. Seeking to understand the root causes behind performance issues doesn’t just correct performance when it goes wrong; it helps it go right in the first place.

NEXT: Developing a culture of accountability

Bibliography

Biech E. (2017). The art and science of training. ATD Press.

Cialdini R. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Pearson Education, Inc.

Hollway J, Lee C, Smoot, S. (2017). "Root cause analysis: A tool to promote officer safety and reduce officer involved shootings over time." Faculty scholarship at Penn Law 1958.

Loewenstein MA, Spletzer JR. (2000). Formal and informal training: Evidence from the NLSY. In Research In Labor Economics. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.


About the author

Ben Smith is a sergeant with the City of Fairfax Police Department in Virginia. He is a certified general instructor, defensive tactics instructor and Force Science analyst. Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Arizona State University. He has served as a patrol officer, detective, crisis negotiator, training coordinator and adjunct academy instructor.

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