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How to use dash-cam video for police officer training

LE training expert Dave Smith shares how agencies can best utilize video for police training

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Video acts as a virtual feedback mechanism, not just for critical incidents but for day-to-day activities.

Photo/North Brunswick Police

By Police1 Staff

Police trainers spend a great deal of time and energy developing reality-based training scenarios to teach officers survival tactics and other skills like de-escalation. Police dash cam video can play a key role in such training. We spoke to training expert and law enforcement legend Dave Smith – who’s already well-versed in video training as host of PoliceOne’s “Reality Training” series – about best practices for developing a dash cam video training program and how to utilize video for both individual performance evaluation and as a broader audience teaching tool.

P1: What are the benefits to using video for law enforcement training?

Dave Smith: The great advantage with video is we’re able to give officers feedback immediately on their performance in critical situations, as well as routine situations. Just like a coach can use a game film in sports to review an athlete’s performance, a supervisor can use dash cam video – this daily “game film” – to look not only for good performance, but also for bad habits starting to form in the officers.

Why is video such an effective training tool for police officers?

It acts as a virtual feedback mechanism, not just for critical incidents but for day-to-day activities.

All supervisors – whether it’s a dispatch supervisor or a patrol sergeant or anyone in an oversight role – are responsible not only for good day-to-day performance among their staff, but also for making sure that performance isn’t eroding.

One of the problems is that it is the most mundane and “routine” of activities that kill. Performance degrades when nothing exceptional happens. So what happens is maybe you start turning your back toward subjects because you keep dealing with people who are compliant all the time. Or maybe you start getting lackadaisical about weapon retention. In other words, those key elements that were critical for officer safety during the development of an officer can often be eroded by the fact that we’re doing these “routine” activities every day. Whatever the activity is, when you’re dealing with compliant people all the time you start seeing bad habits develop. These will show up on your patrol video and a good supervisor will be looking for that. Not just “did the officer verbally do well?” which seems to be our big emphasis now, but also officer safety techniques – attending to a subject’s hands, awareness of our surroundings, tending to other subjects.

Take a traffic stop, for example: What are the environmental conditions? What are the things that may create a threat to the officer? Is that officer still attending to these things, or are you seeing performance deterioration? The camera will expose these things.

Read any books on habits, they all say the same thing. You break a bad habit with immediate feedback. The quicker that feedback is delivered, the greater the learning effect. So it’s important for sergeants to take time to look at these videos, then bring the officer in and say, “Hey, you know what I noticed? Let’s watch this.” Then you can specifically pick out the behavior you’re trying to extinguish.

When an officer does deal with a novel critical incident or novel problem – like a bridge jumper – the supervisor can use that example to give all the other officers agency-wide tools for dealing with that novel situation. What we know from learning theory is that the more novel solutions a teacher presents to you, the more your brain is able to adapt to or to ad-lib in novel situations. As Gary Klein talks about in “Sources of Power,” if I show you a video of an officer handling a situation like a bridge jumper, and tomorrow let’s say you’re dealing with a critical situation that’s completely different but novel, your brain will be more oriented toward problem solving then being stymied by that specific novel problem.

Since you mentioned novel situations, let’s talk about what makes a video a good candidate for training use. When you’re looking at potential candidates for PoliceOne’s Reality Training series, what qualities are you looking for?

One of the first things you look for is does the officer have a successful resolution? I really like positive examples, but I can’t always get that. We’ve shown officers killed. In those cases, first my job partly is to revere the officer’s sacrifice and courage. It’s a terrible tragedy, but by taking that sacrifice and making sure everybody learns from that, that gives value and meaning to the loss.

If a sergeant is going through traffic stops with an officer and he sees the officer perform well or make a critical error he’s seeing is common to the officers in his agency, those are the things to look for. Remember, very often we all develop similar bad habits because of the nature of routine. Training is the number one antidote for routine. What the sergeant can do is make every day-to-day activity a learning event using those videos.

And, again, I’m a big believer in not making this a threatening thing. It seems every time we talk about discipline we’re talking about punishing somebody. If you remember your operant behaviors in psychology, punishment is your last choice because it’s not a good behavior extinguisher. Positive reinforcement picks out a specific performance or behavior and enhances it. It’s always the preferred choice. And if the officer does something really good, sit down and have the whole squad celebrate it by watching it together.

In regard to positive reinforcement, what are some of the other best practices for using video for training?

One of the biggest things is to not nitpick. Guys and gals are going to have their own techniques. Sometimes a sergeant will project that their own specific technique or their own specific procedure is the only way. I’m a big believer in that there’s a lot of ways to the proper ending. In systems theory it’s called “equifinality” – there’s a lot of ways to an equal finish. Sometimes sergeants say, “Well, you know, you should have done this and this and this.” And yet we’re looking at a perfectly successful model, and the officer did it differently because their FTO taught them a little different technique. So make sure to think about equifinality whenever evaluating a video.

It’s also important to make sure you’re consistent. One of the ways we mitigate civil litigation or civil liability is making sure our procedures are consistent with our policy and our training. A supervisor should always make sure officers aren’t using a technique, tool or procedure that’s contrary to the policy of the agency, because this is where agencies get in trouble. You’ve got to make sure there’s a consistency with policy, practice and training. This is one of the things you can do with your video. You can see if your people are being taught something contradictory to your policy and procedures.

One of the things we see a lot in video training is instructors making it a point to tell the audience that you’re not criticizing or blaming an officer when reviewing video, you’re just looking at tactics. Why is it important to make that clear?

As a trainer, I don’t want training to be a threatening event for officers. I want them to go into it with their eyes and mind open, and be willing to change the behavior. Literally the definition of training is the long term modification of behavior. If you’re going to make these events threatening, you’re not going to get behavior modification.