Why a cop’s ongoing education is a matter of job security

The more we know, the better informed (and thus defensible) our actions will be

By Jesse Williams and Randy Larcher, P1 Contributors

We are in the midst of a seismic shift in our economy, moving demand from skilled labor to knowledge labor. The highest paying jobs today are those that pay people for their ideas. As artificial intelligence replaces skilled workers, earning a living strictly with our hands will become more obsolete. We are fooling ourselves if we think that policing is an exception to this trend. Yes, skills are certainly required and will always be needed. But knowledge forms the foundation for those skills to be used. You must learn well before you can do well.

Perhaps you have heard of a legal doctrine known as “deliberate indifference.” Deliberate indifference is often cited as a liability when courts consider police agencies and their responsibility to train their officers. Simply stated, if an agency fails to train its officers in fundamental policing concepts, the agency can be held liable for officers’ actions if they are found to violate the Constitution. Ignorance on the part of the police agency is not a viable defense.

Whatever the stance of our respective agencies regarding police training, individual officers are ultimately responsible for knowing the job. A true professional will never be deliberately indifferent to his or her own self-education. We must implement a personal program of growing our knowledge of the profession because the more we know, the better informed (and thus defensible) our actions will be.

Policing, like all other industries in the global economy, is ever-changing. New technology, case law, crime trends and public expectations keep us on our toes. There is always something more to learn. We challenge you to embark on a journey of personal professional development through purposeful study of the principles and practices that govern good policing. Here are three pointers to send you on your way.

Many police officers spend a lot of time driving, which presents a golden opportunity to increase your knowledge. Let your phone read to you by enabling the “speak screen” function on your smartphone.
Many police officers spend a lot of time driving, which presents a golden opportunity to increase your knowledge. Let your phone read to you by enabling the “speak screen” function on your smartphone. (Photo/PoliceOne)

1. Be deliberate

Some of the most powerful leaders in the world have at least one thing in common – they read. And they don’t just read indiscriminately. They often develop a regimen that includes a certain amount of time spent reading and a deliberate choice about what they will read. The knowledge explosion of the past few decades challenges us to be very selective in how we spend our time and attention. Using an inordinate amount of time on mindless social media or television will not do much to improve your professional knowledge. It is important you:

  • Set aside a specific amount of time to increase your professional knowledge;
  • Be deliberate in how you use this time, such as studying topically.

2. Be organized

It is helpful to curate what you plan on reading before wasting time to determine whether you should read it at all. Create a folder on your computer for storing all the reference material you come across. We maintain folders with hundreds of documents in them, representing weeks’ worth of reading material, such as interviewing tips, use of force studies, DOJ publications and active shooter training material. Every time we see an interesting article or publication we think will help us do the job better, we save it as a PDF and put it in the reference file for later consumption.

3. Use technology

The Pocket app allows you to save internet articles and news stories that interest you so you can read at your convenience. We must admit that our “pockets” are quite full, but it is psychologically liberating to know that all the topics in which we’re interested have a home base we can refer to as needed. Tag articles to organize the content you save. As “The Verge” said when recommending the app, “Stop emailing yourself links and just install Pocket.”

Many police officers spend a lot of time driving. This presents a golden opportunity to increase your knowledge. Some of you don’t like to read or struggle to find time to read. Let your phone read to you by enabling the “speak screen” function on your smartphone. When you open a document, you can initiate this function and the phone will read the document to you. The voice is of course robotic, but the information gets to your brain, where you need it to use it! Additionally, there are thousands of audiobooks and podcasts that will enrich your mind and inform your job performance. Did you know that you can effectively listen to audio content at 1.5 times normal speed? Start listening!  

What should you study?

Justice William W. Bedsworth from California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recently gave a speech in which he argued that police officers require more daily re-education than a doctor or lawyer. Just about every interpersonal skill can apply to policing. Study leadership (a truly inexhaustible topic), communication skills, psychology and sociology, de-escalation tactics, defensive tactics, case law, state statutes or local ordinances, and the latest and greatest in technology and equipment. The list goes on and on.

It only takes 15 minutes a day

It is imperative to understand that our ability to act appropriately and correctly is directly proportional to the amount of knowledge we possess. Ignorance is an increasingly poor excuse in this day of infinite amounts of information at our fingertips. We should do everything in our power to eliminate the excuse “I didn’t know” from our vocabulary. It will likely ring hollow in a victim’s ears if that’s the only explanation we have about why we messed up. We challenge you to take some time each day – even if it’s only 15 minutes – to make yourself the most knowledgeable police officer possible.

When we joined this profession, we made an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. This simple oath is full of meaning, including the fact that we can’t truly uphold something about which we know relatively little. Understanding the Constitution means understanding all its associated laws and Supreme Court rulings, along with understanding how those laws apply to people. We must understand that we are the vehicle through which the Constitution is made operative in the lives of everyday citizens. This is admittedly a scary proposition, but it’s what we signed on to do. Let us do it to the best of our ability by committing to a consistent regimen of deliberate self-education.

About the Authors
Jesse Williams is the Captain of the New Mexico State Police Training & Recruiting Bureau in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a graduate of New Mexico State University and earned Master’s degrees in Criminal Justice and Public Administration. He enjoys applying best practices regarding personal wellness and development.

Randy Larcher is a Captain with the New Mexico State Police Investigations Bureau. He graduated from New Mexico State University in 2005 with a degree in history. He is a student of ethics, productivity and leadership.

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