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Creating, structuring, and maintaining an in-service training program

Editor’s Note: In conjunction with ILEETA 2009 taking place in Chicagoland this week, we feature an item from Police1 Contributor John Bennett, a lieutenant and tactical firearms instructor with the Charleston (Ill.) Police Department. Here, Lt. Bennett shares tips that can help you establish an in-service training program for your department. Be sure to check out the News from ILEETA special coverage page featuring reports by Street Survival Seminar Instructor Betsy Brantner Smith, and read this week’s P1 First Person, Trainers are the “Maytag Repairmen” of Law Enforcement, by Andy Casavant, Training Coordinator/SRT Commander for the Walton County Sheriff’s Office.

Law enforcement is arguably one of the most complex and constantly changing professions, due in no small part to the expectations placed on us by the citizens we serve. In the court case Canton v. Harris, the United States Supreme Court spelled out its expectations regarding a department’s failure to train its officers. As police officers we are expected to perform our duties in a professional, unbiased, and competent manner. Failure to do so can result in incurring civil liability, as well as death or serious injury to ourselves or a member of the public we’ve sworn to protect.

A police officer is expected to wear many hats: crime-fighter, social worker, and traffic enforcer, among many others. In today’s post 9-11 world, our responsibilities are constantly evolving and being re-defined. If an officer fails to stay abreast of these changes and deal with them effectively, they can find themselves ‘behind the curve’ very quickly and rendered all but ineffective as a police officer. If we allow that to occur, we have failed in our roles as peacekeepers and protectors. Many of us readily identify ourselves as professionals, but how many of us have actually taken the time to understand what the meaning of ‘profession’ really is?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a profession as “An occupation, such as law, medicine, or engineering that requires considerable training and specialized study.” If I were to add one word to that definition, it would be ‘ongoing’ (as in, considerable ongoing training). This is not a job where you can train in the academy, graduate, hit the street, and leave training behind as a thing of the past.

We all talk about training, but what as a department do we actually do about it? And whose responsibility is it to develop and implement it? How do we actually go about it? I will address these issues while drawing from my own personal experience with this very topic, as they relate to the development, implementation and management of my department’s in-service training programs.

The creation of a dedicated departmental in-service training program usually comes about in the form of a dedicated individual — an administrator, trainer, or motivated officer — who sees the need and is willing to meet it. To begin with, any effective in-service training program must have the support of those who make the rules. This not only provides the authority to begin such an undertaking, but also enables implementation and ongoing administration of the program to take place.

To have an effective training program, administrators must ‘buy in’ to the mission as well and be willing to commit the necessary funds and time needed to develop capable and competent instructors. Unfortunately, funds and time are the two areas in which those involved in the training function often find themselves struggling. Supportive administrators facilitate the effective prosecution of the program and affect its overall success or failure.

A successful in-service training program must also have a clear mission; a mission that must be developed, understood, and executed by individuals who believe in it and are willing to follow it through. This may seem simple, because after all, the mission is training, right? However, there are many facets that need to be addressed in any training program, including the type and frequency of training and the specific needs of your department.

For example, with regard to defensive tactics instruction, what ‘system’ will your department adopt? Does that particular system cover all the bases—such as survival mindset, hand-to-hand skills, handcuffing, impact weapons, etc?

Hint, none of them ever really does, so what will you use to fill the gaps?

In addition, how often are refresher blocks going to be scheduled? What about re-certifications? Are you going to certify and subsequently re-certify all officers at the intervals recommended by a particular system? Are you going to certify and re-certify them through that system or through your department? There is usually cost involved with the former and if so, is your department willing to foot the bill?

There are equipment considerations as well. While it is easy to spend thousands of dollars on the newest training gear manufacturers have to offer, that is often unnecessary. Remember, a little creativity can go a long way. Some open space, such as a gymnasium or high school wrestling room are all that is needed to practice various defensive tactics techniques and a hand-held body shield can be used to practice empty-handed striking techniques. Training batons can be made from PVC and covered in pipe foam or purchased from any number of equipment manufacturers. Firearms can be ‘roped’ or molded plastic facsimiles can be purchased from several manufacturers for a reasonable price. Training knives can be made from lengths of PVC pipe and capped at one end until actual training knives can be purchased. Any equipment purchased is an investment in the overall success of the program and can be added to the inventory piece by piece over time.

Obviously, there are also considerations about which personnel will assume the role of instructors. These individuals must be motivated, capable, credible, and able to lead by example. Instructors must come from the ranks of officers who, through their own action and deed, have shown themselves to be among those who fellow officers listen to and follow. Ideally, instructor candidates should be individuals who are ‘self-starters’ and have consistently shown initiative in their day-to-day duties. They should be driven, even-keeled, and well-tempered — passionate but not overzealous. Although it helps, they need not already have had any formal training themselves. They must, however, be individuals capable of being developed into effective and credible instructors (read: open-minded and willing to listen).

Another consideration: how many instructors should you have? The philosophy in my department has evolved into ‘the more the better.’ We expanded our program several years ago from two to three instructors to as many as six or seven, for thirty-three sworn officers. Not all of our instructors are cross-trained in defensive tactics and firearms, but many of us are. We are all part-time instructors and assume this role in addition to our full-time duties as patrol officers, investigators or supervisors. The more instructors we employ, the less time and effort it takes to execute a block of instruction to all members of our department. This allows us to provide considerably more training in more areas throughout the year. This also helps minimize instructor ‘burn out’ which can occur if an officer’s plate gets too full. This is a very real concern — an officer’s quality of instruction can suffer if that officer becomes overwhelmed by the addition of training duties.

The structure of any training program is equally important. To start with, it is a good idea to designate an individual as a training coordinator. This individual is responsible for overseeing the program from its initial development to its implementation and then through its continuing day-to-day operation. This can be time-consuming and the individual chosen to fill this position must have the ability and willingness to dedicate sufficient time and energy toward the duties required or the program will suffer.

In our department, we have established training coordinators for our firearms and defensive tactics and field-training officer programs. The coordinator of each of these programs oversees a staff of as many as seven or eight instructors/ trainers; and in our case, the coordinators also fulfill the role of trainers themselves.

The position of training coordinator may be full or part-time, depending upon the size of a department, and in smaller departments, the trainer and coordinator may be a one-man-show. The coordinator does not necessarily have to be an instructor himself, but should at least be a highly organized and detail oriented individual with a deep understanding of the training needs of the department.

A good coordinator should be a mentor. He will take the time to get to know his instructional staff, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and will encourage their professional development and personal growth. He delegates tasks, but stays out of the way and allows his people to do their jobs. He is an individual who is constantly finding ways to challenge his instructors and helping them to better themselves. It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that a training coordinator who is also an instructor can be that much more effective in his position.

The training coordinator must also understand and strongly support the department’s training mission. This is not a position for the ‘ticket puncher.’ This individual must be dedicated and capable of seeing the mission through and continue beating the drum, particularly during times when officers occasionally resist training efforts. It is the coordinator’s job to develop a vision of what department’s training program should be and to keep the training staff’s efforts on track toward that goal.

Instructors must possess many of the same attributes as the coordinator because they are the ones who carry the flag among the troops.

So you’ve successfully developed and implemented your new in-service training program. Now the real work begins. Many programs of this kind have started strong out of the gate, only to falter on down the track due to improper management and maintenance. A training program does not run itself — to be successful it must be constantly monitored and nurtured.

As training coordinator of my department’s firearms and defensive tactics program, I oversee an instructional staff of five to six members. We all have pretty full plates — for example, in addition to my duties of coordinator, I instruct. Many of us are supervisors and all but me are on our agency’s multi-jurisdictional crisis response team.

In an effort to streamline the responsibilities of my instructional staff and to minimize confusion, I developed written job descriptions for the various levels or positions of our training staff. In doing this, I delineated the positions of training coordinator, lead instructor and assistant instructor and spelled out the responsibilities for each position. I also outlined what is expected of each instructor as a general member of our training staff. Additionally, we established a protocol for each block of instruction.

In any given block, one instructor is assigned as the lead with the others (including the coordinator) assigned as assistants. The responsibilities of the lead instructor for this block of instruction include developing the material and creating a lesson plan, which is submitted to the coordinator for approval. The material is then disseminated to the training cadre to ensure we are all on the same page.

The lead instructor is also in charge of scheduling arrangements, record-keeping, and ensuring the block commences and is completed on time. I found that by putting the responsibilities of each of the positions in writing, this limited confusion as to who was responsible for what, and gave each member of our staff a clear idea of what is expected of them. The assistant instructors’ jobs are to support the lead instructor in prosecuting the block of instruction and documenting their efforts.

In the interest of consistency, our staff meets at least once every other month to go over material for upcoming training blocks and to solidify our training schedule for the year.

Managing a training program would not be complete without detailed record-keeping. Although training-record software is available, thin budgets often render it cost-prohibitive. Record-keeping can be performed using an Excel spreadsheet or even be hand-written if needs be. What is important is ensuring the material and your efforts are clearly documented.

In essence, if it isn’t written down somewhere, the training does not exist. Proper training can minimize exposure to liability, but only through proper documentation can you take full advantage of that protection in a court of law.

This article is by no means the last word on building, implementing, and maintaining an in-service training program. I am simply drawing on my experience and a lot of knowledge gleaned from conversations with my fellow trainers over the years. I hope that by sharing this information with you and outlining what I have been able to do to meet the requirements of my own department, I have provided you with a good foundation on which to build.

John is a 25-year veteran police officer and a patrol lieutenant from Charleston, IL. A member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, John has trained officers both in and outside his agency for more than 20 years; both nationally and abroad. He continues to teach and learn at the street-patrol level with the primary emphasis on officer-safety tactics, risk management, leadership and a philosophy of proactive police service, individual readiness and professionalism. He has dedicated himself to awareness, education, research, training and motivation specifically tailored at saving officers lives, families and careers. John continues his mission after his tour via his work as a trainer, consultant, subject-matter expert and author, and core instructor for the nationally recognized Below 100 officer-safety initiative. email.