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Every cop can ‘reform’ police training

Focus your efforts on the specific tasks in your job description that have the highest probability of ending up in tragedy

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If you regularly read Police1 and other sources of information, you want to make things better – personally and organizationally.


Gordon Graham here. In the news of late is a lot of talk about “police reform.” While I am long retired, I still try to stay in touch with as many cops as I can and when we chat, they too are concerned about this hot button issue.

I also talk to a lot of different people who are not in policing and they too have grave concerns about the goings-on in law enforcement operations.

Let me tell you right up front in this writing that this “reform” is and has been needed for decades, and while there are myriad things I could mention, today I want to focus on “training.”

training from an operational, organizational standpoint

I will bore you with some history here. Way back in 1980 I started giving talks to cops of all ranks about various operational (how to do things) and organizational (how to run a department) risk issues.

With respect to the “operational” stuff, it is clear to me that despite the complex nature of police work most of what we do we are doing right. The average cops I know are good people and most of what they do they have done before. When you take good people and put them in a high-frequency event, things go right. But if you take away “frequency,” all you can rely on is training.

With respect to the “organizational” issues that supervision and management face, once again the “training” issue pops up. Show me a tragedy in law enforcement operations and I will show you a “proximate cause” (the event that instantly precedes the tragedy) of “X” – but all too often the real problem lying in wait gets down to a lack of good PEOPLE, poor or missing POLICY, failure to supply good TRAINING, a lack of SUPERVISION and no or inconsistent DISCIPLINE. Please note that from both an operational and organizational standpoint, “training” is a very important consideration.

What you can’t control

Back to line one of this writing: we need to “reform” police training and this is something I have been talking about now for more than 40 years. I do not stand alone in this viewpoint and there are a lot of people I greatly respect in the world of policing (at all ranks and types of departments) who are in league with me in this thinking. Couple that with more and more people outside of law enforcement who are saying the same thing.

Unfortunately, certain areas involved in “reforming training” require massive expenditures. There are lots of problems with “initial training.” The obvious one is “how much initial training is required to become a certified cop?” In many states cosmetologists require thousands of hours of training, hairdressers require thousands of hours of training, psychologists require thousands of hours of training and yet to be a cop requires only hundreds of hours of training. To me that does not make sense – and yes, I recognize that expanding initial training would be extremely expensive. For most of the people reading this piece, you have no control over this.

Let’s look at “ongoing training.” My guess is it is required in all 50 states, but how many hours are required? In most states, the number of hours is very small, around 24 hours every three years. I think most cops would want more training – but again this is a money issue. For most people reading this, you have no control over the amount of time required for ongoing training.

What you can control

Let’s address what can you control. You can control your personal behavior. If you make a mistake because you are not fully and properly trained, YOU are the one who gets hurt! Not the chief or sheriff, not the city council or board of supervisors, not the training officer – it is you who gets hurt or killed!

If you make a mistake because you are not fully and properly trained and you kill or hurt someone, it is you that will be criminally indicted. It is YOU who will be sued – and with all the talk about removing immunities and making cops personally liable – this is a reality today!

Also, if you kill someone, it is YOU who will live with that mistake for the rest of your life. I met a cop decades ago who made a mistake and shot a horse in the head and the bullet ricocheted and hit and killed a cop. He told me that the last thought he had every night before he fell asleep was reliving that incident – and it was also the first thought he had every morning and how many times he contemplated suicide – that is an extremely difficult burden to bear. I have heard similar stories about cops who mistakenly killed a suspect, a witness, or a bystander.

every day should be a training day

With all of this in mind, what can you do? YOU have got to make every day a training day and you must focus your efforts on the specific tasks in your specific job description that have the highest probability of ending up in tragedy.

In my live programs, I mention “core critical tasks” – aka “very risky, done very rarely with no time to think.” These are the tasks that concern me, but the good news is that they are very few in number. In any given job description in law enforcement operations, there are “less than a dozen” of these “high-risk, low-frequency, non-discretionary time tasks.”

Please make it your goal to identify these specific tasks in your specific job and train, train, train on those tasks. I know this is not required by law or policy but remember that minimum standards are simply that – minimum standards. Our public deserves better than minimum standards. Our personnel deserves better than minimum standards. The law enforcement profession deserves better than minimum standards. You and I can do nothing to increase initial training or ongoing training, but we can individually make a commitment to improving our individual performance.

Make excellence the norm

Dr. Tony Kern is the smartest person I have ever met – seriously! He has a book out called “Going Pro – The Deliberate Practice of Professionalism.” He preaches that we must make “excellence the norm and not the deviation.” In his book, he proposes a “six-step approach” to achieving this goal. The steps are:

  • Vocational excellence
  • Professional ethics
  • Continuous improvement
  • Professional engagement
  • Professional image
  • Selflessness

When I look at a group of cops sitting in front of me in a lecture, I know there are three types of people present:

  • Some – fortunately, a very small group – do not want to be there. They were directed to be there, and they already know the day will be a waste of time.
  • Most of the group in front of me wants to be there and they will pay attention and do what they are told to do.
  • And then there is the third group. They are the people who really want to be there and want to learn something where they can go back to work and change the world for the better.

My guess is most of the people reading this writing fall into the last group – you regularly read Police1 and other sources of information and you want to make things better – personally and organizationally. Each of us is responsible for “police reform.” It starts with your commitment as an individual to understand that we have to get better at what we do. If each member of law enforcement committed to “make excellence the norm and not the deviation” we would make things so much better.

Please make every day a training day and focus it on the “core critical tasks.” Make sure that the training includes fully understanding the policies associated with the given task. If you are a supervisor or manager, please identify the core critical tasks in your unit – and get your people training every day so we can continually improve our operations.

Thanks for reading this and please continue to work safely.

NEXT: Roundup: How police training is being reformed

Gordon Graham has been actively involved in law enforcement since 1973. He spent nearly 10 years as a very active motorcycle officer while also attending Cal State Long Beach to achieve his teaching credential, USC to do his graduate work in Safety and Systems Management with an emphasis on Risk Management, and Western State University to obtain his law degree. In 1982 he was promoted to sergeant and also admitted to the California State Bar and immediately opened his law offices in Los Angeles.