By Lon Bartel
Is it time to question some of the methodology we see inside Law Enforcement training and education circles? Law Enforcement has not been as proficient as the military in learning from our past and ensuring similar pitfalls or catastrophes don’t happen in the future. Ask a Marine what the red stipe on their pant means and they can tell you. But the cautionary tales of examples the FBI Miami Bank shootout (Florida 1986) and Grape Street Park (California 1984) are all but forgotten or never learned by many of our newer officers.
We try to learn from our history. We (trainers) like to grab videos or news stories and we then show other officers all of the “look what can happen if you do this”. But is this really where or how our limited time and resources should be spent? Don’t get me wrong we should always learn from our mistakes but is this the best method? Is the “don’t do this, as seen on social media” the right thing to do?
I first questioned this as a young officer when I attended my first commercial Officer Survival Training almost 19 years ago. My agency paid for my admission and I was excited to go. I was there with a range of officers, a few with less time than me and most with much more. I sat listening to the presenters with intensity. They provided me data on victim officer’s ages, how much time they had on and how their peers described them. I saw video after video where officers would get the snot beat out of them or shot and some of them killed. The instructors passionately repeated the messages of “don’t give up, don’t ever give up” or “don’t quit!” I left, just as I had come to the course, not wanting to die in the line of duty but still willing to risk it for others. Where it was highly emotional and engaging, it showed me some of the things of what not to do. I also left with more questions of what should I actually do.
I came into the Law Enforcement world with a sports medicine background. I put myself through college working as a personal trainer and strength coach. I obtained my certifications with American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Council on Exercise. I graduated with honors with a degree in Exercise and Sports Medicine with a focus of Biochemistry and Physiology. I worked with a range of clients some with half a heart, others trying to lose weight and others were collegiate athletes trying to do more. What I knew about teaching high performance psycho-motor skills did not match up with the methods I experienced in this officer safety class or hardly at all in my training to become a cop nor the 20 years that I was a cop. I did not learn or teach playing sports this way either.
Some will give me heat for using a sport analogy and say “cop work isn’t a sport”. I would argue that it is, with a lot more at stake than a trophy or a championship ring. The parallels are hard to argue. As a high-end athlete, you have to perform psycho-motor skills at a high level with high levels of arousal (stress) and if you don’t perform well you know there will be consequences. Even if you perform really well your opponent could be better. Athletes have to know where to be, when to move and how to make complex decisions while the clock is ticking. Cops have to do the same thing, only the ultimate price has to be paid or ultimate prize is at stake…. a human life.
I didn’t grow up watching Monday night football, looking for the worst guy on the field and saying to myself, “don’t be like him.” Nike knew this and capitalized on this very idea when many of us wanted to, “Be like Mike.” We wanted to excel to great performance, glide through the air. We wanted to be the best. We wanted to model our performance off of greatness or success. This modeled behavior is a critical to the way we learn. This has long known to be true. So where are all of the glorious examples of law enforcement officers doing it right under the most harrowing of circumstances? Why are we not showing more examples of how to do it right? Shouldn’t this be the focus?
I had a chance to discuss this many years later with famed trainer Brian Willis, of Winning Mind Training, in one of his “Excellence in Training” courses. The most powerful section to me was Performance Enhancement Imagery. Brian used a mental construct to show all of us in attendance an example of how our mind works, how it works in images (language of the mind). Images that have to be constructed in the mind. To think in the negative (no, don’t, not) the images have to first be constructed then negated or cancelled out. It is important to note the images are still first constructed in the mind. So right now, as the reader of this article, whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant! Were you successful of not thinking about it? Or did you think of the pink elephant and then erase it, “X” it out, or blow it up? Ask your friends to do the same exercise. How well does it work when you tell your kids, “Don’t spill your milk”? Brian’s point is because of how the mind works showing videos where officers are on the losing end of things, and saying “don’t do this” and nothing else, doesn’t have the value we think it does.
Brian makes a great suggestion of playing the video a second time and then stopping it prior to the first harmful event and have each officer create their own successful training file by imagining themselves resolving a similar problem and winning. Then continue the video until the next point and again imagine another successful resolution. As Brian put it, “A simple 90 second video can take anywhere from 90 minutes to 8 hours to break down, discuss and apply.” He also cautions on one of the greatest lies in law enforcement and it starts with the words, “If I was there I would have” and replaces it with, “When I find myself in a similar situation what would I most likely do?” and “Have I trained myself to a level of competence and confidence to actually do it?” Simple but effective.
Let’s break it down to an easier more biological perspective, like toilet training your toddler son to pee standing up. Does dad model the behavior on a nearby tree or a Cheerio floating in the bowl, or does dad spray and pray on his own shoe and the environment and tell the young child, “don’t do that”? I have twin boys that are now 12, we went through a lot of Cheerios.
We (trainers) have been told not to “kill an officer in training”. Yet, we show them video after video of officers loosing or being murdered without requiring a successful training file be created over it, even if it is with their own imagination. This has to change. Every video they watch on their own time, they should be encouraged to come up with a detailed training file of their own resolution of the situation with success.
Years ago, I reached out to the authors and writers behind LEOKA (Law Enforcement Officers Killed in Action). I asked them if we could consider looking at what made officers successful in battles for their lives? I wanted to know what behaviors, actions, training, mindset, fitness regimens could be predictors of success. Then model and ensure more successful behavior. I was told they were considering it…I am still waiting.
Where we cannot change the past, we can advocate for the future, and I can control some of that direction where I am at currently at VirTra. VirTra has not only encouraged but demanded that the science behind learning and performance of psycho-motor skill be a primary consideration in what we create inside simulation. Being able to work with and learn from some of the best trainers and researchers out there has been a blessing. I love the challenge and how I am being pushed. You have solid researchers out there that are pushing the science like Dr. Paul Taylor, Drs. John and Dawn O’Neill, and, of course, Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute. These folks have the same goal as my earlier trainers did in my Officer Survival Class, but these folks have the science behind learning to back it up. I am calling all of the other trainers out there to do the same. Our brothers and sisters in blue deserve it and need it.
This article was originally published in the 2018 Winter Edition of “The ILEETA Journal”
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