Optics Matter, Training Should Matter More

Training is a critical necessity in law enforcement. The decisions can be hard, have to be made fast, you have to understand the tools at your disposal, how to de-escalate, when to know you have no other option but your last option. Lately you must also know how to console, how to control a situation, how to moderate yourself — when dealing with a curious citizen, a suspect, a witness, a child, and the person you think might be thinking about killing you — so you don’t offend, upset, irritate or otherwise ‘violate’ someone by “bad experience.” You have to know how to identify and, depending on your role, collect evidence. You have to know how to investigate. You have to develop and own a curiosity that may lead you to places where simply being there is going to be offensive to someone, especially if curiosity leads you to the wrong place. Without curiosity, you don’t seek, you don’t seek, you don’t solve… and that’s not just crimes, but also problems, understanding situations and learning new answers and means.

You have to have basic medical knowledge, you have to know when someone is lying, you have to know exactly what to do in every single situation that anyone might call on you for… if you don’t, in today’s world, you’re a failure as a cop, and in the eyes of the most vocal, other things.

All these things require experience, and training can develop that experience without actually having to experience the situation in the real world… and hoping in many cases, you never have to. But if you do, you must be prepared.

This is an area where our sheriff falls woefully short — training.

We’ve said it again and again and again and still the voting public doesn’t seem to get it. Our latest incident with the sheriff left me in a spot. To address it carries the potential to be completely discredited in the views of some on one hand, to not address it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth because it is such an issue. So I am erring on the side of risk… and I hope whomever you are, you take a moment to weigh all the concepts and points I’m about to address, rather than pick a favorite and start coloring your picture with that single crayon. This is a very complex subject, and this is a very brief blog by comparison. I’m sure the sheriff is reading this with glee, to defend the subject of this training is potential suicide in the public eye. But I’m going to try anyway, assuming my audience is smarter than the average bear and is here because they do care and do want to know more, understand more, and be able to make better decisions. Because that is what this is really about — cops making better decisions.

Our sheriff recently, very publicly canceled a class. Now I don’t know much about this specific class per se, the sheriff claims to only know “some things” about the company. I do greatly understand the optics of the marketing of this class and all the concerns it brings to someone outside policing. I also understand that to market something to those who may go out and take a bullet for you some day in a manner such as, say, “If you’re just nice, they won’t shoot you… and we can teach you that…” No. You can’t. Some people don’t care if you talk nice. Sometimes you’re going to have to find other ways, and yes, potentially even fatal ways, to defend your life and the public.

In light of the histrionics regarding “militarization” we often see, words like “warrior” and “bulletproof” tend to add to the gross misunderstandings so many have of policing and the fear factor that some are leveraging for their 15 minutes of fame. No yeah buts here. Yes, there are bad police. Yes, there are agencies who carry things too far when trying to deal with say… riots where people are looting and burning a city. I’m talking on average, not the exceptions that we all so often point to… but the rule that isn’t so exciting and we don’t see reported on. Police are not “militarized”. They do not have armored tanks with cannons on them. They do not have RPGs. The average cop does not have a sniper rifle. They do not have many proactive tools the military has. They have shields — be they hand carried, or in the form of an MRAP, or a Kevlar helmet – designed to protect them from violence. These items don’t cause violence. They are not in themselves violent, or pro-active in causing violence. They keep cops alive when rioters are throwing rocks, when lunatics are shooting at them, when they are running into a nightclub with an active shooter where they can use these tools to not just protect themselves but protect others.

Now the hysteria has carried over to advanced policing training. The claim is they “show violent videos in these classes… they teach officers to be paranoid. They’re teaching police they’re at war with our community!” I’ll tell you right now, if you’re not a little paranoid, in a reasonable manner, you probably have no business being in a uniform. Being a bit paranoid keeps you aware, keeps you alive. Being a little paranoid along with the right training to keep you aware and ready, good or bad keeps you alive and it allows you to have better control so you’re less apt to make bad decisions. If you don’t think that cops face the potential for a violent encounter every day, I encourage you to watch some of the videos of how quickly things can and do go wrong.

But that is not what these types of classes are about. They’re actually about reducing the effect of paranoia, fear, and effects of adrenaline. They are about expanding your timeframe to make a decision by being prepared. They teach officers the things that can go wrong and how to think ahead so not only is reaction time reduced, but time to make a decision is increased because the answer is already going through your head. It allows an officer to understand what they will experience under certain conditions and prepare their minds to control their reactions, to do one thing even their their physical reaction may be demanding another, to continue to look at a broad spectrum rather than allowing your vision to narrow and your control over the situation to be reduced. They teach officers to start to prepared before they make contact, start thinking about all the things that may possibly happen in the particular situation, how to prevent them if possible, and how to deal with them at the lowest level possible. But yes, also to be ready to pull their weapon, and use it if necessary. Not simply because they’re paranoid or feel they’re at war. So when you do get out that car, you’re ready to make the best decisions possible no matter what happens.

But now we don’t want to give deputies that training. Because people don’t understand it and it scares them. They think they’ve won some battle because some people in another city, who know nothing about our deputies and our community and how they’ve interacted with each other, threatened the sheriff they would protest outside her front door. Sources claimed that this was strictly a political decision by the sheriff and was made because the protest group, not already in the process of being cancelled as she claimed. (I won’t even go into where the hell have these people been when there are real problems — like the condition of the jails or investigations rant as badly as I want to.) We know the sheriff can’t have that. She just about re-organized her entire campaign around the threat of Kathy Atkins protesting another of her campaign events. Right or wrong, our sheriff will cave to the threat of a protest. Virtually every time in my experience. This served the sheriff much better in the manner of showing the public how politically savvy she is, it also showed her lack of understanding for the need of advanced training for her deputies. How long does the community here stand for political savvy over concerned and qualified to ensure the best agency possible?  In light of the stories I’ve been hearing out of the academy and I said to a friend when I heard this, “She is training deputies to die!” That was literally my first reaction in regards to the bigger picture — she will give up a deputies life willingly in the name of political optics because she does not understand the job of law enforcement. Ask yourself what her experience patrolling county streets and dealing with people on a day to day basis is, you’ll find yourself saying, “not enough.” And in light of the deficit, she has done nothing over the years to improve or modernize her knowledge.  These actions of hers, though politically popular, are not making us safer. At some point they actually begin to make law enforcement less safe, which in turn makes the public less safe.

This isn’t just because she canceled the class for concern of the optics of their marketing vs. the optics of her political career which always comes first and foremost. If there is legitimate concern, hit the pause button — but why didn’t you check this out first if you were “familiar” with the company? My concern is because this stopped at the point of being a PR stunt from a law enforcement leader who offered no recognition that her deputies need advanced training. There was no exacting effort to even pretend she was going to review the class and if it didn’t meet “her standards” whatever those might be, that she would ensure access to advanced training that did. I guess it’s hard to find something that fits your standards when you actually have none, though.

Yes, these classes show “violent” videos. It’s not to up the paranoia, it’s to understand what happened, why, and if it was right or wrong, in various types of incidents. Videos are one of law enforcement’s greatest tools — they can literally show officers sitting in a class room that if they had approached the car in a slightly different manner, they would have been better protected if someone jumped out and started shooting. They can show when an officer mistakenly shoots someone, how it was wrong and what they need to do to overcome the human failures that can lead to those bad decisions. No guarantees, but this is what helps. They’re not just watching violent videos to amp up paranoia. It’s not a film festival, folks. It’s advanced training. You won’t learn much of it in academy. You won’t learn nearly any of it in your perishable skills training. You can learn it by watching what others did right or wrong through the years… or you can learn it when you find yourself in that situation and you have nothing but basic knowledge from an academy quickly falling in the rankings.

Yes, the civil rights training, the bias training, the ADA training — that is important, it is needed, it helps where it is meant to help. But it doesn’t change a deputy’s need to be prepared for the worst circumstances they may face. There is no excuse for failing to provide that training, or at least access to it. She is making somewhat realistic efforts to make training good for her image happen, mostly under duress of law suits and not because she actually wants to. She’s been working on implicit bias training for several years, the only people who saw any actual training were Captains and up — the people not generally anywhere near the street making decisions about who to stop and why. Three years. That should give you an idea of how seriously she takes getting these programs put together and on line.

The sheriff’s job isn’t to pander, though that is the one thing she is fantastic at. Not to her deputies, not to fringe groups who refuse to take the time to understand why an officer has to wear a bulletproof vest and carry a gun in this country. Her job is to make the good decisions that ensure everyone’s safety to the highest degree possible — and that absolutely needs to start to include the safety of her own deputies. She needs to hold cadets to the highest standard, as used to be the practice. She needs to ensure training is comprehensive, and yes, that includes teaching deputies when they absolutely must rely on a weapon at their disposal. Particularly since she continues to refuse to provide her deputies with alternative less lethal options because of events that happened because she refuses to invest in training to ensure her deputies use that equipment with knowledge.

Untrained, scared cops kill. I want my cops to be as fearless as possible through the understanding they are in control of their fear through knowledge and preparedness.

Which deputy do you want walking up to your car late at night, no one there but you and him in the dark? The deputy who’s been taught how to control the situation from beginning to end knowing the potential pitfalls and how to avoid them, to control their own paranoia and/or fear because they know what can happen and are ready for anything that may happen, and therefore less likely to overreact? Or the guy who’s not had any advanced training, is afraid, paranoid, and has never had the opportunity to really understand what is about to happen if something startles them and they overreact? Or fail to react at all? Because to me, neither is an acceptable scenario — unnecessarily dead bodies, citizen or deputy, is what we want to avoid at every possibility.

So what do you want? Trained, prepared officers in control and prepared for interacting with you? Or the one afraid, paranoid, and winging it on their academy training that only gave them the very basics? Your call, people. Your call.