We Can't Just Use the Same Mental Recipes Over and Over Again: In Police Training We Must Challenge The Prevailing Mindset

I just finished up facilitating the sergeants leadership course which is heavily focused on developing adaptability and uses experiential learning and tools for learning such as tactical decision games, and case studies is designed to teach the “how-to” teach inspiring leaders how to be adaptive. It also includes discussion on the main tool used in this approach, the development and use of scenarios to improve decision making for police leaders leading thinking police officers. I love teaching this class as it always is evolving and those participating take home confidence in themselves. I always come-out asking myself why are we in policing not doing this type of training every chance we get? Not just for supervisors but for everyone recruit on up!!

Policing and its complex nature which often include, crime, conflict, crisis and violence are a clash between complex adaptive systems. While often police
publications are turning away from the linear Newtonian view and instead begin to use
new science metaphors to describe the methods and conduct of policing, training and education approaches are stuck in the Industrial age. rote lecture and school solutions are often still the norm throughout policing.

“We can’t just look at our present experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experience and the strategic world we live in.” ~COL John Boyd

Most law enforcement agencies have settled for mere adequacy in individual and small-team skills—we can do better. Police officers often had little understanding of the reasons tasks were performed a particular way and are overly reliant on process, not focused enough on results (true in training, but also in planning and leading). Most institutional training had a mechanical, check-the-block feel and was focused on throughput, governed by inputs (hours, ammo, etc.) rather than outcomes or results. these lads to a pronounced tendency at all levels of law enforcement to control by rules—each problem seems to result in more rules (policies, regulations, directives, etc.)

The current linear training methodology, combined with too many rules, stifled initiative: leaving front-line police officers Waiting To Be Told What To Do. Too many curriculum's are  designed in a way that compensated for instructor inadequacies by providing them a script (PowerPoint Decks), to follow and all too often read to student officers, with no real understanding taking place .  This may have prevented failure in some, but it prevented excellence in many in the name of efficiency while neglecting effectiveness. Why do i say such a thing? Are we not the hiring people who are more highly educated than ever in policing history? Yes we are but the problem is training is still neglected in policing. Education is for the unknown, gathering knowledge and learning things. Training however is the area of policing that takes that knowledge and teaches officers how to apply what they know to the street.

Still today in 2017 training methods often are not in harmony with human nature and rarely required real problem solving and initiative. We misapplied stress on officers: too much at the beginning, too little at the end. Training needs to be experiential where cops learn how to think instead of instructors and leaders telling  cops what to think.  In policing and police training there is little room for experimentation, and mistakes and just about all police training is focused on meeting minimum standards and avoiding failure, not on excellence and whether or not an officer will be effective on the streets of their communities. Police training is still working on old and faulty assumptions about how humans make decisions.

Policing knows about the new research on learning and developing people and have books and research papers to prove it. The problem is too many agencies stop short of implementing the current training methods. One example is force on force free play exercises with role playing that tests not only the physical abilities of and officers but the cognitive (decision making ability), psychological and physiological as they work, together in real world situations. In the rote lecture and tell you what to do training, officers could succeed without understanding why they were succeeding. Officer just did what they were told and then passed a written exam, most often multiple choice testing and wha-la your a police officer, a trained observer and a tactical artisan and conflict resolution expert.  Yes, there are exceptions to this general rule on police training but progressive training programs in policing are still very rare.

For twenty five years policing had had this type of experiential learning available to them yet, its not taken advantage of on a regular enough basis to make a significant difference in officers performance. You want police to be able to deescalate situations or shoot more accurately and make more sound decisions, under pressure, then we need to be training police officers under the condition of real world interactions with people, including people who would do violence.

Most law enforcement cultures developed in a fairly stable, predictable environment that is very good at teaching officers how to respond to certain well-defined problems. Police officer and Leader training focused on how to apply solutions and enforce standards—very effective as long as the situation was predictable. Over time, this has fostered a culture of bureaucracy, rules, and engineered “best solutions.”

The bottom line is to keep up with the changing face of policing law enforcement training must shift from training police officers how to apply solutions and enforce standards, to teaching officers how to frame problems and solve them. This is called “adaptive leadership." The main difference is our acceptance that we cannot predict all the types of problems our leaders will have to solve, so we must train officers who can succeed in almost any situation. How do we do this? We shift from industrial-age mass production by fairly narrow experts i.e. Newtonian determinism, Fredrick Taylor and scientific management, and Rene Descartes' engineering (all great for solving technical problems) to more individually tailored crafting by all-around artisans who can solve adaptive challenges.

Now the environment is changing rapidly and requires thinking leaders leading thinking officers. Officer training must now focus on identifying the problem and solving it using the tools available. We must accept less standardization, more focus on achieving desired outcomes and leader judgment must replace detailed rules. ALL TRAINING must be designed to include decision-making and develop judgment. Yes, i used the word judgement. Yes judgement does mean there is risk, although its calculated risk, which is much different than being rash.

What approach to we take? We take the adaptive leader approach and use real problems as the basis for training and developing our people. This type of training requires we put our officers into unknown situations, that rapidly change and let them approach the problem using their senses, just like they do in a crisis situation on the street. Training programs of instruction must start with the particular rather than the abstract theory and focus on the why, not just the what and how. In the words of General A. M. Gray “In tactics, the most important thing is not whether you go left or right, but why you go left or right.” Point: If we don't know why we are doing something. if we just do it because someone told us to do it. we just plainly are not good enough. All teaching must combine doing with explaining and student understanding; all training requires employing skills to solve problems and we must begin to standardize by outcomes, not by inputs or processes—allow both teachers and students the opportunity to try new approaches—minimize controls (micro-management).

This is not easy but i believe it is necessary if we are to solve the complex adaptive challenges policing faces today in the 21st century, yet there is still more to do that goes against the policing current culture. We must also create an environment in which it’s ok to make mistakes—penalize only failure to think or failure to try in training and on the street). Constant feedback is essential—and must be acted upon. The use of after action reviews or decision making critiques are essential. Assess what’s important rather than what’s easy to measure. Stop measuring only things we can put numbers on and instead use measures of effectiveness that takes subjective analysis by leaders and intangibles attributes into account.

How? Regardless of the task or skill, the growth of certain attributes should remain a constant area of emphasis for leaders. Below are the definitions of the levels of performance as well as an outline of those universal attributes and behaviors required for each:

This is the minimum acceptable level of performance, but leaders should not consider it to be “good enough” for the long term. Maintaining a ‘marginal’ level without improvement over time is unacceptable. Observations of marginal performance would include the following attributes and/or behaviors:


  • In most conditions and situations, is able to apply fundamentals to an acceptable level without freezing or becoming a liability to fellow officers.
  • In most situations, takes action without unacceptable delay.
  • Provides little more than the minimum level of effort required.
  • Understands and can explain the “why” behind his/her actions.
  • Stays within the limits of the higher Commander’s Intent.
  • Does not avoid responsibility.
  • Maintains control of self when under stress; continues to function.
  • Recognizes and avoids unnecessary risk; strives to mitigate with only limited success.
  • Level of understanding and instructional capability might allow him/her to assist in training others, but would require significant supervision.


This is the broadest category of performance. It serves as the ‘bridge’ between marginal performance and excellence, so it covers a significant range. Observations of a officer achieving ‘average’ up to ‘strong’ would include the following attributes and/or behaviors:

  • In the vast majority of conditions and situations, is able to apply fundamentals; generally adaptive.
  • Recognizes when action is needed and exercises good initiative.
  •  Strives for self improvement.
  • Generally demonstrates deliberate thought, showing an understanding of the “why” behind actions.
  • In the vast majority of situations, is able to go beyond executing a task in isolation and “connects the dots” by using tasks and/or skills in the process of accomplishing an assigned mission.
  • Generally demonstrates good judgment and understands the context of the current situation.
  • Generally recognizes and accounts for long term consequences of short term actions.
  • Personally and professionally accountable.
  • Manages stress well in the vast majority of circumstances.
  • Recognizes risk and takes action to mitigate.
  • Demonstrates a depth of understanding and instructional capability that would allow him/her to train others with some supervision.


This is the highest level of performance and the ultimate goal of every leader. Observations of a officer achieving ‘excellence’ in any task or skill would include the following attributes and/or behaviors:

  • Regardless of conditions or situation, applies fundamentals in new and increasingly complex circumstances; adaptive.
  • Does not wait to be told what to do; recognize when action is necessary and delay is detrimental; demonstrates disciplined initiative.
  • Constant self-assessment; always strives for improvement and maintenance of skills.
  • Consistently demonstrates deliberate thought process, clearly showing that he/she possesses a depth of understanding of the “why” behind actions.
  • Goes beyond executing a task in isolation and “connects the dots” by using tasks and/or skills in the process of accomplishing an assigned mission.
  • Sees “the big picture”; demonstrates sound judgment and solves problems appropriately within the larger context of the current situation.
  • Recognizes and accounts for long term consequences of short term actions.
  • Exemplifies and promotes personal and professional accountability.
  • Effectively manages stress in even the most difficult of conditions and situations; sets the example for others; demonstrates mental toughness.
  • Prudent risk-taker; recognizes risk and effectively mitigates it when possible.
  • Demonstrates a depth of understanding and instructional capability that would allow him/her to train others with minimal supervision.

We can take these even further and outline performance standards within each desired outcome we seek in individual officers and how they work together with others. These standards are focused on the assessment of officers as they progress through direct and indirect experience throughout their careers. Each standard of performance written below, along with the description of the universal attributes discussed above serves as a guide for police leaders and trainers. Here is one example:

Be proficient as an individual police officer is the outcome we seek. What does these mean and how do we measure it? Lets use a common skill an individual officer must master:

Demonstrate mastery of the fundamentals of rifle and pistol

A measure of effectiveness first and foremost an officer does not meet acceptable standard of performance. obviously this would mean failure. An acceptable standard would be and officer accurately determines what and when to engage, doing so within appropriate time for current operational conditions; usually hits intended targets at close and intermediate ranges; Has limited difficulty at extended ranges; Able to correct malfunctions and reload ammunition; Usually uses cover to their advantage; In all conditions, can effectively maintain and prepare weapon for operation. Demonstrates the ability to physically handle the weapon safely.

An officer with good fundamentals of rifle and pistol can quickly and accurately determine what and when to engage; usually hits intended targets at close, intermediate, and extended ranges; corrects malfunctions and reloads ammunition in a timely manner; Actions are generally efficient; Uses cover to good advantage; In all conditions, can effectively maintain and prepare weapon for operation. Demonstrates the ability to physically handle the weapon safely. Effectively communicates with teammates to coordinate his/her actions with those around him.

An officer with superior rifle and pistol skills takes minimum time to accurately determine what and when to engage; consistently hits intended targets at close, intermediate, and extended ranges with minimum number of shots; minimizes time required to correct malfunctions and to reload ammunition; Actions are fluid and efficient; Uses cover to best advantage; In all conditions, can effectively maintain and rapidly prepare weapon for operation; Demonstrates the ability to physically handle the weapon safely. Maintains absolute physical control of the weapon and poses no unintentional threat to others around them.

This is just one example and it takes time and effort to get the outcomes you seek and then define measures of effectiveness. Some other guidelines to consider are first and foremost did they make a decision. If so, did the officer effectively communicate it and was decision made in support of commander intent and mission. If not was the officers solution based on changing conditions that’s made it a viable decision, even if it violated the original mission order, but nevertheless supported commanders intent. Do not attempt to remove judgment—result will be a mix of objective data and subjective analysis. Assessments should focus on effectiveness over efficiency.  As Col John Boyd said:

Its a theme for vitality and growth.  Its a unifying vision. A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances—yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Aim, improve fitness as an organic whole to shape and expand influence or power over the course of events in the world.

Ingredients needed to pursue vision Insight an ability to peer into and discern the inner nature or workings of things. Initiative the internal drive to think and take action without being urged. Adaptability the power to adjust or change in order to cope with new or unforeseen circumstances. and finally Harmony or the Power to perceive or create interaction of apparently disconnected events or entities in a connected way.