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If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street

If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street

Of the many things I wish I had known at the start of my career, one of the key issues is the importance of a commitment to active learning. In law enforcement, we talk about active shooters, active patrol and active lifestyles. Too often, however, we seem to treat learning as a passive activity, something that simply happens over time, and too often only when we are assigned to attend training.

Active learning takes many forms.

We often talk about learning from our experiences. Debriefings are the greatest real-time learning opportunities available to us. The question is what are we learning? Are we truly learning a better way to do things or just learning that “Boy we really screwed that up—better not do that again”? Or maybe we’re learning, “Well none of us got hurt so we must have done a good job.”

The true purpose of a debriefing is to learn from the experience so that the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation we will perform at a higher level. The keys then are to stay positive and view it as a learning opportunity. Determine what went well and what needs to be done better in the future. When addressing what we want to improve in the future, focus on what to do as opposed to what not to do—again.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Seek others who have been there and done that. Find mentors and role models who have already accomplished what you hope to achieve and ask for their guidance and advice. Too often, we shy away from this powerful learning tool, thinking that people will think we’re sucking-up. The reality is that the majority of those people would be happy to share their experiences, their failures and mistakes, and their lessons learned. If they aren’t willing to share, then they weren’t a good choice for a role model and we can learn from that and move on.


  • One hour a day equals 364 hours a year. Over a 25-year career, that’s 9,100 hours of learning, the equivalent of nine 40-hour weeks of learning a year. Over a 25-year career, this one simple habit equates to more than 227 weeks of learning.
  • If you read one book a week, that is 52 books a year. Over a 25-year career, that equals 1,300 books. Even if you read a book every two weeks that’s still 650 books over your career. Even a book a month equates to 300 books over 25 years.
  • Obtain a library card. Find others who are interested in learning and create a network to share periodicals and books. If you can get a group of four people together and each of you invest $25.00 a year to subscribe to a different periodical for less than 10 cents a day, you have access to four magazine subscriptions a year. Think outside of law enforcement as well and subscribe to magazines like Success or similar publications.
  • Access online resources like

Enroll in Automobile University by turning your daily commutes and travels into mobile educational sessions. The average North American spends one hour per day in the vehicle. Using that time to listen to educational and motivational material instead of music equates to 364 hours of learning a year. This is the equivalent of nine 40-hour weeks of training per year. Throughout a 25-year career, that equals 9,100 hours, or more than 227 weeks of learning. Combine that with the hour a day of reading and you have 455 forty-hour weeks (18,200 hours) worth of learning in just 25 years.


  • Take advantage of as many in-service courses offered by your agency as possible.
  • The list of LE-specific training courses offered by quality trainers around North America is endless. Do your research first and look toward those that are of interest to you.
  • Take one or two university or college courses every year. Over a 25-year career, you can earn a degree, a second degree or an advanced degree.
  • Seek out adult learning programs through your city’s parks and recreation department or your local library.


Every year there are a number of great conferences and courses offered around North America. These include the Legacy of Excellence Conference, Street Survival Seminars, International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), Force Science Institute workshops, International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI), and the High Liability Conference to name a few. Here are some thoughts in regards to being able to attend them:

  • Start budgeting early by putting money aside from every paycheck and begin attending conferences early in your career. If you saved just $2.50 a day, you could save $910.00 in one year, which would easily enable you to attend a conference at least every two years.
  • Most organizations offer scholarships to help deserving officers attend so seek-out and apply for those. Once you are in a financial position to do so, donate to the scholarship funds to help other deserving officers.
  • Ask the conference organizers if they offer any price incentives for officers attending at their own expense.
  • Make a pitch to your supervisor that if you pay your own way and they allow you to attend on company time then you will make a presentation upon your return and share some of the key elements you learned. Also, share any handouts or other materials you acquire at the conference. If you show a willingness to attend at your own expense and then share the information, the agency may be more willing to pay you to attend future courses and conferences.

During more than four decades as a pilot with the Air Force and commercial airlines, Chesley B. Sullenberger had to weather his share of storms and mechanical glitches. When questioned by Katie Couric about his heroic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, Sullenberger credited his past experiences for giving him the maturity to steer the plane. He replied, “One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15, 2009 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

We all need to learn from Captain Chesley Sullenberger and start making deposits at the start of our career.

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About The Author


Brian Willis is the editor, publisher and contributing writer for the acclaimed books W.I.N.: Critical Issues in Training and Leading Warriors, W.I.N. 2: Insights Into Training and Leading Warriors, If I Knew Then: Life Lessons From Cops on the Street, If I Knew Then 2: Warrior Reflections, am I that man? How Heroes Role Models and Mentors Can Shape Your Life and a contributing writer for Warriors: On Living with Courage, Discipline and Honor. Brian serves as the Deputy Executive Director for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers association (ILEETA). He is the past editor of the ILEETA Review, writes the W.I.N. Column for the ILEETA Journal and has had numerous articles published in law enforcement periodicals. Brian began his law enforcement career with the Calgary Police Service in 1979 and over the next 25 years he worked as a patrol officer, tactical officer, patrol supervisor and trainer. From 1995 to 2004 he was the head use of force trainer for the Calgary Police Service (an agency of 1950 officers). In that role he was responsible for researching, developing, instructing and overseeing the Officer Safety, Subject Control Tactics, Crowd Management, Incident Command and Emergency Vehicle Operations programs. Brian also served on the Crowd Control Unit for 19 years as a constable, supervisor in charge of training and development, Platoon Commander and Deputy Commander. He served in integral roles during the World Petroleum Congress and G8 Summit in Calgary. Brian served as a member of the National Advisory Board for Police Marksman Magazine from 2000 to 2007 and is a member of the National Tactical Officers Association, the Illinois Tactical Officers Association, the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors and Canadian Association of Professional Speakers In addition to numerous law enforcement certifications Brian holds a Certificate in Adult Learning from the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College. He has given presentations on mental preparation and conditioning at numerous international conferences and is sought after as a speaker across North America for his presentations Excellence in Training, Harnessing The Winning Mind and Warrior Spirit, The Pursuit of Personal Excellence and am I that man?. Brian has trained law enforcement trainers from the FBI, DEA, RCMP, as well as trainers from state/provincial and municipal agencies from across Canada and the United States in his cutting edge Excellence in Training program.