Words to the Wise

Words of wisdom, catchy phrases, slogans , whatever you call them have been used in police work for as long as I can remember (which is admittedly a significant amount of time), and instructors often use them to help get their message across to students. Slogans have even made appearances on our marked units. I remember when my old department invited suggestions from the troops for a distinctive phrase to go on the sides of our police cars. It’s a sure thing that one should never underestimate the ability of street cops to be exceedingly creative and mischievously hilarious when given the opportunity. This is even more of a certainty when it is at the invitation of administration.

So when the memo came out asking for input, suggestions from the rank and file included, “Our business is none of your business,” and “What the hell you looking at???” And because we were a tourist resort destination, my personal favorite: “Come on vacation, leave on probation.” Surely, the slogan “Be careful what you ask for” was on the administrators’ minds as suggestions like these flowed in from the troops.

Slogans, witty or not, can be a great tool in law enforcement, and specifically for instructors. When used in training, we can try to ingrain the phrase and its meaning into our students’ minds so that the message automatically kicks in as circumstances require.

Words to the Wise
It’s smarter to talk them into jail than fight them if they’ll let you.

This is one of the first “street gems” I picked up as a cop, and it was only as I matured as a police officer that I learned its true value. It was bestowed upon me by George Snyder, an old school street cop from my former agency. His physical police presence was accentuated by an impressive Budweiser tumor (beer gut) and an unlit cigar hanging out of his mouth. On occasion, I could even guess at what type of food George had consumed based on the stains his uniform shirt displayed. His appearance, though, belied his experience and wisdom.

I’ve found this phrase that George shared with me to be timeless, and I often use his words as I teach topics dealing with use-of-force. While we want to maintain an appropriate readiness to use reasonable force, the ability to just talk people into jail is, I think, an attribute of a seasoned police officer.

Slow is smooth, & smooth is fast.

This phrase is another one I readily share with other instructors and use when teaching psycho-motor skills. The underlying message here is that regardless of the technique firearm reloads, the correct wristlock method, the proper method to pull the pin from a diversionary device or even the right way to carry out CPR instructors should encourage students to take their time when they are learning a new process or even revisiting a previously learned one. As a student works through a particular drill, taking it slow and thinking through the steps enhances the learning process. We know that cops are often Type A personalities who often pressure themselves to be the first to finish. When this happens, the learning will not be as effective.

Recently, I taught a firearms class with such a student. He was usually the first to finish any firearms drill. As I watched his technique more closely, it became quite evident that while he may have been the fastest, he was not the most capable student. His trigger work was quick too fast, in fact but he wasn’t really using his sights. Along the same lines, once he got the rounds off, he did a cursory scan of the environment without taking the time to adequately assess for additional threats. He was in “range robot” mode, operating on fast forward rather than preparing himself for a real lethal force encounter.

Another instructor and I tried to impart the “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast” approach with this student. He did indeed decrease the speed of his efforts when prompted, but I regret that I didn’t have enough time to get this more firmly planted into his mindset. I suspect that as soon as the class was over, he went back to his accelerated application of techniques.

I would humbly suggest that we as instructors should also apply this wisdom to our own teaching roles. When demonstrating a specific technique or process, I’ve found that the slow is smooth, smooth is fast approach allows the students to more fully comprehend what we are showing them. This makes it easier for them to mimic the steps and learn the process correctly. At the same time, demonstrating the technique slowly, with a step-by-step approach and good form, will reduce our chances of making a mistake due to moving too quickly.

When I’m through learning, I’m through.

These words come to us from the great John Wooden of UCLA, one of the most successful college basketball coaches in history. For a law enforcement instructor, this means that if you reach a point where you have been teaching certain techniques for some time, or you haven’t learned anything new for a while, don’t allow yourself to stagnate. To maintain a level of knowledge about the topics you teach, you owe it to your students, and to yourself, to stay current. The Internet is a good source of knowledge, but don’t limit yourself to one venue. Network with other instructors and keep your mind open to learning from them. You might want to even take a course as a student. The bottom line is you can’t become complacent about staying current and relevant as an instructor.

There is no easy way to pick up a turd.

What? Yup, that’s what I said. This one comes to us from Steve Ijames, who is probably a familiar name to most of you. If you can get past the initial yuck factor, consider the phrase in the context of law enforcement instruction. One of our main tasks as instructors is to train cops how to avoid making mistakes, especially the serious ones. Equally important is the fact that we often have the opportunity to set an example as role models when something does go wrong. This is where the turd factor really comes into play. We have learned from experience that things only get worse when officers deny or try to avoid accepting responsibility for their mistakes. It’s the right thing to do when cops and especially instructors own up to their actions accepting accountability for them. If we encourage our students to do the right thing and set the standard through our own behavior, then hopefully they’ll take the appropriate course of action and avoid as much as possible creating problems for themselves. When they do err, they’ll handle the repercussions in a way that earns respect rather than derision for the way they dealt with picking up the mess they created.

If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.

My hat will be eternally off to Gordon Graham for teaching me this valuable lesson. Cops work in the world of “shit happens.” With that in mind, our training can help address some of the predictable scenarios that take place on the streets. A good example of this is foot pursuits. If an officer chases after a suspect, it’s a given that at some point, the suspect might try to ambush the cop. Having identified this, appropriate training would try to ensure that when it happens for real, a big warning bell would go off in our officers’ heads as they run after that suspect.

Another example falls in the realm of driver’s training. When we’re involved in vehicular pursuits or an officer calls for help over the radio, our driving becomes more intense and the potential for a negative incident increases. It’s predictable that cops will overdrive or take a corner too fast unless preventive training to counter such mistakes has been delivered in advance. One such step that doesn’t require driving simulators or operating a unit on a pursuit training track is to get the message across that such driving has led to officers being killed or injured with depressing regularity. Cops worth their salt want to catch the bad guy. They want to get there fast to help fellow officers. But responders can’t get the job done if they crash on the way, which in this example is a predictable outcome.

If you look at some of the core police skills firearms, driving, use-of-force, even first aid that are part of our job, you’ll probably find a number of ways that you can apply the “if it’s predictable, it is preventable” rule for the betterment of your students.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing & the worst thing you can do is nothing.

This final one comes to us from Teddy Roosevelt, who was encouraging us to use common sense and not be afraid to decide and act. Sometimes you know the right answer to the question immediately, and then at other times, it takes a while to work through to the proper decision.

I like to use Teddy’s words in the context of leadership as well as for instructional purposes. In the latter case, obviously we instructors often act as decision-makers. Failing to make a decision or deferring it to someone else when it’s clearly our responsibility is not in keeping with Teddy’s advice. You may have worked with other instructors or even administrators who are reluctant to make a decision or even avoid it in the hope that, with time, it will just work itself out. In this scenario, these avoiders are embodying the do-nothing concept that Roosevelt warns against.

One scenario: You make the decision to institute an active shooter response training program within your department. You’ve done your homework, estimating the costs as well as putting together a proposed training schedule with minimum impact on overtime. You’ve arranged for instructors, role players and facilities. You feel this is a justified decision within the training goals of the department and you take it to your boss for final approval. Two or three weeks pass, and you still have not received permission. You remind the boss of the request, but still, you receive no feedback. You start to get the feeling that the higher-ups are doing the worst thing nothing with this particular decision, just as Teddy predicted.

After more requests for guidance and a few more weeks, the boss finally gets back to you. He says the decision has been made to not proceed with the active shooter response training. In your mind, this is clearly the wrong decision, but at least you’ve got some kind of answer. Now the decision-making has come full circle and the ball is in your court. Do you decide to try to fight for the program in a professional manner or do you shelve it? That’s up to you, but my recommendation would be to decide in a positive manner. If there’s a clear need for this kind of training, then make the commitment to continue to be an advocate for its adoption by the department. It may take patience, and it may not happen within the next month or fiscal quarter, but at some point you might just succeed. Whether you succeed or not, however, you made the decision to do the right thing for your department and its officers.

A Final Note
These words of wisdom do not bestow upon us a blank check for making mistakes in the interest of doing something just to take action. Honest mistakes are a naturally occurring outcome in law enforcement and should be evaluated with a proper perspective.

I know that there are many more phrases out there, and you probably have some that you like to use. I chose these six because I think they’re worthwhile for instructors and students alike. Hopefully the common sense wisdom behind them can help make you and your department more successful in the challenging job of providing quality law enforcement.

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