COPSS in Class

Delivering instructions to our fellow officers is the basis of law enforcement training. Simple in theory, but harder in practice: If you’ve been at it for some time, you know that there’s much more to the equation. Without proper care, control and forethought, the potential for unproductive training, or worse yet, injury to one of our own, is a real possibility. To address this, I respectfully suggest that you keep in mind five basic concepts. These concepts can be remembered through the use of the acronym COPSS, which stands for communicating, coaching, organization, practicality, safety and supervision.

Communicating & Coaching
The instructor sets the stage for the practical application phase of the training session. For example, in firearms classes, proper understanding of range commands, techniques, drills and core concepts is an essential portion of an instructor’s responsibility to communicate effectively with the students before the shooting starts. Instructions to students in scenarios like this should be clearly briefed prior to the start of the session and reinforced as the training continues.

There are two reasons for this. One is to ensure that safety is kept at a high priority level. The other is to make sure that student officers understand the concepts passed on to them. We can call this coaching, or even tutoring. The basic idea here is to do our best to ensure that the learning takes place. One of the more successful phrases I have found that helps to achieve this goal is to ask the student a simple question: “How can I help you?”

When the student is queried like this in a genuine fashion, I think it establishes a commitment between you and that student to help them improve and set the right tone. It can be asked of an entire class or a single student, but the point is that the question should be posed in one form or another. Perhaps you’ve been in training courses in which the instructor is so self-absorbed that the students feel as if they are there as a support group for the instructor’s ego. It’s unlikely that the latter ever asked, “How can I help you?” Quite rightly, that instructor probably received at best mediocre ratings on teaching evaluations.

Effective communication is another key basic for a good instructor. Once you ask the question, how are you going to convey the answer to the students? Obviously, if you can’t communicate properly, you’re not going to be effective in your teaching.

A technique that helps me is to communicate with a student’s perspective in mind, rather than that of an instructor. Take, for example, a story that a fellow instructor told during a “beer o’clock” debrief: During firearms training, a coach was trying to motivate a young officer to be more aggressive with his draw stroke from the holster. The student wasn’t performing up to par, and the coach was getting frustrated. Eventually, desperately trying to inspire the desired result, the coach yelled at the student to “Throw that gun out!” at the target. And don’t you know, that is exactly what the student did! He pulled the handgun from its holster and before the coach could intervene, threw it at the target.

OK, instructor-level pop quiz: Who was at fault for this behavior? You could point the finger at the student initially, but wasn’t the instructor also to blame for his failure to properly communicate? The point here is that the instructor should have considered how the command would be interpreted within his student’s frame of reference. Perhaps one of the thoughts that went through the instructor’s head was something like, “You dang fool, you did what I told you to do, not what I wanted you to do.” Who was really the “dang fool” in that scenario? It boils down to the fact that the student did what they were told to do, but certainly not in the manner the instructor intended. The key here is that the instructor’s words were based on his assumption that the student would completely understand. It’s pretty clear that didn’t happen.

Overall, instructors should be aware of their students’ capabilities and then use adult learning theory based on teaching as discussed above to improve the individual’s performance. One of the most powerful phrases an instructor can employ in this capacity is, “Let me show you.” Following this with solid advice and constructive criticism can take students a long way toward improving their skills and knowledge. This in turn translates into more effective real-life applications on the streets.

The old adage that “Proper planning prevents poor performance” holds true for law enforcement training. A good instructor organizes their class so that it benefits the most important person there: the student. Preparing for the class in advance rather than winging it shortly before the start time is a sound technique. It not only allows for a greater level of instructor confidence, but also conveys to the students that the class will be conducted in a professional manner.

The way in which the instruction is presented is another concern. Learning should be organized so concepts and techniques are presented in a “building block” fashion that allows for proper understanding. For example, progressing from single rounds to double taps and then to multiple rounds, fired in combination with the concept of “two to the body, one to the head” (a drug and armor drill), is a common progression for firearms training. Clearly, it would not be as productive to begin with the drug and armor portion first, especially if there has been no foundational work on the basics (trigger control, sight picture). In a similar context, if you’re teaching cops vehicle operations, you wouldn’t throw your students into a realistic pursuit scenario without first covering topics, such as your department’s pursuit policy, proper handling of the vehicle and so forth.

Finally, an organized instructor is prepared for the worst-case scenario, which is a student getting injured or seriously ill during a class. Aside from the obvious potential for injury during physically-oriented training, such as firearms or arrest and control, consider this example of why such preparation is important: I was in a lecture class, when suddenly, one of the officers, a male in his fifties, jumped up, knocking over his coffee cup and chair. As he did so, he yelled out, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” He then collapsed to the floor. Obviously, immediate action was required. Fortunately, another officer in the class was an EMT, and the instructor had the rest of the students clear away the tables and chairs while the EMT started assessing the student. The initial evaluation was that the student had suffered a stroke. Swift action got him to the hospital and eventually he regained some, but not all, of his health.

With these examples in mind, I suggest that a medical emergency plan should be in the back of our heads every time we teach. If it’s range training, then the emergency plan should be briefed to students and other instructors prior to the start of the hands-on training. I also recommend that each student fills out or has an emergency medical information sheet on file at the training site. This may include pertinent information such as blood type, medical allergies, pre-existing conditions and agency and personal contact numbers.

A trauma kit for treating anything from a cut to a gunshot wound should be available. Your local paramedics are a great resource for help with this. It’s my experience that if you contact them and explain what you need, they’ll probably give you supplies to help get your trauma kit started. Another option is to purchase one of the commercially available trauma kits specifically designed for initial medical treatment. What you don’t want is some minimal first aid kit that consists of just Band-aids and gauze.

Polling your classes for students who have emergency medical credentials, such as EMTs, is a good idea. Being prepared for a possible student injury or serious illness is a responsibility that cannot be overlooked or ignored by a conscientious instructor.

As police officers, we should know that the sentiment “it can’t happen to me” is ignorant and even dangerous. I urge you to take a proactive approach to this part of being organized.

An added responsibility that all instructors must recognize is that training should be practical. Case law and statistics from law enforcement incidents can help point the way. For example, we need only consider landmark firearms training cases such as Popow v. Margate (476 F. Supp. 1237) to find clear mandates for range training. In Popow, the police department was held responsible for the death of an innocent civilian due to their failure to properly train officers in the use of firearms. Specifically, there was no agency instruction in critical techniques, including shooting on the move, firing at moving targets, multiple targets and shoot/don’t shoot situations. That was obviously a hard lesson for that agency to learn. Similarly, information developed from analyzing lethal force encounters makes it clear that the majority of these incidents take place at short distances. With information like this, it’s relatively easy to create courses of fire based on practical training needs.

When appropriate, instruction should reinforce department policy and the law. There is no doubt that officers and by extension, the instructor may be held accountable for their use-of-force, the way they drive their patrol cars on the streets and the manner in which they handle calls. The above aspects of training are sometimes ignored or forgotten by instructors. The instructor should strive to give the students a complete understanding of when and how policy and case law come into play rather than just the mechanics of a particular process. Through practical training, the instructor is, in essence, giving the students an action plan to be used when appropriate on the streets.

An added mantra for the firearms instructor is the phrase, “Bring the streets to the range, not the range to the streets.” This means that one of our primary goals is to ensure the firearms training we provide is geared toward use-of-force confrontations, driven by the realities of past events. One example of this rule being violated dates back to the Newhall, Calif., shooting in 1970. In this incident, armed suspects who were prepared to kill in order to escape, confronted officers. The officers were programmed by range training with their revolvers to catch the expended shells dumped from the guns with their hands and then put the shells into their pants pocket, rather than just dropping them to the ground. My understanding is that this technique grew out of a range mentality, rather than consideration of the reality of a gunfight. During the firefight, several officers used this technique. The spent shells were found in their pockets during the autopsy. It’s widely accepted that this unrealistic reload practice contributed to their deaths at the hands of the suspects. One wonders if the officers would have survived had they been taught a more realistic combat reload technique with accompanying tactical awareness.

To a professional instructor, this single word conveys so much. The responsibility for a safe and successful training session ultimately rests with the instructor. Ignoring the importance of this fact, or even just growing complacent, is a betrayal of the trust placed in the instructor by both the department and the officers under their supervision. Officers come to hands-on training like firearms, arrest and control and vehicle operations with the expectation that beneficial learning will take place without trauma or tragedy. It is true that the students, not the instructor, are hands-on, but it should be the instructor who defines and guides the safety aspects of any class.

California POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) requires classes like those mentioned above to submit safety guidelines, which must be approved prior to the course being certified for presentation. These typically address specific issues that should be considered by instructors before the training ever starts. Following this example, it is a good idea for you to develop your own set of safety guidelines for the classes you teach. Share them with other instructors and ask for their input.

Another issue that goes hand-in-hand with the implementation of safety guidelines is a safety analysis of the training. Look at the location you are using and anticipate potential issues that could injure your students. This applies not only to practical training areas, but to the classroom as well. If there are computer and television cables running across the floor, it’s a good bet that someone will trip and fall over them sooner or later. It could even be you, and how would that look? A safety analysis of the classroom would indicate that the cables should be taped to the floor. This discussion of safety could go on and on, adding countless other rules, instructions and guidelines. The key point is that instructors should always keep in mind the responsibility to ensure that the training is safe for all those involved.

As you step into the classroom, the range or the arrest and control area, take a look at what is before you. The facilities, and more importantly, the students, are your responsibility. Failure to supervise personnel at a level appropriate for the training is an invitation to injuries and possibly lawsuits. Therefore, the class must be managed properly. This translates into being a role model as well as maintaining control over the ongoing activities. In the latter case, you should monitor the students’ behavior during the training session. The instructor has to maintain a focus of control with the intent of helping the students reach instructional goals. For example, while humor is an effective tool in the learning process, improper horseplay during training has to be stopped before it becomes a significant problem.

The student-to-instructor ratio is critical. When instructors are significantly outnumbered, students do not learn effectively and an adequate level of supervision may not always be maintained. Students who are relatively inexperienced with new hands-on techniques (especially with firearms and other use-of-force tools) may require a ratio as low as one-to-one. It’s up to the instructors to determine the correct ratio for the training at hand. I would also suggest that if you encounter an administrator who wants to expand the ratio beyond what you believe is within safe limits, it’s time to take a stand. Respectfully but strongly object to this practice. Ratios are intended to enhance safety and effective instruction, and this has to be a consideration for administrators. Sure, nothing may happen “this time,” but shortchanging training in this manner is not the right thing to do.

The instructor sets the example for their students. A hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” attitude has no place in this setting. A classic example is the instructor who preaches firearms safety but does not practice good muzzle discipline and trigger finger placement during demonstrations. The infamous video of the federal agent giving a firearms talk to a group of school kids comes to mind. As he begins talking, he fails to ensure that his handgun is safe and empty. Instead, he promptly shoots himself in the leg after uttering the words, “I’m the only one here professional enough to carry the Glock 40.” His credibility was toast after that.

It’s equally important that the instructor shows the students a high level of professionalism, relevant knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic at hand. This means explaining and demonstrating what is to be accomplished in a positive fashion. A genuine commitment to the students’ welfare is another essential. This should be accomplished through actions as well as words. Keeping the class informed and motivated is one aspect, and ensuring the students get adequate breaks and stay hydrated is another, more practical consideration. Generally, do your best to create an overall positive learning environment.

Finally, instructors who help with the grunt work, such as rearranging tables and chairs or picking up brass, make it clear that they haven’t forgotten that they were once students too. A little effort here, as well as with all the issues discussed in this article, truly goes a long way.

The Bottom Line
Instructors must properly prepare themselves and their surroundings and supervise personnel during training. By using a commonsense approach to coaching/communicating, organization, practicality, safety and supervision, instructors can have an increased positive impact on their most basic responsibility, which is to ensure that officers are properly trained for the challenges of the job.

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