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Field Training: Some Things Don’t Really Change

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Steve Kellams, an expert on law enforcement field training, was kind enough to share his expertise with Agency360 CEO Matt Molter during a recent interview. This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting the conversation that Matt and Steve had regarding their work with field training programs across the country. If you missed the first post discussing the positive impact of field training on officer burnout, you might want to check it out.

For this post, we will focus on Steve’s thoughts on field training, then and now. Despite the advances in technology and the challenges of the millennial generation, Steve explains how some things never really change.

Matt:  I want to talk about trainees themselves in just a minute, but to start off this conversation, let me ask you about field training on the whole.  Do you think field training has changed much since you first started your career as a law enforcement officer?

Steve:  No, I don’t think field training as a whole has changed very much. Yet, I think there are some great benefits that we now have. Technology has done a wonderful thing for field training. Now the daily observation reports can be put into databases. I remember having to graph out a rookie’s performance 20 years ago. You know, getting out the graph paper and the colored pencils and the rulers and spending four to five hours to make a graph. Now I get this done in four or five seconds by pushing a button. Technology has been amazing to speed the process up.

I remember back in the day, we created DORs with the task reference numbers as a way to create a computer-like program before computers were being used. And so we kind of sped the process up there, which was great, but now you’ve sped it up even more with software designed for field training. And I’ve told my FTOs, “If you’re spending more than 20 minutes to fill out a DOR, you’re wasting your time.” It should be a 20-25 minute process. Anything more than that is a waste of time.

I’d also say that video technology is a huge benefit. Now that I can show a recruit what they did or how they did it, and show that through bodycam video, it’s amazing.

Matt:  Do your FTOs take videos from calls and go back through them?

Steve:  Yes. And not only do the FTOs review video, but we do it as managers as well. When I review a DOR, and I see an issue or problem, I will go and pull up a body camera recording for it so I can watch it. It’s absolutely fantastic for a manager to see firsthand some of the things being talked about on a DOR.

And so technology – I think that’s where field training has changed. But as for training on the whole, the way adults learn has not changed. The ways in which adults apply problem-based learning is the same stuff Malcolm Knowles talked about 70 years ago. So addressing field training methods and attacking that aspect of how you’re teaching adults to do things, it’s the same.

Matt:  So the tracking process has gotten better?

Steve:  Definitely much better. We have better, more thorough documentation than what was possible before. The outcome of that is an easier means of defending some of the things you’re trying to talk about with new trainees.

Matt:  You’ve been doing this for a really long time. Have you noticed any difference between trainees now – the millennials – as compared to twenty years ago when you first became an FTO?

Steve: Not really. I am not a big fan of the generational labels. I mean, I get it and could talk about how the millennial generation struggles with communication, that they’re used to the text messages, and they don’t talk to people very well. Many don’t understand how to actually have a conversation, unlike some of us old school guys who will talk somebody’s head off and eventually get to the point. We can talk about how the new kids can only communicate in emojis and three-letter acronyms. But, truthfully, I’m not a big fan of this because as I see it, all adults learn the same way.

I don’t care if you were born today or 100 years ago, adults learn the same way. From an FTO standpoint, I can train a 21 year old the same way I train a 30 year old or a 50 year old. Of course, there are minor differences that happen, however, the cornerstone we all have in common is “the need to know why.”  Every adult needs to know “why” they need to learn something. The oldest generation, or the greatest generation, they just wouldn’t ask. They would try to figure it out on their own. The Y-generation, or millennials, are going to ask, right? The “why” is something at the forefront of their thoughts. So, the difference between the two groups isn’t that big within field training.

Something I do see across the board is that cops are taking shortcuts. The job is hard, people are busy, and so on. They have many reasons why they do some of the things they do, but they often take shortcuts. That’s what I find myself fighting against. Stop taking shortcuts and teach your trainees the right way!  I feel my FTO’s all tend to have this problem of shortcuts.

I’m going to call it the “myth syndrome” where instead of finding out an actual answer, they believe a myth.  

Matt:  OK, you’re going to have to explain this one for me.

Steve: Sure, so here is an example. Stick with me.

We had a brand new recruited officer – a female with long hair. She is told, “You can’t wear your hair in a ponytail. It’s dangerous. You’re going to get yourself killed. It’s against policy.” So, she says, “Oh, ok, well how am I supposed to wear my hair, then?”  Her FTO tells her, “You have to cut it.” The female rookie says, “I do? The policy doesn’t say I have to cut it.” The FTO continues to explain that it’s policy and that she cannot wear her hair in a ponytail. Next, he concedes that she will have to wear it up, but she cannot wear it in a ponytail.

Here’s the myth part. The department policy never said that anywhere. In fact, it doesn’t say anything about ponytails. We’ve got one of the most liberal facial hair policies you can imagine, and all of a sudden she’s on night shift with her FTO who is giving her a hard time about her hair. Now, she’s receiving unacceptable scores on the DOR for policy violations.

Now what happens? She’s smart, she just got out of college, and she’s going to look it up. She’s going to read that there is nowhere in our policy that says this. She goes back to the FTOs to let them know she cannot find the “ponytail” policy. She now knows that they are pushing a myth – the whole idea that this is a policy.

Situations like this happen all the time, and whenever you stick to a myth that is wrong, your recruits will find out. The result isn’t good. They lose confidence in your ability to know what you’re talking about. They quit listening to you. They start arguing with you. And now all of a sudden my rookie may appear to have an “attitude problem.”  Well, the rookie doesn’t have an attitude problem. The FTO has created a relationship problem by providing information that isn’t true.

Matt:  It sounds like a trust problem.

Steve:  Exactly, and the trust problem builds. That’s why I call it the myth syndrome. I tell FTO’s to never perpetuate a myth. If you don’t know it or you’re not sure, that’s OK. Simply go find the answer. But don’t just put your foot down and say, “This is real, and this is what you have to do,” if you don’t know it. Look it up and know it.


About Steve Kellams

Steven Kellams is a Captain and field training expert for the Bloomington Police Department (Indiana). In 2000, Captain Kellams was instrumental in redesigning the field training program for the Bloomington Police Department and has taught that program to hundreds of departments throughout Indiana and the United States. He has also instructed on field training issues at the national level when he presented courses at the 2002, 2009, 2010, and 2011 National Association of Field Training Officers conferences. Captain Kellams is a certified Indiana Law Enforcement Academy training instructor and teaches courses in Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, domestic violence, officer safety, firearms, civil disturbance, and field training.

Agency360 will post other conversations with Steve Kellams in the future. If you’re interested in attending field training courses taught by Steve, you can find more information at on the Public Agency Training Council (PATC) website.