When Training Really Doesn’t Matter

My last blog entry described the difference between training and motivation — basic concepts in the Human Performance Improvement field (See. www.ispi.org).  As I pointed out, Gilbert's rule is that you (hypothetically) hold a gun to the student's head and tell them you will kill them if they can't generate the desired performance.  If they succeed, then they can do it, and getting them to do it is a matter of motivation.  If they can't do it, even when their lives depend on it, then you have a training problem.

In the last post I reviewed data on sexual harassment that suggested that years of training hadn't helped.  In this post I suggest we look at something even more timely — US police behavior.  At the moment there is concern that too many US police are using excessive violence (and in some cases murdering) black Americans.  (Keep in mind while reading this that we are talking about a very, very small number of police officers.  The great majority are not only not murdering their fellow citizens, they are professionals who are providing vitally important services to those citizens.)

In the last few days I've been reading calls for police to be given more training.  That's nonsense!  Apply Gilbert's rule.  Does anyone imagine that a policeman, with a gun to his head, couldn't tell you whether or not he should murder a Black citizen who wasn't resisting an arrest with deadly force?  All police know this.  No amount of training will improve their ability to enunciate this basic principle.  Police violence isn't a training problem!  It's a motivation problem! (Or worse, its a psychological problem that's unique to specific police officers, who need to be eliminated from the police force.)

I don't want to be too simplistic here.  Police in large cities are routinely call upon to deal with complex, emotional situations that evolve very rapidly.  In some cases their responses are guided by rules of engagement — and figuring out how to apply some of the rules, in tense situations can, in fact, be a result of training in evaluating situations.  I don't want to dismiss all police training — some is very useful.  I am referring here to the idea that a solution for the kinds of major police problems we have heard of in the past few months could have been avoided if only the officers involved had sat through a class that told them that shooting unarmed black men was wrong.  The police that committed these specific crimes knew they were acting incorrectly and more training wouldn't have changed anything.  I'm not being moralistic here — I'm simply underlining the limits to what we can do with a training class, no matter how well designed.

Managing police behavior begins with the selection criteria that management applies.  It should also involve on the job evaluations of performance.  Most critically, it should involve ongoing evaluation, promotions and awards.  Good behavior needs to be constantly rewarded and bad behavior needs to be constantly punished. Critically, correct behavior needs to be reinforced by both fellow policement, as well as those who manage the police.  In this particular case, we need to apply a version of the rule for community policing developed by the NY Police Department.  They found that enforcing rules, without exception, led to better results.  Applying that rule to the police, themselves, any incident of racist behavior ought to be reason for punishment, if not outright dismissal.  There ought to be zero tolerance for behaviors that could lead to the kinds of incidents we have read about in the past few months.

 Police follow processes, just as we all do as we perform our jobs. Their jobs are vital and need to be supported by our communities.  At the same time, however, a very few officers can give everyone else a bad name and they need to be eliminated from out police forces.  Trying to train police to be responsible is a wasted effort — police know what the community expects.  It would be exactly as if the average reader were required to take a course on how to be a good citizen.  We already know the basics.  Focusing on the consequences of actual incorrect behaviors, while supporting the majority who do the job right, is the way to manage police processes to get better results.


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