Police Psychology | Master Police Coaches:
“Building A Better Cop”
Marla Friedman, Police Psychologist
Born out of the academy, the Probationer is a blank slate. Mega assembly required running the gamut from appropriate deployment of de-escalation and tactical skills training, mental health and suicide prevention techniques, and development of a mentoring relationship, which transitions throughout their career and remains into retirement. This cradle to grave approach (Badge of Life) supports the Officer at every stage and creates and sustains the safest working environment to consistently execute uncompromised law enforcement service delivery.
Many have asked, what is a Master Police Coach (MPC)? It is a Field Training Officer who has exceptional skills in the following areas: interpersonal relationships, jurisdictional geography and orientation, motor vehicle operation and the use of emergency equipment. These of course are some of the critical skills all officers need to know. MPCs excel in these areas and others.
They are also proficient in state of the art electronic communications, directed patrol strategies, patrol tactics and officer safety, both physical and in the area of mental wellness and suicide prevention. They are expert enough to refer to a mental health professional when peer support has not solved the issue.
The preceding skills merely scratch the surface. They must have a thorough working knowledge of substantive and procedural criminal law, local ordinances, and case preparation for prosecution. Much of the public are unaware of what Probationers go through to earn solo patrol entrustment.
MCPc’s must also exhibit the ability to process information with exceptional problem-solving skills, execute complex case building expertise as well as excellent report writing skills, and most importantly, help the Probationer master these critical skills. Finally, they have to thoroughly understand traffic enforcement, crash scene management and investigation.
These are subject areas that all seasoned cops are expected to execute as they progress in their careers. So how do we take a Probationer just out of the academy and train them in all of these elements so they can become exceptional and self-reliant officers?
That’s where the Master Police Coach excels. MPCs possess an understanding of the population they are working with. An MPC figuratively takes the performance pulse of their Probationer and flexibly adjusts instructional styles. Adult learners like efficiency, flexibility, practical examples, and goal-directed learning instead of theoretical lectures.
Probationers are adult learners and as such have varied life experiences and learning styles, which have to be understood and respected. The most effective Field Training Officers understand that the “F” represents Flexible Training Officer adaptive to the Probationer’s learning style(s). Accordingly, it is imperative that MPCs are exceptionally pre-briefed with the Probationer’s scouting report. The scouting report contains the most pertinent information about the Probationer’s history immediately prior to their law enforcement career choice and runs the gamut from life experiences, jobs held, academic profile and extracurricular interests and hobbies.
The interface of pre-employment psychological screening is a real win-win to minimize Field Training and Evaluation Process problems. Most reports provide essential insight into the Probationer’s dominant learning style(s) as well as risk taking profile. This is supplemented by the MPC’s reports (cross-trained as Background Investigators) from the two (2) Mandatory Candidate Ride-Alongs during the pre-employment screening process.
Creativity and visual demonstrations of information are more effective than passive learning. Uniform Training Tasks are imperative to insure consistency in training and performance assessment, regardless of assigned Field Training Officer. This is vital because most Probationers are assigned to multiple Field Training Officers.
When MPCs train Probationers, they keep in mind the physiological concerns of this cohort. Shift work causes problems with sleep hygiene and decreased attention and concentration. The lack of exercise, tactical eating/nutrition, and proper hydration decreases the Probationers’ ability to learn, cognitively process information, and maintain energy throughout the shift. All of this collides with a normal personal life. Court calls, off-shift team training are among the sleep disruptors that have to be taken into account as well.
The flexibility of the MPC is a key factor with this group. Addressing mental wellness by utilizing a holistic approach includes seeking psychological assistance before problems emerge. Psychological difficulties like depression, substance abuse, anxiety, PTSI, and low self-esteem must be identified and addressed early on.
Training Probationers can easily be compared to training an athlete. So, MPC’s borrow concepts from sports psychology to enhance training. As the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said, Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Trial and error are overrated as an adult learning method. An MPC corrects and redirects the probationer when their performance is sub-par. The Master Police Coaches’ ultimate goal is to turn out a self-reliant probationer by shaking out the civilian and building a cop to the bone one shift at a time. (Sokolove 1987) No hyperbole, a MPC makes it abundantly clear that uncompromised policing is the only acceptable standard.
Psychology has a concept called, the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Optimum Arousal which shows clearly on a normal bell curve that the optimal level of arousal, meaning best performance, is at the top of the curve. Too much arousal or anxiety interferes with maximum performance and too little, produces boredom and lack of commitment resulting in compromised policing outcomes. Striving for that sweet spot comes from the Probationer imagining and visualizing the goal and rehearsing it until they see themselves executing each task perfectly in their mind’s eye. Probationers will never hit a target they cannot see. The mind is powerful and the beliefs they put in there will influence their subsequent behavior. This is true in all human endeavors. Athletes talk about being in the zone, that’s what a great MPC shares with each Probationer along with the concrete principles of the Daily Observation Report.
Diagram 1: The Yerkes-Dodson Law of Optimum Arousal
The Building a Better Cop program also accepts the proposition that solid mental health enhances performance. So, as the Probationer advances though each Field Training and Evaluation Process Step with their MPC’s the psychologist can assist by developing concrete statements to pass on to the Probationer to provide stress inoculation and protective strategies to protect them from becoming overwhelmed with the sensory mix of sights, sounds and smells that are a daily part of police work. The Field Training and Evaluation Process is not a glorified ride-a-long. It is training at-the-speed-of-life to produce the finest officers that can be entrusted to solo patrol so, what are these stress inoculation strategies and how can the MPC prepare the probationer for the worst?
The MPC not only trains the probationer to become a cop as a long term-career but be aware of all the “firsts” that will confront the neophyte Officer during the formative initial 2 years on the streets.
They include the frame-of-reference in order to process fatal crashes, suicides, homicides new and old, missing persons, dead bodies in general, humans screaming in pain, the smell of decomposing flesh, interpersonal violence cases, injured and dead children, death notifications, drug overdoses, conflict in the officer’s own family and the list goes on in the Tsunami of humans at their worse.
First, old school responses to death, conflict, and the everyday horrors that can occur on the job. Most experienced police officers have heard the following from their Field Training Officers back-in-the day or from someone in the department.
- “Suck it up! What did you think you were going to see?”
- “This is the job, handle it or move on to another career.”
- “Don’t show weakness, the bad guys can smell it.”
- “Stuff your feelings and reactions down, that’s the only way to survive this job”
- “Suck it up, there’s no crying in law enforcement”. This female Probationer committed suicide pre-shift in the department’s armory. Litigation against the department followed and the department was partially liable, based on this statement alone.
- “Don’t embarrass yourself or me with your overreaction. Dead bodies are part of what we handle. Get used to it.”
- “Your OIS was legit, quit worrying about it.”
Marrying appropriate and useful mentally healthy language provided by an experienced mental health professional with the training and permission of the MPC can assist in altering the quality of the Probationers and eventually the independent cop’s career for the long term.
Now if the Master Police Coach changes the above statements to these healthier alternatives we can expect less, maladaptive behaviors, negative emotional states, and faulty thinking.
Here is some language that the MPC can use to train the Probationer to handle these difficult, but common situations which will help protect Probationers from getting overwhelmed, stressed, depressed, anxious or getting full blown Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
After a probationer sees their first dead body, the MPC might say, Wow, the first time I saw a dead body not at a funeral, I barfed at the side of the road.
At my first autopsy, I fainted so be prepared to have strong feelings. This is a normal reaction. As you continue in law enforcement, you will build up some defenses. However, you never want to be reaction free, we don’t want you to be a robot, just a caring officer.
Time and experience will help you accept these things. However, they will change you. We all have changed. Expect it and inoculate yourself against it. Use Peer Support, private therapy, and chaplaincy programs freely. All effective and forward thinking Probationers do this now. This is the best way to protect us from becoming sick. Do it for yourself and your family
I recommend you, like me, go for an Annual Mental Health Check-in. This will give you a known therapist to turn to when things get overwhelming, and they will. This job changes you. You will see the worst of human behavior. We have to inoculate ourselves before we break down, become depressed, have panic attacks, rely upon alcohol and drugs to numb us or from developing PTSI.”
Some officers develop PTSI, not from a single incident, but from multiple incidents over time. These are traumatic events that are life threatening, dramatic and terrifying, like those examples described above.
Most commonly though, stress is what you will experience daily related to internal department practices, problems with peers or superiors and other political situations that you have no control over.
These are what sour the job for many. I hope you are comfortable enough with me or one of your other Field Training Officers to come to us and talk about these pressures.
Law Enforcement is, and will continue, to change in multiple ways over the next decade. The combination of the Police Psychologist and the Master Police Coach is a new approach and we are on the forefront of making policing a career of integrity, ethics, health, and safety for officers and the public they protect and serve.
Badge of Life (2008) Police Suicide Prevention Program-The Annual Mental Health Check-In.) Clark, Ronald, and O’Hara, Andrew.
California Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training (2014) Police Officer Psychological Screening Manual.
The Police Chief Magazine (January, 2002) The Law Enforcement Candidate Ride-Along: A Supplemental Selection Tool by Bruce A. Sokolove and Mark W. Field.
Yerkes, R.M., & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 450-482.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR AT: Booklight@att.net
Site Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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