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Houston, we have a problem.

What do I mean?

Let’s turn to social media for our answer. All one has to do is watch the innumerable videos on social media capturing officers from around the country displaying a concerning lack of knowledge in what should be fundamental concepts of search and seizure and use of force.

Two questions that beg to be asked and answered are:

1) Who trained those officers?

2) Do the consistent errors represent flaws in training on a much larger scale?

Many of the mistakes I see officers commit involve distinguishing between consensual contacts, investigative detentions, and probable cause-based stops as well as not knowing who is and who isn’t required to identify during these three types of police-citizen contacts. Unlawful stops of pedestrians and vehicles have resulted.

Other misapplied fundamental search and seizure concepts have involved the Collective Knowledge Doctrine, the Citizen Informant Doctrine, and searches of vehicles and vehicle occupants.

The seriousness of the consequences that can result from officers improperly performing the fundamentals of search and seizure cannot be overstated.

Why?

Because ill-trained officers who overstep the limits of their search and seizure authority may find themselves in a use of force situation that can quickly spin out of control.

Here come lawsuits, loss of community support, possible criminal charges, and an end to an officer’s career.

That is why we need to make sure officers are trained equally well in both search and seizure and use of force concepts. These two subjects should not be viewed separately from a training perspective.

Now come some critical questions:

Are we providing the correct search and seizure and use of force information in the first place?

Have we demonstrated to our officers a clear connection between their level of knowledge in search and seizure and a potentially unnecessary application of force?

Training should give officers the tools and confidence they need to be successful on the job and to lower risk and minimize mistakes in the field. 

This is where properly designed training assessments come in. The results of these assessments should play a significant role in an agency’s training program and priorities.

Through my years as a trainer, academy instructor, and subject matter expert in search and seizure and use of force, I have assessed thousands of officers from city, county, state, federal, and tribal agencies.

The results of these basic assessments were revealing.

Most officers, regardless of their years on the job, graded themselves a D or F.

Also, the average number of years since the attendees had received any updated search and seizure or use of force training was seven and four years, respectively.

I am making the case that perhaps we should return law enforcement training to the fundamentals of the profession. 

Since every stop, detainment, warning, ticket, arrest, search, seizure, and all use of force fall under the umbrella of the Fourth Amendment, perhaps that would be the place to start.

There was a scene from the movie Slapshot where Paul Newman, playing the role of player/coach of a ragtag semi-pro hockey team, became disillusioned with the direction his team was headed. He made the decision that his team would return to the fundamentals of the sport. His team would return to playing old-time hockey. 

Maybe it’s time we adopted a similar philosophy.

Perhaps it is time to admit that current training models may be failing officers and communities alike.

But there is hope on the horizon.

With effective training programs like Confident Non-Escalation: This is Where De-Escalation Training Begins, agencies and officers stand a good chance of getting it right and avoiding lawsuits.

Instead of saying “Houston, we have a problem”, we can now say “Houston, we have an opportunity.”