Blue Line

Disconnected training

November 14, 2013
By Brad Fawcett

913 words – MR

Disconnected training

by Brad Fawcett

The ascendance of online law enforcement training appears to be associated with the economics of policing and the (seemingly monthly) calls for more training to better meet the concerns of identified special needs groups, which typically originate from coroners inquests or public inquiries.


The development of provincial policing standards requires that remote agencies be able to access training without incurring a disproportionate financial burden. Online training might be appealing in that it may mitigate “instructor drift” and differing training materials and delivery modalities across agencies, a concern expressed about conducted energy weapons training, for example.

Commissioner Thomas Braidwood noted that “there is a troubling lack of consistency in provincial law enforcement agencies’ training materials respecting conducted energy weapon use” (<Braidwood, 2009>). Online training appears to offer at least a partial solution to these issues; however, there are some concerns.

Online training assumes that if participants demonstrate knowledge in some context, then it should be available in all contexts (<Nicholson, 2005>). In other words, agencies assume that an officer demonstrating some knowledge by meeting the minimum standard on an online course and accompanying exam will be able demonstrate that knowledge in the field. The difficulty is that officers acquire the knowledge entirely out of context with the reality in which they’re expected to apply it.

Also of concern is the issue of inert knowledge in which isolated facts are disconnected from how they can be used to accomplish some purpose (<Nicholson, 2005>). Knowledge, though seemingly available (the agency “trained” the officer and the officer passed the exam), is often not used to solve problems (<Renkle, 1996>). One of the reasons the knowledge required is not accessible may be that it was learned out of context with the operational reality in which it is expected to be used. The officer acquired the information in a sterile, safe environment by watching, reading and viewing a computer screen where the only threat is to ego (officers might be embarrassed if they fail the online exam), which is contrasted with real-world consequences they confront.

An assumption apparently supporting the move towards online training is that officers will recognise and use data present in the environment once they have been trained what to look for. Unfortunately, numerous human error studies have demonstrated that training in data recognition and a person’s ability to recognise and act on it is not supported in the field. This can be seen in “fail to pull” fatalities in which experienced parachutists fall to their deaths even though they have received extensive training on recognising problems and their remedies (typically, using their reserve parachute). One explanation may be that the parachutist “learned” the skills in a controlled, non-threatening environment (on the ground) and was unable to access the knowledge because it was required in an entirely different environment (plummeting through the air) (<Leach, 2011>).

Research on state-dependent learning suggests that knowledge acquisition should take place in environments similar to which one expects it to be recalled (<Weingartner, 1977>). Simply stated, state-dependent learning/retrieval refers to impairment in performance when there is a mismatch between physical or mental states at learning and retrieval (<Swihart, 1999>). Officers acquiring knowledge through online courses in controlled environments without consequences may not be able to access it when it’s required during operational activities due to the mismatch between the physical environment where they learned it and the chaotic and uncertain environment in which retrieval is expected.

Online training in areas such as crisis intervention, de-escalation and use of force decision making may not provide knowledge that is accessible to officers when it is most needed. They acquire it while in the comfort and relative security of their department, or worse – their home, with a near-to-resting heart rate and little concern that a wrong decision will result in significant consequences. The environment where they’re expected to retrieve the knowledge relative to crisis intervention, de-escalation and use of force decision making stands in stark contrast.

Online training may mitigate concerns regarding instructor drift, access, cost and training standards; however, it should not be expected to provide accessible knowledge and skills that police officers can use in the field. Employing a blended model of knowledge acquisition, one where online information is reinforced and built on in face-to-face training, may mitigate some of the concerns. Agencies should not assume that online training increases public, officer and subject safety, nor does it necessarily provide liability protection due to the incongruity that exists between the emotional, physical and tactical environments of knowledge acquisition and retrieval.

Braidwood, T. (2009). Restoring Public Confidence: Restricting the Use of Conducted Energy Weapons. Victoria: Province of British Columbia.
Leach, J. (2011). . 26-29.
Nicholson, S. S. (2005). Exploring Myths about Online Education in Information Systems. 55-73.
Renkle, A. H. (1996). Inert knowledge: Analyses and remedies. 115-121.
Swihart, G. Y. (1999). The Role of State-Dependent Memory in “Red-Outs”. 199-212.
Weingartner, H. M. (1977). Mood-State-Dependent Retrieval of Verbal Associations. 276-284.

Sgt. Brad Fawcett is a 24 year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and a seconded instructor at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC). He is a past contributor to and is a court qualified expert in use of force and police training. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the VPD or JIBC.

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