Jonathan Wender, Ph.D: “trust is safety and safety is trust.”

How are police officers trained in the USA and how are police trainers recruited and trained? What is meant by ’teach situations, not techniques’ & ‘adaptive decision-making’? And what is a ‘good stranger’? In my search for evidence-based police training with a clear vision, I discovered Polis Solutions. Superb research into topics like Use-of-Force Decision Making, Police Expertise and for example ‘De-Escalation and Officer Safety Training’. I would like to introduce my Dutch and European fellow first responder trainers to the knowledge, experiences and research of Jonathan Wender, Ph.D of Polis Solutions. I was allowed to ask him these questions in this blog:

• What is a strength of police training in the USA and what is a key area for improvement?
• How are police trainers recruited and trained in the USA?
• What can be improved about de-escalation training in the USA?
• Which of the items in the ADAPT CORE TRAINING RECOMMENDATIONS do you personally think is the most important and why?
• What exactly do you mean by “first and foremost, use of force training should focus on situations, not techniques”?
• Finally and if you have time: what is a “Good Stranger” and how do you become one?

What is the mission of Polis Solutions and why is this mission important?

Polis’ mission is to build public trust and safety by integrating ethically-informed science, technology, and domain expertise. We approach our mission with the fundamental belief that “trust is safety and safety is trust.”

Let me explain what we mean by this phrase. Trust is the necessary precondition for the success of every human activity, whether it is marriage, raising children, governing nations, policing cities, or fighting wars. In situations where trust is high, people feel physically, mentally, and emotionally safe. On the other hand, where trust is low, safety diminishes. The lower the level of trust, the higher the risk of conflict, violence, and the failure of relationships and institutions.

No level of technical competence can replace a lack of trust. Sadly, there are experts in every field who are dishonorable, untrustworthy people.  Their moral incompetence ultimately subverts their technical prowess. At the same time, competence is essential to building trust. Good intentions and integrity cannot compensate for technical incompetence. When we evaluate our fellow human beings in order to decide if we should hire, select, or promote them, what we are really asking is, “do I trust this person to help me achieve my objectives?” The answer should be “yes” only if the person has the right combination of integrity and technical competence.

Polis’ mission is important, because in helping organizations and communities combine integrity and competence, we contribute to the local, national, and global improvement of trust and safety.

What is a strength of police training in the USA and what is a key area for improvement?

The greatest strength of police training in the United States is the ability to draw from an exceptionally large and diverse talent pool. The police community here is the largest in the world. There are also many close ties in the United States between policing and academia, which enables a strong working relationship between researchers and practitioners. At its best, American police training can leverage the talent of people with interdisciplinary expertise who have a deep understanding of the sociopolitical and technical complexities of modern policing. These people have the vision, skill, and experience necessary to develop and deliver training with the potential to impact officers’ performance on the street.

The greatest weakness in American police training is the enormous variation in the quality and quantity of resources across the nation’s thousands of police agencies. Unlike policing in Europe and much of the rest of the world, American policing is decentralized. The vast majority of American police agencies are small, with fewer than twenty-five officers, and often lack the staffing and funding necessary to maintain basic competence in critical skills.

Interestingly, some of the largest police agencies in the United States suffer from the same limitations as the smallest ones:  they just don’t have the time, money, and people that it takes to train thousands of officers at a level necessary to reliably maintain and improve average performance.  For example, Polis has worked with some large agencies that send their officers to firearms training once per year for a brief session that consists entirely of a 50-round qualification with no actual coaching, feedback, or practical scenarios applying wider tactical and decision-making skills.

I frequently meet veteran officers in both large and small agencies across the United States who haven’t gotten hands-on skills training or reality-based scenario training since they left the academy ten or more years earlier. While there are exceptions, particularly at well-funded, mid-sized agencies serving affluent communities, the quality and frequency of police training in America are typically far too low to have a significant positive impact on performance.  Frankly, the American public would be shocked to learn how little substantive training most officers actually receive.

How are police trainers recruited and trained in the USA?

Practices for recruiting and training police instructors in the United States vary widely. As with every other aspect of American policing, there are no consistent national standards and practices.  Some trainers have gone through a rigorous and highly competitive selection process; others are simply ordered by leadership to become trainers even if they’re neither interested nor qualified. As a result, the quality of American police instructors ranges from elite to terrible.

The best trainer development programs emphasize the close integration of instructional and leadership skills with technical competence.  Unfortunately, too many train-the-trainer programs narrowly focus on isolated technical competence at the expense of fostering instructional skills and leadership. This is a huge strategic error. In any domain of practice, an instructor’s most important role is to inspire, lead, and build students’ confidence and competence. This gets back to the concept of trust: if instructors cannot earn students’ trust, the learning mission will fail.  Trust-building cannot be left to chance:  it is the essence of effective training and education.

Many organizations – not just police departments – mistakenly believe that experts are necessarily the best instructors.  This is false, especially if one is looking for instructors who can teach basic skills to a population of average performers. I often tell police chiefs, “I don’t care if your use of force instructors all served in elite special forces units and earned black belts in multiple martial arts. Can the officers they trained reliably perform basic skills and make good decisions under stress?” By analogy, you don’t need to be a world-class heart surgeon to teach CPR and basic lifesaving skills. The police use of force is no different.

What can be improved about de-escalation training in the USA?

First, American policing needs to agree on a simple operational definition of de-escalation. 

“De-escalation” has become a politically charged buzzword that even many instructors cannot clearly explain. When the general public thinks of de-escalation, they imagine a set of practices – usually verbal persuasion – that can supposedly prevent the use of force. According to this thinking, if the police used force, they must have “failed” to de-escalate. Following this naïve logic, de-escalation is seen as entirely separate from the use of force. 

Unfortunately, the widespread confusion of politics and human performance in American policing leads to confusion in training. The result is de-escalation training programs that are rigid, linear, and unrealistic. Such programs can lead officers to wrongly think that de-escalation and force are mutually exclusive. For example, we frequently hear officers, instructors, and police chiefs speak of “soft” versus “hard” skills. The “soft vs. hard” distinction risks turning de-escalation into political theater, where officers are merely engaging in a ritual performance that provides ethical and legal justification for the escalation to force.  This is radically different from teaching a holistic approach that requires the continuous integration of what the Polis team calls “skills of influence” and “skills of control.”

This leads to my second recommended improvement, which is that American policing needs to depoliticize de-escalation and reframe it as a technical matter of adaptive decision-making. We need to prepare officers to resolve complex, ambiguous situations in ways that maximize safe, lawful, and ethical outcomes. This means teaching the precise, continuous integration of skills of influence and skills of control, not their siloed, linear application. Officers need to learn that there are situations where the best resolution is simply to disengage and leave. They must understand that needless aggression and provocation can transform a minor conflict into a lethal confrontation.  But they also need to learn that there are situations where the early application of a low level of force can prevent escalation to severe violence.  And they must understand that some situations can only be resolved through the immediate use of deadly force. Unfortunately, too much de-escalation training fails to impart this kind of holistic thinking. To understand the dangerous limits of siloed de-escalation training, suppose that doctors learned that preventive and interventional medicine were separate and largely unrelated. This would foster maladaptive medical decision-making, and would lead to needless negative clinical outcomes.

Let’s consider another medical principle with direct relevance for policing. Everyone is familiar with the duty of physicians under the Hippocratic Oath: “first, do no harm.” This duty is comparable to the duty of police officers to de-escalate, by which I mean to seek to create a safe, lawful, ethical outcome in a manner that causes the least harm to the persons involved in a given situation. If a physician can prevent or heal illness and injury without painful, risky intervention, that is the desired course of action. But of course, healthcare is never so simple. For example, suppose a patient has a severely infected limb. Do we perform limited surgery to save the limb?  Do we amputate the entire limb to prevent systemic infection that risks the patient’s life?  Do we adopt a non-surgical approach and try intravenous antibiotics? Or do we try unorthodox therapeutic methods from non-traditional medicine? Depending on the particular case, the ideal course of action may be relatively more or less clear.    

In policing, “first, do no harm” means that whenever possible, we should avoid the use of force or other coercive intervention such as an arrest.  But as in medicine, there will always be situations in policing where the failure to take more proactive, aggressive measures can lead to lethal outcomes.  My wider point here is that we need to take a more scientific, data-driven, operationally adaptive approach to de-escalation.

Which of the items in the ADAPT CORE TRAINING RECOMMENDATIONS do you personally think is the most important and why?

If I had to narrow down all twenty of our recommendations in the ADAPT Final Report to just three, I would choose these: first, teach situations, not techniques; second, emphasize adaptive decision-making; and third, systematically instill a positive mindset.

“Teach situations, not techniques” means we must challenge officers from the earliest moments of their training to think and act holistically.  When we do this, we instill the mental, physical, and emotional capacity to adapt effectively to rapidly evolving, ambiguous, and dangerous situations.  We fail to do in most police training what is done even in early childhood education:  teach skills in holistic context.  Children learn psychomotor skills in the context of playing games.  They learn drawing, painting, cutting, and gluing in the context of creating art projects.  It’s important to continuously improve specific skills in any domain of practice, but without situational learning, people will fail to execute appropriately in the real world. When it comes to use of force training, we have created a haphazard patchwork of isolated skills and techniques that rarely get integrated coherently in the context of preparing officers to resolve the situations they actually encounter on the street. The results on the street are as tragic as they are predictable.

Emphasizing adaptive decision-making means treating decision-making as the core competency in the use of force. Doing so would align policing with every other profession in which high-consequence, dynamic decision-making is the essence of expertise.  The competence to perform specific techniques in isolation does not predict their integrative application under rapidly evolving, ambiguous, stressful conditions. Every step of the process for selecting, hiring, and training policing officers should place adaptive decision-making front and center. This does not mean delivering abstract lectures about one decision-making model or another.  Rather, it means creating a dynamic learning environment deliberately structured to upend expectations and force “change on the fly” in support of mission success.

Systematically instilling a positive mindset means a focus on identifying and replicating patterns of success.  In the United States, officers use physical force in approximately 1-3% of encounters.  And within this 1-3%, most police use of force conforms to legal and policy requirements. Despite these statistics, too much use of force training focuses on the post facto attempt to avoid rare catastrophes rather than on engineering future performance to replicate identifiable patterns of success.  If politicizing use of force training is one source of weakness, another source is the cultural tendency in American policing to exaggerate dangers to the point of instilling widespread hypervigilance.  One death or injury is one too many; however, American police officers need training that instills earned confidence rather than a near-paranoid sentiment that lethal danger lurks around every corner.

What exactly do you mean by “first and foremost, use of force training should focus on situations, not techniques”?

I think I answered this one in the question above.

Finally and if you have time: what is a “Good Stranger” and how do you become one?

Let me start with some quick background. “Good Stranger” was the unofficial name of the DARPA program out of which Polis was born.  The official, less memorable name was “Strategic Social Interaction Modules,” or SSIM.  Dr. Brian Lande, who co-founded Polis with me, was the creator of “Good Stranger,” and I was one of the program’s senior advisors. 

The mission of the Good Stranger program was to develop novel technology and methods for measuring and improving trust in high-consequence military situations, and for integrating trust-building with technical performance. 

A Good Stranger is a professional who can successfully integrate social and technical skill in a manner that fosters safe, lawful, ethical outcomes, particularly in high-risk, low-trust situations.  How do you become a Good Stranger? By deliberately practicing social interaction skills in a wide range of personal and professional situations, especially ones that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  This takes patience, curiosity, sincerity, empathy, and the courage to make error and learn from them.  There are certainly people with a natural predisposition to be Good Strangers, while for others it can be a real uphill battle.  But the basics of Good Stranger competence are within reach for anyone, and have a wide range of personal and professional benefits once you attain them. We are actually working on new training along these lines that grows out of Polis’ T3 – Tact, Tactics, and Trust program and some recent research.  Stay tuned!

Meer leren?


Polis heeft vele publicaties, dit zijn er enkele waar ik veel aan gehad heb:

ADAPT Research Report: The Current State of Police Control and Defensive Tactics Training

Police Expertise and Use of Force: Using a Mixed-Methods Approach to Model Expert and Novice Use-of-Force Decision-Making
Laura Mangels, Joel Suss, and Brian Lande

Police and Military as Good Strangers

Gary Klein, Helen Altman Klein, Brian Lande, Joseph Borders, and James C. Whitacre