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Experiential Learning

In a previous blog post, I talked about book learning, departmental orders, policies and procedures, manuals, and rules and regulations as critical resources for success in the field of policing.

Another component coupled with these resources can make you a powerhouse in your field, the best of the best. That second component is experiential learning. It requires repetition, observation, and courage through active participation in crime prevention, crime interruption, and criminal apprehension.

1. Experiential learning requires repetition. The more you repeat a task or effort the better you become. You learned to drive by driving. You became proficient in shooting by firing a weapon. You learn self-defense by practice. Skills, confidence, and competency improve with repetition and practice. Repetitive actions in the field also build these qualities.

2. Experiential learning involves observing both people and the environment. It means watching for anomalies or irregularities in a subject’s behavior or unfolding in the physical landscape of your beat or patrol area. The closer you pay attention, the more you will learn.

3. Experiential learning requires courage. You must be willing to step outside your comfort zone and enter situations you’re unfamiliar with. The more you do this, the easier it becomes.

From your first assignment, you will encounter unlimited opportunities to engage in experiential learning. Every call for service, every encounter with the public, every arrest, and every event you participate in offers a nugget of new experience to draw from.

All police officers learn skills through experience, but there is a difference between average cops and top cops. Top cops don’t just wait for opportunities; they seek them out and deliberately put themselves in a position to participate and learn. They pursue new experiences, get out of their comfort zone, and force feed themselves a diet of learning by seeing, doing, and participating. This may not be easy for some, and in fact, it is downright uncomfortable. It can be intimidating and dangerous. Yet it’s a required choice if you want to become on of the select few who are the very best.

People behave differently around police officers. This is especially true for people who are planning on or participating in a criminal act. Observe people, remember their behaviors, and repeat. In time, you’ll begin to recognize certain nuances and behaviors that are out of the ordinary. I call these anomalies.

Say you’re driving in a marked car and approach a man who is walking toward you. He passes a cluster of shrubs and surreptitiously tosses an object into those shrubs without slowing down. Would that be considered normal behavior or an anomaly? I saw that happen dozens of times, and each time, the recovered object was a gun or narcotics.

The more you pay attention, the more you see. You don’t know what you don’t know until you begin observing people seriously and engaging in experiential learning.

The practices of repetition and observation have many attributes. You can learn from these exercises, and if they happen to push you outside your comfort zone, you benefit in other ways. When you step outside of your comfort zone repeatedly, discomfort and unfamiliarity become less intimidating. You grow more confident—even in discomfort—and you become more competent.

Book learning is critical. Experiential learning is critical. Combine the two and you become a powerhouse, one of the very best. One plus one does sometimes equal three.

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Police work is from time to time stressful. It can be anxiety ridden, dangerous and fraught with unknown perils. Situations, incidents and events can cause the heart to race, cold sweat to appear and

About Ross Swope

In a career spanning more than four decades, I rose through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police Department in both uniform and investigative positions. I began as a uniform patrolman and retired 27 y


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