Photo by Mark C. Ide
FEATURED IN VEHICLE OPS
They say that in life your path intersects with so called “defining moments”—times where something, or someone, is introduced into your world that alters the shape of your future from that point forward. For me, I owe the last 20-plus years of law enforcement EVOC driver training to one man: Lt. John Leas (Ret.) of the San Diego Police Department.
Back in 1990 or so, I taught at a racing school north of Los Angeles, where I learned that a number of my students were EVOC instructors from various law enforcement agencies. With that in mind, I approached Lt. Leas (then a Sergeant.) at the San Diego Regional Law Enforcement Academy, and inquired about becoming an EVOC instructor. My brother was a San Diego police officer at the time, so I was no stranger to the department, but Lt. Leas told me that normally only sworn officers were allowed to teach EVOC. However, Lt. Leas was a motorsports enthusiast, so he understood the value of having a performance and racing instructor become part of his instructor cadre.
It took a few months of volunteering, and some lobbying, before the academy accepted me into the fold as a paid EVOC instructor, where I would remain for many years. Lt. Leas could have said “no”—he didn’t know me and I wasn’t an officer yet. But his willingness to see outside the parameters of normal EVOC instructor backgrounds opened the door to a career that has spanned more than 20 years.
Since that time, I’ve spent hours teaching for numerous performance schools, developed EVOC and other programs, hired instructors and even went back to school to get my masters in Adult Education and Development so I could better answer the age-old question: What qualities make for a great training program and a great instructor—and more specifically, a great EVOC instructor and program? Both elements are important aspects of the education experience; however, a great instructor can make magic with a crayon and a piece of paper, while the best programs and equipment can be woefully mismanaged and inefficient if the instructors aren’t up to par.
Since EVOC is a critical skill that’s placed into action every single day an officer hits the field, it’s equally critical to select high-quality EVOC instructors. It’s much more than memorizing textbooks and very demanding to teach. So, whether you have an existing EVOC program, or are looking to start one or have one of your officers join a regional training cadre, here are some tips I’ve culled over the years that will help you pick the right candidates.
Background & Experience
One thing that never ceases to amaze me: Departments are full of individuals with vast amounts of experience they gained prior to wearing a badge, yet no one bothers to ask about it and determine whether it’s applicable in the law enforcement training world. Instead, too often, an officer is randomly picked to be the official instructor of such-and-such, which leads to predictable results. We’ve all been in classes where instructor apathy is evident, so take the time to ask your officers who might have an automotive or motorsports background or interest. Those who do will have much more insight into how vehicles operate, and their enthusiasm for all things motorized can enhance their teaching because they’ll have more personal experience to pull from, as well as a passion for the topic.
When I first started EVOC instruction, I didn’t know the law enforcement environment, but I did know what it took to keep a vehicle under control during extreme operational conditions. Once I became an officer, the things I learned on the street in a marked unit only served to help with my instruction.
So, when considering potential EVOC instructors, take into account the number of years they’ve been an officer, as well as any other vehicle-related experience they may have had. The greater the pool of experience, the more real-world stories that can be told to recruits. Often, it’s those stories that cement the gap between the technique being taught and the reason for using it. Note: This experience can include information gained from outside the law enforcement arena, such as the military, EMS and racing worlds.
Bottom line: Find someone who wants the job and consider their experience and background.
As cadets, we all go through some sort of EVOC training, but it only provides officers with the basic skills they’ll need to properly and fully understand how to control a vehicle in high-speed and other situations. Dozens of alternative driver training programs exist, so ask potential instructors if they’ve made it a point to continue their driver training education beyond basic academy training. Also, ask if they’ve attended any instructor development classes, or furthered their education in other ways that will help them teach more effectively.
Bottom line: Find someone with a passion for self-derived instructor development.
Walking the Walk
Driving a vehicle in a high-performance situation is similar to dating—by communicating to the car your intentions through direct action, you’re building a relationship that will either prove positive or one that can lead to disastrous results. It’s not an easy task, and something that requires race car drivers, as an example, to spend countless hours behind the wheel to understand exactly what their car can and can’t do.
A police vehicle is no different. Just as it’s important for an instructor to explain what roll, pitch and yaw are, they must be able to accurately demonstrate each reliably and predictably to every student while maintaining full control of the vehicle. Sometimes this may mean exceeding the grip level of the vehicle, so picking instructors capable of performing successfully in a repeatable manner is paramount.
For these reasons, consider contacting a third-party source to objectively conduct a tryout of potential EVOC instructors. This will weed out those who simply aren’t cut out for performance driving instruction, allowing you to focus on the best candidates. You had to audition to become an officer at your agency. Similarly, filtering early through pre-assessment in this critical skill area will save you headaches down the road.
Bottom line: Driving is a mental task assisted by physical moves. Pick instructors who are highly capable of performing both aspects at an expert level.
The best information is useless if it can’t be communicated effectively to others. EVOC is unique in that you’re teaching a student a physical skill that’s controlled by mental decisions made while moving numerous directions at a high rate of speed. Therefore, you need to pick instructors who can react calmly and communicate clearly during violent vehicle maneuvers. These instructors must also be able to recognize various learning styles and adapt accordingly.
Example: A visual learner will pick up very little if they’re told to “apex here” or “apply braking at that corner.” They must watch you or others to understand the real meaning behind your words. The same protocols apply to experiential and kinesthetic learners. They must “do” to understand, not just hear about it or watch someone else do it. A great instructor must recognize these learning traits, and adapt on the fly in a manner that allows effective communication. Did I mention they’re being flung around a car while this is happening?
When considering new instructors, in addition to your personal experiences with the individual, ask your peers about the candidate’s communication skills. Pluses in this area might be someone who’s a field training officer or teaches another skill that requires them to communicate with students. If you ask feedback from supervisors and students, it will help you decide if a certain candidate might make for a good EVOC instructor.
Bottom line: The best knowledge is useless if it can’t be communicated in multiple ways to a student. Choose instructors with a knack for choosing effective and humble ways in which to communicate information.
Creative Thinkers Need Apply
Vehicles have changed a lot over the years, but sadly, many EVOC curriculums haven’t. This means many of today’s dynamic control systems aren’t addressed during basic EVOC. It also means that the methodology has remained rigid in many instances, which ultimately hurts the student. There’s plenty of room for improvement in delivering quality curriculum in EVOC, and it starts with creative thinkers.
When interviewing a potential candidate, ask them what they liked and didn’t like about their own EVOC experience, and what suggestions they might have for improving it as an instructor. While regulatory mandates might require you to teach stale material, it doesn’t mean you can’t add new and innovative instruction strategies on top of that. If they’re content to just teach the same-old basics, the results will be predictable. As they say in nature, adapt or die, and that begins with finding creative minds that want to teach.
Bottom line: Choose instructors who are eager to introduce new ideas and have a passion for enhancing the student experience.
Open Mind with a Side of Humility
The best instructors I’ve ever worked with (and I’ve been very fortunate to work with top-rate individuals at the San Diego Regional Law Enforcement Training Academy and Western Nevada College), are enthusiastic but humble; proficient but open-minded; and keen to the idea that they just simply don’t know it all. Heck, I’ve been teaching driver training for more than 20 years and I learn something new every day.
Those personalities that preach the “my way or the highway” mentality create a negative teaching environment that hurts the student experience.
Great instructors don’t consider themselves above their students, but rather see them as peers with experience in other skill sets that they might learn from. So, choose instructors that don’t exhibit an elitist mentality. Instead, choose those who see teaching as an evolutionary process where learning continues on both ends of the classroom.
Bottom line: Nobody knows it all. Pick someone who sees that learning is a two-way street between instructor and student.
There are many traits that make good EVOC instructors—a sense of humor, an unwavering commitment to excellence, a dedicated work ethic and a rapt focus on ensuring an effective student learning experience—that can be applied to just about any sort of teaching. But there are other requirements, such as being able to control a 4,500-lb. “missile” at high speeds, all while explaining what the vehicle is doing and why it’s doing it—in a calm manner.
Choosing an effective EVOC instructor means finding those who are eager, creative, patient, calm, humble, open-minded, communicative, car crazy and able to drive the wheels off of a car while making it look easy. It’s a tough list, but sometimes it just means taking a chance on a 25-year-old race car driver who wanted to teach cops skills to help them stay safe and alive. Lt. Leas made that choice, and I thank him for that. I hope these tips help you find instructors that make EVOC training fun, safe, effective and valuable to your officers.