Photo: Jimmy Lee
While recently teaching an in-service defensive tactics class for law enforcement officers from various agencies, I had cause to ask how many of these men and women had been involved in a physical altercation during the last month.
Of the nearly 20 students in the class, only three or four raised their hands. I then upped the ante and asked how many of them had been involved in a fight over the last year. Again, the same three or four raised their hands.
Perplexed, I asked how many of the officers had ever been in a fistfight, and only a few more raised their hands. Somewhat at a loss as to what to think, I asked the officers how many of them had ever been punched in the face. Incredibly, less than half of the class admitted to ever being struck in the face by an adversary during a confrontation or even in training.
In today's era of modern policing with its emphasis on training and officer survival tactics, I was flabbergasted to learn that so many officers had not experienced being struck in an altercation or even in training. This means that these officers do not know for sure how they will react when they are violently assaulted.
Most modern agencies require their officers to be acquainted and certified with many of the tools they carry on duty. It's even an industry standard that officers who carry OC spray on duty must experience the effects of the spray firsthand during their training and perform some type of rudimentary law enforcement procedure (such as handcuffing or speaking on the radio) while they are feeling the effects of the spray. Why should it be any different when it comes to defensive tactics training?
Keep It Real
Police trainers continually stress practice and familiarity when it comes to our daily jobs and the use of the tools on officers' duty belts. Specifically, when it comes to the possibility of force deployment and perishable skills, practice and training are critical. So it is important that today's law enforcement defensive tactics instructors provide training that induces high levels of stress.
Too many basic academy and in-service training courses only cover the most basic and rudimentary of skills when it comes to defensive tactics. Departments also require that officers have "mandatory" training and, more often than not, the class is merely a tap dance, reacquainting the officer with long forgotten techniques and maneuvers that do not truly have a real-world application.
Your defensive tactics training should be intense, exhausting, applicable, and eye-opening. Don't come to in-service training dressed for vacation or expecting to sleepwalk through the course. Be prepared to train as you work, in full duty belts (with empty holsters), and wearing your soft body armor. Your training should mentally prepare you to survive a confrontation and it should be thoroughly challenging.
It is every law enforcement instructor's goal to make his or her students avid fans of training both their bodies and their minds for physical confrontations with suspects. In Arizona, the AZPOST Defensive Tactics Instructor's Course spends considerable time on the importance of maintaining a winning mindset and forges and reinforces that concept throughout the training. The subject matter experts at AZPOST have a mantra: "Train, train, train."
It is only through this continual training that officers who work the street can develop the often referred to phenomenon of muscle memory.
When you practice a response or action on a repetitive basis, that training creates a procedural memory of that action. This movement, when continued over time, can evolve into a long-term muscle memory, which will allow you to perform an act without a conscious effort. You experience this every day in your working lives when you reach for the radio mic, put on your seat belt, or even assume a safe field interview stance.
With continuous high-intensity training, you can develop muscle memory for defending yourself or effecting a difficult arrest. The first step toward achieving this concept is its continual application on your most important "muscle," the brain.
The Warrior Spirit
One of the most important things that law enforcement DT instructors can teach you is the benefit of confidence in a fight. In your training you must undergo a true paradigm shift when it comes to understanding the winning mindset and ensuring you are predators and not prey.
Officers who work the street need a warrior spirit to prevail in physical confrontations. The warrior spirit emphasizes the qualities we, as law enforcement officers, strive to possess, including courage, integrity, honor, strength of character, commitment, and humility. Adopting this warrior spirit will help you obtain the mindset necessary to overcome adversity and stay in the fight during every confrontation.
In her superb book "Deadly Force Encounters," Dr. Alexis Artwohl defines stress as "an automatic physical reaction to a perceived threat that will result in predictable physical, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive changes because of high physical arousal states."
In other words, your reaction to fear or threats is an automatic response and not something you can control. In order to condition yourself to react automatically and appropriately to the stress you may face on the streets, it is imperative that you be prepared ahead of time for the stress of combat.
You can only prepare for combat stress by understanding your body's biological responses to the stressors involved in a fight and conditioning yourself as much as possible both mentally and physically to handle that stress.
You can prepare yourself mentally for a physical confrontation by knowing you are well trained and proficient in your use and employment of defensive tactics. One good way to reinforce this confidence is to visualize what you will do when a suspect attacks you. When you imagine yourself performing specific acts and include this in your training with a great amount of emotion and sensory input, you can create a realistic baseline that will help you reduce anxiety and prepare mentally and physically for combat.
A Punch in the Face
It's time to make police DT tougher. Your instructors need to design training programs that will tax you, regardless of your ability level or degree of expertise. Because believe me a real fight—especially a fight for your survival—will tax you mentally and physically. In order to prevail in such a brutal engagement, you will need to know how to summon the last reserves of your stamina and then some.
Now I'm going to address your DT instructors for a moment.
You owe it to your students to challenge them to the point of exhaustion, and then challenge them some more. Novice officers should be made to utilize every resource and ounce of energy in order for them to prevail against opponents in a controlled environment of training. Experienced officers who are more physically fit than their peers and consider themselves proficient in a fighting art should face odds so overwhelming that they too are forced to utilize superior tactics and techniques and reach deep within themselves to overcome their adversaries.
Pushing officers to the point of exhaustion and beyond and having them realize that they can still fight back and win despite their fatigue teaches them what they can do. At my agency, we train in this manner and each and every officer is forced to engage in combat in one-on-one scenarios as well as multiple assailant drills.
We also set aside two 8-hour training days per quarter in an attempt to keep our officers' skill levels somewhat proficient. During this training we engage in multiple physical drills, obstacle courses, and other strenuous warm-ups to remind each officer that their days of training will be taxing and strenuous.
I know this next part is controversial and has to be undertaken with the utmost attention to safety protocols, but instructors also need to make sure that every officer is placed in a situation where he or she is punched in the face and has to react to it.
A punch in the face can have quite an effect on even well-trained officers. More often than not, these scenarios result in the officer "brawling" and allowing their learned defensive tactics to be dismissed. We utilize these experiences to help the officers understand how quickly they can lose control of a situation and how superior training and physical fitness will assist them in their abilities to maintain a tactical advantage in any situation.
These scenarios can get very intense. It is not uncommon to see our officers throwing up after their ordeal due to the extreme physical and emotional stress of their training.
Just remember to practice proper safety protocols.
After our training cycles are complete, I always poll the officers involved in the training and inquire as to how they liked it and what they learned from it. Invariably, the officers are thrilled to have finished it, are surprised at the intensity of it, and perhaps most importantly of all, are extremely proud to have successfully completed it.
High-intensity defensive tactics training reminds officers of their mortality and teaches them to take every opportunity to increase their mental and physical training and level of preparedness.
In November 2012, an officer from my agency was involved in a fight for his life. He found himself actually losing this confrontation and believed that his adversary was going to take his service weapon from him and shoot him with it.
He told me afterward that, as he was struggling with his opponent, his mind "flashed back" to our training and he remembered the lessons learned about the law of winning. Because of his intense and realistic training, he was able to reach down within himself even though he knew he was exhausted, and he fought back some more. He was ultimately able to overcome the subject and successfully place him in custody.
In his post-incident photograph, my officer has a classic "thousand-yard stare" and looks as if he has been through hell and back. But the important part is he made it back.
My officer immediately called me after this ordeal and he told me that our training and his belief that he could overcome anything and anyone directly affected his abilities that night.
Remember, we train as we fight and fight as we train.
James Spurgeon is a 27-year law enforcement veteran and a police chief. He is an Arizona POST certified general instructor, defensive tactics instructor, and an instructor for FLETC.