Recently my agency conducted training aimed at evaluating the officers' tactics and judgment skills in handling a variety of situations during live fire shoot-don't shoot sessions and in force-on-force scenarios using Simunition marking rounds.
Through these exercises, we identified weaknesses that were immediately addressed and corrected during the scenarios. Then we had the officers continue or repeat the scenario utilizing correct—or at least better—techniques. We also addressed the issues during training events throughout the year to reinforce the new tactics.
One of the more significantly alarming problems we noted was that of officers shooting "good guy" targets. We use human simulation targets and several officers shot unarmed targets or targets that were clearly identified as plainclothes police officers. Then in one force-on-force training scenario an officer and his partner became separated inside the building and shot each other.
After the training staff reviewed our observations we concluded that we had a serious problem with the training. The officers were not taking the training seriously and were going through the scenarios with a cavalier attitude, show ing off their shooting ability—we have some pretty good shots on the department—but not necessarily making sound judgments or even caring enough to try to make sound judgments or using good tactics. These officers were having a lot of fun on the range in training, but they weren't learning anything. So they were choosing to have lots of fun now, maybe not so much later in a real gunfight or in court after a shooting.
Slowing Them Down
We talked to the officers in question after each event, telling them they needed to slow down enough to be able to make correct decisions and to get good solid hits high center mass on the targets. One of the officers later asked me how they are supposed to balance slowing down with wanting to shoot quickly enough to not get shot during a real incident.
After the training session in question, this officer sent me an e-mail, which said in part:
"So I've been thinking about that last range session and it still bothers me. I'm not attacking or questioning the scenario, but looking for more advice. The second time I went through, beforehand you both told me to slow down. So right before I started I was thinking to slow down and remember the lady with a knife.
"I started the second time through and I stopped thinking about the knife target and was just looking at all the targets as I shot, I also stopped consciously thinking about slowing down. I missed the knife target again, mainly because I didn't register it as a weapon target when scanning over the targets looking for the obvious weapons, even though it felt like my second run was actually slower than my first.
"So how can I force myself to slow down in a static situation, aside from trying to remember to? A non-static situation I'm pretty sure would be different with regards to slowing down mainly because the situation is always changing so you need to evaluate more information. Likewise there are many more factors in determining the threat level and actions of subject."
This conversation occurred via e-mail so I had some time to think about my response. My answer to this officer was that by taking the training seriously and applying the appropriate tactics and practicing these techniques you can slow down and go faster. I then proceeded to explain this in terms of mechanics, tactics, and decision-making.
The first step is to become so familiar with your weapon that drawing it and firing accurately become second nature. We now know that we were wrong years ago saying that we build "muscle memory" by repetition. You're not building muscle memory through repetitive training. What you are actually doing is building the communication between synapses in your brain that essentially build event memory, which when reinforced over time and through practice, make drawing, aiming, pressing the trigger all begin to appear to be second nature and almost automatic when the appropriate stimuli are received.
Think of this in terms of something most veteran law enforcement officers have experienced. Think back to a time you found yourself in a serious situation, behind cover, weapon in hand, sights in front of your face without consciously thinking about the actions. In this situation you were presented with an unfolding event and you responded automatically in the manner in which you had practiced and were trained to respond. This situation reinforces the old adage that we do not rise to the occasion but rather default to our level of training.
You learn the fundamentals of marksmanship, the basics, at the academy, and revisit this training as time goes on during in-service refresher classes so you don't lose what you don't use. If you're dedicated to your training, you also learn to add advanced techniques to your toolbox here and there. And if you push yourself to continue to learn and grow and you practice what you learn, the actual physical mechanics of manipulating your weapon become so ingrained that you don't have to give them much thought.
After you become proficient at the physical manipulation of your weapon, you eventually have to put into play the actual use of the item in a practical application. Theory can only get you so far. You can practice the moves necessary to operate a car in a parking lot, but until you get out on the road you don't really appreciate the practical aspects of the vehicle's operation in traffic. Or to offer an example with perhaps the same potential for catastrophic results, would you want a surgeon working on you who attended all the classes but had no actual experience with a scalpel?
The metaphor of the surgeon is very similar to what an untrained officer who doesn't know how to tactically respond might experience deploying his or her weapon at the scene of an incident. If you are that officer, you know how to punch holes in paper on the range, but putting your firearms skills into play when necessary in a way that will keep you alive while moving to cover, working the angles, and keeping innocents out of the line of your fire is another set of skills you must also master.
So you must practice tactics and practice them some more. Train yourself to slice the pie around corners, to work stairways, to move as a team with fellow officers, to use cover, and all of the other tactics that will allow you to use your weapon efficiently in the field. With enough training eventually tactics, too, become second nature. This will allow you to concentrate on making good, legally justifiable decisions.
The most important aspect of your response to any deadly force incident is the decisions you make.
This is why I have the officers in my agency spend so much time on the range honing their skills. It's why I believe you should spend many hours moving through a shoot house or in force-on-force scenarios or on high-risk stop tactics. When the time comes to shoot or not to shoot, you need to free your mind from thinking about mechanics and tactics and focus on what is happening and how you are going to respond.
By making two-thirds of the equation automatic, as much as we possibly can, we allow ourselves to use our conscious thought processes to receive data, formulate a plan, and carry out that plan without being encumbered by those things that should just happen. By doing so we can actually slow down and think, which actually results in faster decision-making. So by learning the correct methods and then practicing to a high level of proficiency the physical and the technical we free up space in the equation for decision-making.
We observe, orient, decide, and act. If we need to shoot, we shoot. If we don't need to shoot, we don't shoot. Because when that time comes that's really all we should be thinking about.
Matt Szady has more than 30 years of full-time experience with municipal and county law enforcement agencies. His assignments have included investigations, training, supervision, and command. He has also served as a special response team member. Szady is currently a sergeant, patrol supervisor, and advanced weapons and tactics instructor for a campus police agency.