Working with Problem Shooters

Many departments have a couple—or a few—officers that struggle each time qualification comes around. It then falls to the firearms training staff to get them through it.

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Most departments have a firearms instructor or two (or 10) that bear the responsibility of administering the department's qualification course. Many of those departments also make their firearms staff responsible for conducting firearms safety training, and some do various types of tactical training.

But the firearms instructor's core responsibility is to administer "qualification." Most departments have some sort of course of fire that officers must pass in order to receive the department's blessing as being qualified to carry a firearm. Usually, each weapon authorized to be carried must be fired, including backup, off-duty, and long guns.

Most officers do fairly well at this qualification standard, and some excel. However, many departments have a couple—or a few—officers that struggle each time qualification comes around. It then falls to the firearms staff to "get them through it." In the old days, that usually meant having them fire the course over and over again until they managed to pass, and I imagine a few places still do that. However, the flaw in that methodology is pretty obvious, and any instructor that's given his druthers won't put up with doing that anymore. He knows that to really solve the problem—whatever it is—training is required.

Why do people fail to meet standards?

There are probably as many reasons for failure to meet standards as there are people that fail. However, there are a few common issues that sometimes get overlooked.

Test Anxiety

We've all heard of this in respect to written tests, but have you thought of it for motor skill tests? If being nervous about a written test can cloud your thinking, is it too much to believe that it could make it difficult to concentrate on performance? And, if we're talking about firearms as a fine motor skill, anything that "jacks up" your nerves will make it more difficult to perform.

Relaxation techniques will help here, as well as familiarity with the weapon system and the course of fire. Sometimes, not having others observe the qualification can remove the element of stage fright, i.e. fear of public failure, that someone might experience.

Physical Difficulties

Some officers struggle with their vision, especially as they age. When I first got bifocals, I had to radically modify my shooting habits in order to succeed. If you have an officer who is struggling, vision could be an issue—and it's not just a problem for older officers.

Other physical issues can include balance, posture, previous injuries, and overall fitness and health. While these are often private matters, if they are preventing officers from meeting work-related standards, they should be addressed.

Poor Fundamentals

Just because someone has been an officer for a number of years does not mean that he or she might not have problems with shooting fundamentals. Perhaps she never received proper training, or perhaps over the years she developed bad habits that were never corrected. She may have been trained by an incompetent instructor, or have received too little training in the academy.

In this case, a patient, thorough review of the fundamentals is required, and then methodical, supervised practice. As a trainer you need to realize that an officer may not even know that he is missing some of the vital underpinnings of shooting skill. If he's been doing it wrong for a long time, it may seem perfectly natural to him. These are old habits that are difficult to break.

Adult Learning Issues

This one's a little more theoretical. Adult learners need to see an immediate need for information if they are to learn it. There are a couple of ways that this could be a problem: they may not necessarily believe they will suffer harm if they don't perform, they may not understand why they are having a problem. They may not be making the connection between their lack of shooting fundamentals and their inability to be successful, or they may be in a job that doesn't really require the carrying of a weapon, and so they don't perceive a need to pass the qualification standard.

You can probably throw in a general lack of knowledge here. Just telling them what to do, or even showing them what to do, may not work. They need to understand why they should do things a certain way, and how those things can either help them to improve, or keep them from succeeding.

Attitude Adjustment

Like it or not, some officers just have a bad attitude, and some have bad attitudes about training. Perhaps they have a personal problem with the instructor that is working with them, or they're "in trouble" administratively, and their attitude is colored by their present difficulties.

This is a tough one for the instructor to deal with one-on-one. Ideally, the officer can be assigned to a different instructor, or the officer's peers can be enlisted to assist (kind of a "coach-pupil" thing). It may call for discipline, as a last resort.

Make it a "Team Effort"

Most of these issues can be successfully addressed through a patient and thorough team-oriented approach to motor skill training. While we've been talking about firearms training, many of these same issues arise in other skill testing areas. If your department's training team is cross-trained in different disciplines, so that they are teaching more than one subject, they are likely to see the same individuals struggling in more than one motor-skill area. This is especially obvious in a police academy environment.

If you are your agency's sole trainer, seek out trainers from surrounding departments, both for problem-solving discussions and to assist you in evaluating your problem performers. A team approach to these issues is almost always preferable to a single perspective.

In the final analysis, remember that most officers want to do well, and just about all officers want to go home safely at the end of their shift. If you can help them overcome some of their less obvious performance difficulties, your entire department will be better off for it.

Stay safe, and wear your vest!

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Law Enforcement Trainer
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