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The Renaissance Man

When Bruce Siddle left the ranks of the Monroe County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department after seven years to concentrate on training officers at the St. Louis Police Academy, he couldn’t have envisioned where it would take him.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

When Bruce Siddle left the ranks of the Monroe County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department after seven years to concentrate on training officers at the St. Louis Police Academy, he couldn’t have envisioned where it would take him.

Siddle’s second career has focused on two areas: training cops and military personnel and conducting academic research on how the body reacts to the stress of potentially mortal combat. The result is that he is an accomplished firearms and defensive tactics trainer, and the world’s leading authority on what he calls “use-of-force human factors.”

Siddle’s groundbreaking 1995 book, “Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge,” detailed the effects of survival stress on the performance of warriors. It challenged the belief that officers can aim their weapons when countering a sudden attack; it advocated that new officers be taught both the isosceles and Weaver techniques during firearms training, and it even argued that instinctive point shooting is more likely to be used in an officer-involved shooting than aimed fire.

Today, Siddle continues his research on the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) and its effect on warriors in combat. He is also working on more books and research papers, training warriors, and giving presentations to law enforcement and military audiences. On Wednesday March 21, Siddle will give the keynote address at TREXPO West 2007 in Long Beach, Calif.

Police Magazine editor David Griffith recently talked with Siddle by phone.

Police: Did you like working patrol?

I loved it. When I was with Monroe County, I had a great crew. The last couple of years I was there I was a sergeant, and I was on the tactical team. It was tough leaving; I had a great boss and a great team, and it was really troubling for me for about a month. I loved that job.

How did you get involved in training?

I kind of backdoored into it. The state of Illinois changed their police training requirements. They went from a six-week academy to an eight-week academy and from four hours mandatory defensive tactics training to 44 hours.

I had been teaching martial arts at the Y since age 16, even while I was a sheriff’s deputy. So I was approached by the director of the St. Louis Academy and asked to teach there for $25 an hour. At the time my salary was just shy of $8,000 per year, and $25 per hour was huge. I took the job.

I taught at the academy for a year; then the academy director came to me and said, “What you’re teaching is way too complicated.” So he sent me off to get some more training, simplify what I was doing, and do some research. “I want you to try and validate from a medical standpoint what you’re doing here,” he said.

I went to the Smith & Wesson academy, went to an FBI course, went through a lot of training. But what I found out was that people were not doing much different than what I was.

So I went off on my own. I discussed the problem with a friend of mine who was a doctor, and he was the one who said, “Have you thought about pressure points and neural anatomy research?” And that’s what led into the whole PPCT (Pressure Point Control Training) concept. So from the training standpoint, I came back and cut our defensive tactics program from some 80 techniques to 15 or 16.

That got me interested in the whole use-of-force human factors concept as to what you can and can’t do under stress.

Do you have a science background?

No. Not a bit. When PPCT started becoming successful, I put together an advisory board of MDs and PhDs from a whole variety of backgrounds.

What’s going to be the primary focus of your keynote presentation next month at TREXPO West?

I will go into great detail about what happens when an officer is under what I refer to as “survival stress.” That’s not necessarily fear. If you look in the medical literature, you’ll see a lot of material on fear and how it triggers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

But from a law enforcement standpoint, things other than fear can trigger that circuit and that’s why I refer to it as survival stress. Once that circuit is triggered, your pupils dilate and you lose the ability to focus on things close. From a shooting standpoint, you can’t focus on your front sight.

That circuit was designed to prevent us from being killed by animal predators. It’s done a wonderful job of keeping our species alive. Unfortunately, that same circuit is still very active in man, and it hasn’t evolved out of us.

So when that circuit is fired or triggered, officers will react in a way that the courts will later say was excessive force. This circuit is one of the reasons why an officer who gets called to a scene of a man with a gun in a yard can come around a corner, get startled, see the silhouette of a man, and see what he thinks is a gun in that figure’s hand, and open fire. Then it turns out later that it was a kid with a plastic gun. It was that circuit that caused the officer to shoot.

We hear a lot about stress inoculation in training. Is it really possible to inoculate someone against combat stress through training?

Yes, in some circumstances that can be done. You know, the idea of stress inoculation has become very popular with trainers. But I would suggest that a lot of trainers don’t have a clue about what it means.

If you don’t understand how the body’s stress response system is triggered, then you can’t actually develop training programs to help control it.

We refer to stress inoculation as stimulus response training. Stimulus response training is a way to control the activation of the SNS.

Some trainers think that stress control is just getting people into really good shape, so they make them run before they hit the range or they make them do a bunch of pushups before they hit the range. That does absolutely nothing.

But even if your stimulus response training is perfect, you can still be startled. When you’re startled, no matter what your training background is, no matter what your combat experience is, the stress trigger can still be activated and things can still go bad. Training can influence 50 percent of an officer’s responses, but there is always that intangible X factor.

What is the single most prevalent mistake that you see today in law enforcement use-of-force training?

It’s that trainers don’t understand stress physiology. If you don’t understand stress physiology, then it’s very difficult for you to put together a training program and for it to be valid tactically, meaning it can be done in the field.

We know for a fact that a significant number of shootings occur at night. We also know that a significant number of shootings are spontaneous. The officer has no warning. He walks up or turns a corner and he sees a gun, and milliseconds later the gun is being fired at him.

So we need firearms training that matches reality. If a shooting happens at night, then you likely can’t see your front sights. We also know that when you’re startled, your SNS activates and when that happens your pupils dilate. When your pupils dilate, you cannot focus on your front sights. We also know that once your pupils have dilated that even if you bring your stress under control, it takes a full second for your pupils to go from a dilated profile to a constricted profile where you now can focus on your front sights. Most gunfights are over in two seconds.

The greatest weakness that we have in the use-of-force training community is not understanding stress physiology and not incorporating what we know into training programs.

There’s probably no bigger controversy in law enforcement training than point shooting vs. aimed fire. Should officers be trained to point shoot?

Absolutely. When you don’t have time, distance, and cover, you are going to do some variation of point shooting because you’re startled and you can’t focus on your front sights.

We need to be teaching combat point shooting as well as sighted aimed fire. We need a balance of the two. Our firearms programs are generally not competency based. They’re not based on what officers really need in the field. Our firearms training is qualification, meaning that we just want guys to qualify so we can let them wear a gun. So officers are trained to assume a Weaver stance on a firing line, but it’s unlikely they’ll do that in a real gunfight.

Hasn’t the widespread use of ballistic vests forced gun instructors to teach their students to square up to the target rather than present their less protected sides to the threat as they do in the bladed Weaver stance?

A lot of agencies still teach only the Weaver stance. It’s changing, but a lot of firearms trainers have resisted.

Back in 1995 when “Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge” came out I was invited to speak at a huge law enforcement firearms conference. I presented my findings at that point and I advocated teaching both the isosceles and the Weaver. And during a break, 70 percent of the students got up and walked out on me.

Six months later I got a call from the same organization, asking me to come back and teach again. I told the director, “Are you out of your mind? When I got home I checked my mailbox for letter bombs. Why would I come back there?”

But the reception the following year was very warm and welcoming. So I asked someone during the break, “What caused the change?” I was told universally from different parts of the room that what had happened was Simunition training.

What these trainers discovered was that when their students were taken out of the static, non-stress qualification environment and put in Simunition drills, they weren’t doing Weaver. Force-on-force training with dye marking ammo has had a tremendous influence on firearms training.

Even so, qualification courses are still about qualification; they are not combat oriented. Nobody has accepted the fact that a use-of-force situation is combat. It’s a survival situation. And until we as a community come to grips with the fact that when an officer gets into a shooting it’s combat, we’re never going to be able to adapt training to the maximum level.

I have conducted training where I had the directors of training organizations walk up to me and say, “During your presentation, you are not allowed to use the term ‘combat.’ You are not allowed to use the term ‘warrior.’” When you have a closed mind like that because the word “combat” is not politically correct, then that filters right down to how you train your officers.

Your research and the research of others says that officers under survival stress experience a tunnel vision phenomenon. How can they compensate for this in order to confront multiple threats from different angles?

You really can’t do anything to compensate for it until you recognize it.

When I give my presentation I go through a list of things that officers can expect to experience in a combat situation: sweaty palms, racing heart, trouble breathing, and many others. What I do is try to educate them about these stress symptoms, and then I tell them if you become aware of a stress symptom happening, then do tactical breathing.

When you do tactical breathing right, it takes you out of that stress response cycle. I’ve had dozens and dozens of officers call me up after they experienced a shooting and say, “I suddenly became aware of the fact that my SNS was activated. I did the tactical breathing and my field of vision opened up.” That’s something that you can do, but only a small percentage of guys realize what’s happening to them.

The reality is that when you’re hit with a spontaneous threat to your survival, it’s no different than turning a corner and seeing a tiger pouncing at you and you only have a half second to respond. You suddenly don’t care what the temperature of the room is or about your leg or back hurting; you don’t think about family. Your brain and body will focus only on what is attempting to take your life and nothing else. Typically, until that threat is gone, your visual field does not open back up. That’s the problem. The startle response is the one thing that’s very difficult to overcome through training.

There have been several recent incidents involving sympathetic fire in officer-involved shootings. What does your research show about ways to prevent sympathetic fire?

A lot of that is pack behavior. Everybody in the group is experiencing stress and one officer squeezes the trigger and that stimulates everybody squeezing the trigger because there is a perception that everybody is facing a deadly threat.

My research was cited in court in the Amadou Diallo case by Phil Messina who was the expert witness in the case. There you had a situation where the circumstances put the officers into a sympathetic nervous system mode. When you have more officers around, that survival awareness is heightened even more. It’s my belief that that’s what leads to these sympathetic shootings.

Is there anything that can be done about it?

Again it comes back to stress control. When you’re on your way to an event where you know that you are going into a survival situation, start your tactical breathing then. What that does is keep you out of that SNS mode. So if you know you’re going into a bad situation, getting ready to enter a room or driving to an operation, start your tactical breathing.

When you do tactical breathing right, it disengages the SNS orientation of the body and keeps you in homeostasis. Your ability to process visually, auditorily, and cognitively and conduct precision motor skill requires you to be in the state called homeostasis. That means your body is at balance. If you want to be precise, you need to stay in homeostasis. Tactical breathing is the only thing I know of that maintains that state under survival stress.

Don't Miss Bruce Siddle's Use-of-Force Human Factors at TREXPO West: March 21, 2007 in Long Beach, Calif.

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How to Do Tactical Breathing
Tactical breathing is a technique used to assist in deactivating a Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) mass discharge.

Simply breathe in for a count of two, hold your breath for a count of two, and exhale for a count of two while compressing your diaphragm. This should be repeated until your heart rate is reduced to a level where you can perform at your optimum.

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