Adding More Realism to Training

Officers perform better when their training includes drills and scenarios that require them to use their skills in context under realistic conditions.

'Crack shots' may struggle with the most basic of firearms proficiency under stress from an RBT/SET event. Photo: Lon Bartel"Crack shots" may struggle with the most basic of firearms proficiency under stress from an RBT/SET event. Photo: Lon Bartel

Training time and resources are scarce commodities for law enforcement agencies. So it is critically important to get the most benefit out of the training time and resources you have. I believe reality-based training/simulated event training (RBT/SET) can be used to create highly effective, flexible, and safe training.

Before we continue, let's define these terms. Reality-Based Training (RBT) is "any manner of training that utilizes tools, techniques, or methodologies to approximate in a training setting any situation that might occur in an operational setting," according to the Reality Based Training Association ( Simulated Event Training (SET) is training that uses the concepts of modeling (the representation of an object or phenomenon) and simulation to accomplish specific performance objectives in teaching/training skills, improving knowledge, or honing abilities. This is typically associated with digital video simulators such as law enforcement use-of-force simulators.

Effective use of RBT/SET is vital for maximizing the benefits of skill training and decision-making training. The appropriate use of RBT/SET training can prevent training accidents, unwanted "training scars," and the waste of training time. Using RBT/SET, academies and agencies can bridge the gap between the rather stress-free classroom and the problematic square range environment to "real world" dynamic encounters.

Decision Making

Weapon skill proficiency is often a focus of training. The how to shoot, how to strike a target, how to use an electronic control device tends to be the focus of many academies, agencies, and trainers. These are vital physical skills that should have a high level of mastery and do require time and money to conduct. These skills are often taught in a compartmentalized style that does not provide integration with other skill sets. What often is missed in training is when to use these skills, how to integrate these skills into a series of actions, and how to apply them under realistic conditions.

The typical format for firearms training is a simple stimulus-response type event. The simple stimulus is a turned target or a yelled range command to fire. But the demands of the actual law enforcement use of a firearm are never a simple stimulus-response event. Real world use of deadly force requires an evaluation and decision component prior to the use of the weapon. Some have stated that you cannot train an officer in decision-making but the research in teaching psychomotor skills says differently. Decision training is possible with RBT/SET.

There are skills that law enforcement officers must be able to effectively conduct under stressful and realistic situations. These skills include: de-escalation, when and how to perform a tactical retreat, and the utilization of any force option from verbal commands, to less-lethal weapons, to firearms.

Lecturing officers on when to conduct these skills is not the appropriate method for teaching them. To quote law enforcement trainer Gary Klugiewicz, "We conduct fire drills and not fire talks for a reason." Speaking about the use of force and creating training opportunities that allow for the application of that force in realistic settings are not the same. Science shows us there are differences in memory between implicit memory (procedural memory) and explicit memory (answering test questions).

Training Scars

To optimally conduct training of law enforcement proficiency skills we must have realism. Training artificialities run the risk of leading to performance errors and/or "training scars." Training scars are an unintended consequence of well-intentioned training. Training isn't what we say we do, it is what we actually do…repeatedly. RBT/SET training has to be monitored and audited to ensure artificialities do not work their way into the training for the sake of expediency or minimization of effort.

To mitigate the negative effects of stress, we must inoculate ourselves to it in training. Photo: Lon BartelTo mitigate the negative effects of stress, we must inoculate ourselves to it in training. Photo: Lon Bartel

Effective training requires the use of training environments and protocols that are as realistic as possible. The contextual cues of human movement and facial expressions are vital when recruits and/or officers are trying to establish the intent of a subject in front of them. A square range does not simulate the settings where law enforcement officers actually work, nor does shooting paper targets simulate how people really move or present themselves as threats. The courts have repeatedly sent a clear message that not conducting realistic training is to incur liability.

A small example of case law covering this issue includes:

  • Popow v. City of Margate, a case involving moving targets and low light.
  • Tuttle v. Oklahoma, a case involving low light, moving targets, officer movement, and decision making.
  • Zuchel v. City and County of Denver, Colorado, a case involving deliberate indifference.

Force on Force

One of the most common forms of RBT is the force-on-force scenario. Force on force is training that simulates a law enforcement scenario involving live role players and functional weapon systems that are either inert or fire marking rounds or other projectiles that are designed not to injure someone wearing protective gear. In this simulation one potential outcome is the performance of a police use-of-force option. This force option could include verbal de-escalation, the use of empty hands, and/or deadly force.

Using force-on-force exercises, agencies can conduct firearms training in environments such as schools, stadiums, and residential areas where live fire is not safe and under circumstances where other training methods are not practical. Training involving scenarios in these environments can also be conducted in simulators.

One way to increase the realism of simulator training for your officers and recruits is to film the scenarios at locations in your jurisdiction. Filming Simulator scenarios in these critical areas may be initially challenging, but once it is done, the training can be exactly replicated any number of times. Additionally, the authoring tools provided by simulator companies often allow the use of drop-in video characters that can be placed on a panoramic picture taken in these hard to access locations.

The Stress Factor

One element of training that is critical to learning how to conduct law enforcement operations in the real world is stress. Working as a law enforcement officer is stressful and that stress rises exponentially during critical situations. Stress causes chemical changes to all living animals, and this adrenal response and the effects that come with it apply to our physical abilities as well as our cognitive abilities. Many of these effects have survival value in that they let us run faster, feel less pain, hit harder, and shunt blood flow to the periphery of our bodies. But they can also compromise our cognitive ability and sensory perception.

Reasoning, problem solving, and effective speech can be adversely affected by stress. This is why techniques such as de-escalation and use-of-force skills taught in a classroom and not conducted in realistic stressful settings can be ineffective in real-world settings.

Self-proclaimed "crack shots" may find they struggle with the most basic of firearms proficiency when stress from an RBT/SET event is placed on them. Heart rates race and sweating increases when people are placed in simulators with stress-inducing elements or in force-on-force training where they have to worry about the sting of a marking cartridge.

You can increase the realism of simulator training for your officers by filming scenarios in your jurisdiction. Photo: Lon BartelYou can increase the realism of simulator training for your officers by filming scenarios in your jurisdiction. Photo: Lon Bartel

To mitigate these negative effects of stress, we must inoculate ourselves to it in training. One of the most efficient ways to create stress is to present the perception of potential personal jeopardy. This jeopardy can come in many forms. One form is that of physical injury or pain. Tactical mistakes can have a pain penalty.

This risk of potential pain can elicit the stress response. By placing officers in stressful training situations and having them make decisions and perform skills, agencies can teach their officers to make better decisions and perform skills under stress.

The stress level of RBT/SET training can match the student's experience. We can use the report of a blank cartridge to induce stress in new officers who are still in the "crawl" stage of learning. They can also be placed into a low difficulty SET in a simulator that an instructor can walk them through. As the officer gets more proficient and moves through the "walk" stage and into the "run" stage we can then conduct force-on-force training or complex SET in a simulator with consequences.

Benefits of RBT/SET

We have discussed some of the benefits of RBT/SET. Now let's sum them up.

RBT/SET isolation drills allow for multiple repetitions and the use of behavior modeling to teach lessons. Isolation drills are a highly efficient way to get recruits and officers to perform multiple high-value skill repetitions in a compressed time frame.

The use of scenarios allows for the teaching of and training in complex skills sets as well as clear and constructive evaluation of the recruit's or officer's performance. Scenarios provide the opportunity to not just test each officer's ability, but also allow agency leaders to test training programs, equipment, and policy.

More specific skill sets can safely be trained to include injured officer skills, officer down drills, tourniquet application under threat. These skills are very difficult to train in a live fire environment but can be done safely in RBT/SET types of training. RBT/SET are powerful tools that can bring a level of decision making and competency that is rarely possible in static training environments.

Lon Bartel is a writer, certified use-of-force expert, and law enforcement trainer. He is one of the founders of the Arizona Tactical Officers Association and is currently the subject matter expert on law enforcement training for VirTra. Bartel can be reached at

About the Author
Page 1 of 213
Next Page