Training: Keeping It Real

We need to train like we fight so to speak, and the best way to do that is through some form of reality-based training. I mean scenarios, role-playing, dynamic training.

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Let's face it, we as law enforcement officers hold a high liability position. The decisions we make, or don't make, can have life changing or life ending consequences. When we get it right, we're heroes. When we get it wrong we're the devil incarnate and named in a lawsuit to boot. Few other professions can claim such highs and lows.

So how do we tip the scales in our favor? Training. Lots and lots of training. All professions require ongoing training of some kind; some require more than others. Professional athletes may be at the top of the list but I would argue law enforcement is a close second. For every time we handcuff, punch, wrestle, shoot, or arrest someone it is likely we've spent several hours practicing each technique. Or at least I would hope we have.

The ultimate in realism would be practicing our skills on the citizens we serve, but we of course can't do that. And on the other end of the spectrum, shooting a piece of paper or hitting a heavy bag is a far cry from interacting with a living, breathing person. We need to train like we fight so to speak, and the best way to do that is through some form of reality-based training. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, I mean scenarios, role-playing, dynamic training. Some kind of training that not only requires proper use of the tools we carry and techniques we use, but the decision-making skills that allow us to apply them properly.

There are countless ways to accomplish this and even more tools available for training instructors to make it as real as possible, just shy of filling someone with holes or scars. Let's go over the good and bad, those I have experience with, and the pros and cons of each. I've spent a decade sorting through what works and what doesn't so hopefully my time in the training arena will be of some benefit to you and your agency.

Define the Intended Purpose

Before you get started putting together some kind of reality-based training program, you need to outline what you're hoping to accomplish. Is it a single skill or are you throwing everything into the mix? Are you looking for decision-making or weapon handling? Most importantly, are you trying to conduct training, that is, to enhance a skill or ability? Or are you simply conducting an administrative test? Think pistol qualification, decision shoot, or any other "recertification" course. In order to measure the successes or failures of the training or testing you need to know what you're looking for and design the scenarios to focus on a specific purpose.

Let's say, for example, you're focusing on the testing aspect and solely looking for an officer's ability to address a situation with deadly force. The scenario may be brief and focus on the ability to recognize the situation as a deadly force encounter, address it properly, and be able to justify the decision in a debrief. Scenarios of this sort can be conducted on a live-fire range with limited resources. They can also be quick and simple, or "down and dirty." If you're trying to get an agency of 500 or more officers through a simple drill or POST-required decision shoot this is a good, basic way to get it done.

On the other end of the spectrum, if your goal is to assess a tactical team's ability to address an active shooter situation, manhunt, or complex hostage barricade situation, or to train them how to do so, get ready to dedicate a considerable amount time, personnel, equipment, and most importantly money to the play of the day. If your agency is strapped for cash and the overtime budget is tight this may be a difficult mountain to climb.

Avoid One-Note Training

The tricky part of all this is trying to keep the skill you're teaching or assessing from dictating the scenario. For example, if you're concluding a block of TASER instruction that includes a scenario, your students will know going into it that the application of a TASER is likely going to be the solution to the problem. If they know the answer to the test before they ever walk into the classroom you're going to see a lot of A+ grades without ever teaching them anything. You're also going to see very little about each officer's ability to make decisions and ability to justify their actions. On the other hand, if you structure the scenario so that the only possible outcome is one unrelated to the topic at hand you're likely to see a lot of failures. There needs to be balance between the two.

Providing instruction and scenarios limited to one topic or one specific solution doesn't simulate reality and will greatly taint the value of the training. In order to keep reality-based training real it is important to include all the toys and all the tricks in the officer's toolbox. Just as we fight on the street, we should practice in the classroom. The trick is designing and implementing a reality-based scenario program that is consistent without being predictable. That is what separates teaching and learning from "box checking."

Review the Options

As I said before, the tools and methods for accomplishing a truly reality-based training program are countless. What likely began as a series of "tabletop" exercises and simple "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios on the range have evolved through technology and necessity into a complex variety of realistic environments designed to immerse the officer in a world that is only slightly removed from reality.

My first experience with reality-based training occurred in the academy and involved inert weapons and munitions (red guns) and a whole lot of imagination. We put together almost everything imaginable, from deadly force encounters to simple calls for service where my ability to demonstrate proper officer safety techniques was practiced and evaluated. The beauty of these little skits was in their simplistic yet virtually endless adaptation; all while keeping me mindful of all my skills, not just one in particular.

The downfall? When you go into something with no protective gear and inert tools on your belt, the odds are pretty good no one is getting hit or shot at. This reduced the amount of stress I experienced and therefore removed that element from the equation. This greatly reduced the realism, and therefore the value of the training. Dealing with an agitated subject with a bat is pretty easy when the bat is foam and you know he isn't going to use it, no matter how many times he threatens you.

Marking Cartridges

Fast forward a bit and the use of marking cartridges or "sims" rounds were introduced. This brought a higher level of realism to the table and introduced pain for the first time. Stress accompanied the pain, as the fear of getting stung by one of those little paint rounds made me much more mindful of my environment. As anyone's stress level increases the ability to make sound decisions is much more difficult and only made easier through repetitive training. As fun as it was to suit up and play a little police paintball, we always knew as soon as we went through the door we were likely going to shoot and be shot. Therefore the thought of instead using a less-lethal system or even going hands-on was left on the porch.

Both of these methods, although limited in some ways, do offer the attractive attribute of being relatively cheap to implement and maintain. An arsenal of marking pistols, inert weapons, and protective gear can be had for only a few thousand dollars and will last for many years. The rounds they fire aren't much more expensive than the practice ammo we shoot at the range. And instructor training needed to use them is pretty basic.

Use-of-Force Simulators

As we settle in to the 21st century a new generation of electronic systems, or simulators, have hit the market designed to immerse the officer in a digital world of danger and force them to make decisions that not only require the use of all the tools in their toolbox, but offer realistic consequences in the form of pain if they fail.

I've had the pleasure of being the guinea pig for VirTra and its V-300 simulator on many occasions and even made my acting debut in a few of their proprietary scenarios. The beauty of VirTra's V-300 is in the complexity of its design. All scenarios are filmed in a widescreen 300-degree format. This means everything the officer experiences can come from more than one direction, which forces the student to be mindful of the tunnel-vision trap. Additionally, the weapons and tools on the tool belt are designed to function just like the real deal. Guns "fire," TASERs spark, and chemical munitions spray.

And unlike in the movies, the bad guy doesn't always fall down after the first shot. If you fail to address the threat, there's even a system of electrodes that will deliver pain compliance to the part of your body exposed to it. If you get shot in the back, it really does feel like you've been shot in the back. There's nothing so motivating as knee-buckling pain to keep you from making the same mistake twice.

To keep this prerecorded training unpredictable, manufacturers create ready-made scenarios whose details and outcomes can be changed with various "branches" controlled by the trainer running the system. If that's not varied enough, agencies can often even request or create their own versions of these scenarios that include local streets and landmarks to make the scenarios more realistic.

However, as impressive as training simulator systems like VirTra's are, they too have limitations. No matter how realistic it gets, you're still dealing with two-dimensional bad guys and you'll never put hands on them. Additionally, the complexity and cutting edge technology of these systems requires a significant investment that includes system upgrades and maintenance, so that's something you'll have to keep in mind.

Keep it Unpredictable

Now, I've saved my favorite for last. I consider myself not only an instructor and trainer, but also a student of the training and instruction. I study every piece of training I am exposed to and try to be as objective as possible. I feel there is value in all training; some teaches us what to do, and some what not to do. One of my recent case studies involved a particular agency (I won't disclose which one) that takes its training very seriously. And I think it does a fine job of providing realistic instruction.

The system is set up like this. The first quarter of the year is spent sending all of their officers to check every required administrative box. They shoot their weapons qualifications, recertify on their TASERs and defensive tactics use, and even get an update on the current legal rulings that govern the way they do business. Everything their state certification board requires to remain a sworn officer is done in the first three months. The other nine months of the year are spent doing what I consider to be the best reality-based training I've seen to date. Here's how it works.

At various intervals throughout the year, officers on duty will be dispatched to one of this agency's training facilities (they are a large agency and have more than a few). Once they arrive, an instructor safety checks them at the door and sends them down the road and into the scenario. No special protective gear, no hint at what is to come. It might be a domestic fight, a traffic stop, a vehicle collision, or something as mundane as a community meeting. Sometimes it will result in a shooting, sometimes almost nothing occurs, and sometimes it is a mix of a few things. It is real life in a practice setting. A place where it is business as usual but mistakes are critiqued and lessons are learned, all without impact to the public.

So, how real can it be? Let's just say more often than not officers come out the other side with split lips, torn uniforms, and sometimes even damaged vehicles. Not to mention the real adrenaline dump and stress that goes along with it. The only way to know what getting punched in the face feels like is to get punched in the face.

Now, I know you're thinking, "That's crazy. That would cost a fortune to implement and even more in officer injuries and complaints!" Yeah, I'm sure it has a significant cost associated with it. But considering that the average misconduct or wrongful death lawsuit comes with a price tag in the millions, I would contend it is a small price to pay if it prevents just one of them. It's called being proactive and, if you can get the higher-ups to foot the bill up front, the return on investment could be huge.

No Magic Bullet

So, what kind of reality-based training is the best? There is no magic bullet here (no pun intended). The truth is, anything is better than nothing and as long as you can get your officers beyond the administrative testing and into some real training they'll be better off. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't strive for the best.

As instructors it is up to us to set the example, create the motivation and culture where officers want to come to training, and most importantly, fight for the resources and funding needed to make it happen. Trust me, this battle is hard-fought and never ending but it is worth it to know that the guy next to you is prepared to deal with whatever the radio spits out and ensure you both go home at the end of your shift. Be safe out there.

A.J. George is a patrol sergeant with the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department who also serves as the SWAT team’s crisis negotiation supervisor. He has almost a decade of law enforcement experience in patrol, field training, and traffic enforcement.

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