The State of American Law Enforcement - Teaching to the Test

One thing that's clear from the statistics is that law enforcement is becoming a more dangerous occupation. Which begs the question: Is the training that the average law enforcement officer receives adequate enough to help him or her counter the threats presented by the job?

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

The number is stark and scary: 186. That's how many officers died last year in the line of duty. It's a number that reflects both accidents and violent acts by criminals that some experts are calling "super predators."

One thing that's clear from the statistics is that law enforcement is becoming a more dangerous occupation. Which begs the question: Is the training that the average law enforcement officer receives adequate enough to help him or her counter the threats presented by the job?

It's a tough question to answer. There are an estimated 17,000 law enforcement agencies in this country and the quality of training they offer varies greatly. Asking the experts can yield a wide range of report cards as well, from "woeful" to "inadequate" to "much improved."

"We need to have a sense of urgency in our training," says POLICE Magazine columnist and Calibre Press "Street Survival" instructor Dave Smith. "We need to be asking, 'How do we keep our officers alive this year?'"

One way to keep more officers alive this year would be to make training more realistic. But that's easier said than done. Laws, policies, resistance by individual officers, and the inertia of tradition make it difficult to improve police training.

Firearm Fallacies

By far the most controversial and universally disparaged facet of American law enforcement training is firearms instruction.

"When it comes to shooting, we are grading them on Olympic marksmanship instead of gunfighting," says Ken Murray, author of "Training at the Speed of Life" and one of the co-founders of Simunition.

Murray and other like-minded law enforcement trainers believe that the traditional police qualifying course of fire is as archaic as hats, leather saps, and other artifacts of 20th century policing that many agencies have discarded. "Most of what goes on in conventional law enforcement training is the opposite of gunfighting," Murray argues.

As Murray points out, many agencies are still locked into the legacy of firearms training that American law enforcement adopted from military standards established before World War I. In that model, officers line up on a firing line and are directed to shoot at targets seven yards, 15 yards, and 25 yards out into the range.

Of course this bears little resemblance to what happens in a gunfight. Most police shootings occur at a range of less than 21 feet and last only a few seconds. To prevail in these short, sharp engagements, an officer must react quickly and be aware of cover, concealment, and other tactical considerations. Tactics are not even part of the qualification concept.

"We spend too much time on marksmanship skills that would probably be better spent on gunfighting skills," says John Bostain, senior use-of-force instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Ga. "We need to work on moving and shooting, reloading on the move, fixing weapon malfunctions on the move, and moving from point of cover to point of cover."

Smith agrees, and he adds that firearms training must also reflect what really happens when people are shot. "I'm still seeing people who are being taught to shoot two and assess," he says with exasperation. "That doesn't match ballistically what's going to happen in a shooting. [Wound ballistics expert] Dr. Martin Fackler says the number one thought that goes through an officer's head while he is shooting and fatally hitting the bad guy is: 'Oh my God, I'm missing." He thinks that because he sees no physiological response from the bad guy. So why on Earth are we still teaching officers to shoot two rounds and assess? All we are doing is building in bad practices and artifacts from the past.

Unintended Consequences

Of course, range training is not the only place that officers can learn bad gunfighting practices.

Scenario training can also lead officers astray. There is a tradition in American law enforcement training of instructors seeking ever more creative ways to teach their charges that they can be killed at a moment's notice in the field. They did this by developing "no win" training scenarios.

"My worst memories of training were of going in and doing everything right in a scenario and then having somebody drop out of the ceiling and shoot me," Bostain says. "That's wrong. You can't just put students into a scenario just to die."

The no-win scenario is not the only problem with scenario-based training. Even when scenarios are as realistic as possible, the training value can be minimized by complacency on the part of the trainer or the student or both.

Murray says that one of the biggest problems with scenario-based training is that it reinforces a lot of bad Hollywood myths about the effectiveness of firearms. "The problem is that once the bad guy is shot, the scenario ends," he explains. "I will not allow a role player to stop fighting until I tell him to stop fighting. There's no prescribed number of shots that's guaranteed to stop a bad guy."

In Murray's model for scenario-based training, an officer's tactical awareness of the situation at the end of the scenario is just as important as popping the bad guy with paint. He says that every gunfight training scenario should end with the role-playing officer establishing the 3Cs: cover, communications, and condition. That means the student needs to have cover and cover the bad guy with his or her gun, communicate with fellow officers and the bad guy, and know the condition of the bad guy and him or herself.

Would a cop really assume that just because it only took one shot to end the threat in training that it works that way in real life?

The experts say that it can and does happen.

Lt. Jim Glennon, a use-of-force trainer with the Lombard (Ill.) Police Department, says that one of the greatest problems that law enforcement trainers face is countering all the bad police training their students have received from movies and TV.

"Guys will revert back to what they've seen on TV," he says. "If they get shot, they'll fall down because they know from TV and movies that they're supposed to fall down. They think that's what happens. But the reality is that you can shoot somebody five, six, seven, eight times, and they can still shoot back at you."

The Hollywood "Bang! You're Dead!" syndrome is not the only problem with the quality of contemporary scenario-based law enforcement training. Bostain points out a weakness that can't be fixed with current technology and safety protocols.

"I think one of the biggest drawbacks to reality-based training is that we have yet to design safety equipment that lets the role player look as realistic as possible," Bostain explains. "As it is, students roll up on a scenario, and they see a guy in protective gear, and you can see that they're thinking, 'OK, I have to hit this guy.'"

Martial Art

Perhaps the most neglected aspect of law enforcement training nationwide is physical unarmed combat: defensive tactics.

While firearms training may suffer from symptoms of "this is the way we've always done it" disease, at least most agencies require their officers to shoot twice per year. There is no such qualification requirement for defensive tactics.

Which means that a lot of officers haven't had a class in unarmed combat since they were in the academy. "Many of the defensive tactics programs that I have seen are fine," says martial artist and retired Portland, Ore., cop Loren Christensen. "But at some departments, they only devote eight hours of training to defensive tactics in the academy and then once or twice per year they do some in-service training or perhaps they never do it again."

According to Christensen, part of the problem is that a lot of officers don't enjoy defensive tactics training. Therefore, they avoid it.

"Police officers in general just aren't that interested in defensive tactics or any other martial art," says Christensen, who is co-author of "On Combat" with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. "I just can't fathom that, especially when you consider what cops do for a living. But it's much more sexy to them to go to the range. But I have to ask them this: Which do you use most on the job?"

One problem that a lot of officers have with defensive tactics instruction is that they've been trained by martial artists who knew more about tournament fighting than street combat.

Lombard PD's Glennon has seen this first-hand, but he still advises young officers to take up a martial art. "Find one that teaches you how to street fight and practice it all the time," he says.

Christensen admits that some defensive tactics programs are next to useless on the streets because they don't consider different angles of attack and different opponents. "A lot of officers don't use a technique because they weren't taught all of the variables for that technique. So they come to the conclusion that it sucks, and it doesn't work. My response to that is that the technique works, but the way you're doing it doesn't."

The reason the techniques are taught so poorly by some instructors is two-fold, according to Christensen.

First, instructors themselves have been taught the techniques poorly. "What happens is guys teach what they were taught," Christensen says. "And those instructors teach new instructors. So the system gets watered down to the point that officers are being taught improperly."

Second, the standard technique for teaching officers a defensive tactic technique is to have them pair off with another student and work on the moves. The problem with this is by the end of the class, the officer may be really adept at performing the techniques on his or her sparring partner, but said officer won't be facing that sparring partner on the street.

Christensen advocates a training technique that he calls the "monkeyline" in which 10 officers line up in a column and the student has to perform the technique on each person in the column. "By the time you get through 10 people, you've done the technique on 10 different body sizes, and people of different strength levels and different sexes. That's much more valuable than working one guy for 10 reps."


Putting It All Together

Perhaps the biggest problem with the state of American law enforcement training is that students are taught to perform procedures and techniques as drills. For example, they learn handcuffing without having to apply physical combat skills to get the bad guy cuffed.

Team One Network training director John Meyer says that cops who learn how to perform techniques without applying them in realistic training scenarios are like figure skaters when they need to be more like hockey players. "A figure skater has a set routine to skate," Meyer says. "But a hockey player has to react to the actions of all the other players on the ice. They are both challenging, but a figure skater can't complete a routine if people are slamming into her."

Because police officers need to be able to use all of their training in the field, trainers advocate that instructors create scenarios that incorporate multiple skills. For example, a training scenario might start with a traffic stop. Then the student would have to go through all of the procedures necessary to conduct a proper traffic stop and to prevail when said stop goes bad.

At FLETC students are run through such scenarios and then the instructors ask them to discuss their performance instead of just having the instructors tell them what they did right or wrong. Bostain says the technique is called "student-centered feedback," and it is being refined into a powerful teaching tool.

"We start by asking the student what happened," says Bostain. "We ask them to tell us everything they were seeing, smelling, feeling, and hearing. Then we ask them, 'What did you do well?' At first they think we're setting them up. So they're reluctant to answer. But then we get them started by asking something like, 'How was your positioning?'"

Bostain say the results of FLETC's student-centered feedback program has been remarkable. "What we found in the limited research we did over the course of four scenarios is a 22-percent improvement in student performance on the fourth scenario," he says.

The FLETC program was primarily developed for training veteran officers. But similar techniques can also be used with academy students.

At the Los Angeles Police Academy trainers are using scenario-based training to replace classroom lectures. In the pilot program developed originally by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, students are taught law, department policy, combat skills, communication skills, and arrest and control techniques in scenarios that require them to perform the duties of an LAPD officer in front of a team of instructors encompassing all of the disciplines involved.

Greg Meyer, retired Capt. of the Los Angeles Police Academy, says the team-taught scenarios are much more effective than classroom lectures. "[In the team concept] you have tactical instructors challenging you about your tactics and law instructors asking you about the legality of your action," he says. "You really learn that way."

Dollars and Sense

Of course, FLETC and the LAPD have more money for training programs than the majority of American law enforcement agencies. So the programs they have developed may be financially prohibitive.

Money is a major reason why law enforcement training is so inconsistent in quality nationwide.

"Law enforcement trainers have always had to squeeze two dollars out of every dollar," says Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainer's Association. "Today we have to squeeze $2.50, maybe $3, out of every dollar."

But Nowicki and other experts say that spending money on training is a good investment for all agencies regardless of size. "It's a case of pay me now or pay me later," says Greg Meyer. "Whenever something wrong happens in a big way on the street, there are almost always training issues involved."

A quality training program also requires more than just money; it requires buy-in from the department's command. "The commitment to training must come from the top, from the chief or sheriff," says Greg Meyer. "Mid-level managers will say we need these guys on the street, we can't lose them to training. So the top-level has to be committed to the value of training or it will slip and slide."

The problem nationwide is that only some departments are committed to training their officers to survive street battles. Unfortunately, others—some experts say the majority—just teach to the test, giving their officers just enough combat education to qualify and be certified by their respective states.


In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines.  The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

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