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Evaluating critical thinking: The missing link in active shooter response training

Officers can better respond to what cannot be predicted if they are trained to make decisions under dangerous and rapidly changing conditions

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Training officers to solve problems under duress must be an essential component of active shooter response training.


The PoliceOne Academy features more than 10 hours of active shooter training videos including Active Shooter: Phases and Prevention, a 1-hour course for law enforcement personnel. This course is designed to provide instruction to law enforcement officers in how to best – and most safely – respond to an active shooter incident. Visit the PoliceOne Academy to learn more and for an online demo.

Teaching and learning best practices for responding to chaotic events such as active shooter response is sometimes more theatre than we’d like to admit. We do it because the public expects us to train for it and the community feels better when we do.

The ultimate question is whether the training provides a real advantage when the real thing happens. Research from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) provides some good information on improving training success by developing decision-making skills.

That darned butterfly

Chaos is unexpected disorder on a large scale. Managing chaos could be law enforcement’s best two-word job description.

Chaos theory (yes, there’s math for that) is often illustrated with the butterfly effect that says when a butterfly flaps her wings it affects wind currents subtly, but certainly, becoming one of the innumerable factors causing a hurricane thousands of miles away.

We have yet to fully understand all the “butterfly flaps” that create a killer who chooses a certain target on a certain day to attack in a certain way. We also know that even a killer’s plans seldom work out as they are unprepared for their own chaos. Therefore, planning to respond to a situation riddled with unknowns can’t be reduced to a one-size-fits-all template.

We still cling to some foundational principles about identifying and stopping the active threat while protecting innocents, although beyond that there is no uniform agreement on what that should look like. The reality of any plan is that chaos will be ruling at the time of any intervention. As realized by many, but first stated by nineteenth-century Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Can we really train for what we cannot predict?

We can train to deal with what cannot be predicted if a focus of training is better enabling responders to make decisions under dangerous and rapidly changing conditions. Training that emphasizes decision-making is most effectively done with active scenario-based learning.

Undergirded by well-developed fundamental skills including weapons systems mastery, communication, incident command, subject control and other patrol level skills, training for chaos can be enhanced by two relatively simple changes. The first is modifying the way trainers evaluate the success of students engaged in scenarios. The second is improving the learning potential of feedback after the action.

Evaluating for survival rather than pass/fail

FLETC’s evaluation criteria, identified in the organization’s report, Stress and Decision Making, covers eight areas based on research on assaults on officers and other studies:

  • Situational awareness;
  • Threat identification;
  • Initial responses;
  • Scene control;
  • Application of force;
  • Arrest techniques;
  • Communication;
  • After-action review.

Note that the after-action review is regarded as integrated into the training and evaluation process, and not merely a quick debrief of the scenario.

Each of the eight areas are evaluated using a survival index. In studying the way that scenario performance by students was typically graded, researchers discovered that scores often suffered because a student failed to perform a task or operation exactly the way it was demonstrated in the classroom. Observers discovered that not all these pass/fail or graded skills were associated with high risk from a safety or liability perspective. The researchers developed the survival index evaluation scale that allows an evaluator to mark the student’s actions on a scale from unacceptably risky behavior to desirable conformity with effective tactics, and the in-between ranges of acceptable and least desirable. These middle-ground observations allow the student to be engaged in adaptive responses without losing their entire credit for that portion of an exercise.

After action

Having students articulate and discuss their actions from the training is an integral component in this scenario training evaluation model. In the feedback process of typical evaluations and debriefs, there may be either general “good job” comments that have no impact on behavior or learning or a lecture from the trainer on what went wrong or how to do it differently next time.

In the survival index evaluation, the feedback process is facilitated by the subject matter expert so that a learner must articulate their reasoning while remembering what decisions they made and the actions they took. This process mimics what happens in an actual event where report writing is an inevitable and essential ingredient after any event.

Most important, from a training perspective, the students’ recall and engagement with their own actions and thinking enhances the learning and retention of skills and strategies developed during the action phase of the scenario. Trainers must learn to engage with learners through open-ended questions, discussion and allowing the student to speak more than the subject matter expert, whose role is to guide the student in peeling back what happened and why.

Other factors

While the title of the study indicates that stress is the major topic, the focus is managing training so that both essential skills and the thinking process are trained and tested to perform under stress. As scenario-based training for active shooter response becomes more necessary, training officers to solve problems under duress must be an essential component.

Next: Why all cops should take advantage of FLETC’s tactical medical training

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at