Hesitation in using force: Does it start in training?

At times, officers in scenario-based training events may not truly respond the same way they would in an actual encounter on the street — some people just can’t get into role-playing

The current climate in police-community relations has led to some discussion about fear of officers hesitating to use force appropriately when making arrests. Some officers may hesitate when force is needed to avoid the firestorm of controversy that seemingly always follows.

Perhaps the phenomenon of hesitant officers is nothing new.

I have taught force-on-force training for more than a decade, and to this day I am amazed (and disturbed) by the number of officers who do not have a clear understanding of the proper use of force.

Scenario-Based Training
During scenario-based training, it is common for officers to come into the room and confront a suspect who is clearly a threat and is advancing rapidly on the officer in an aggressive manner.

Too often in this training, the officer will try to retreat — while issuing warning after warning to stop — by backpedaling, instead of either using an intermediate weapon or taking some type of decisive action. As a side note, lateral movement is preferable to backpedaling, but few officers practice this movement and risk tripping or being overtaken by the advancing suspect.

This is common even when the suspect is armed with an edged weapon, such as a knife. Rather than immediately draw a firearm, too many officers try to verbally deescalate the situation repeatedly — over-warning to the point of placing themselves at great risk of injury or death. In many scenarios, even suspects who are little more than an arm’s length away and armed with a knife get repeated warnings.

Cops should absolutely deescalate a situation if it is a reasonable option, but many times it is not and the safest option is immediate use of force to diffuse the situation. That’s not to suggest that force always be the immediate solution for every situation. To the contrary, there are times for verbal skills to come into play. The issue seems to be some officers can’t make the transition when needed and always try to deescalate.

When appropriate, warnings are preferred, but over-doing it only leads to an escalation of force most of the time. Hardened crooks see hesitation and continual warnings as a sign of weakness. They can size you up in an instant and if they figure you are reluctant to take action, it only emboldens them and invites an assault on you.

Taking Training to the Street
At times, officers in scenario-based training events may not truly respond the same way they would in an actual encounter on the street — some people just can’t get into role-playing. This might explain why some officers allow themselves to be placed in a position of extreme risk in a training event and perhaps wouldn’t actually do that in a real situation.

However, in most cases, you respond in real life the same way as how you train. This presents an opportunity for police trainers to reevaluate how we train our officers. Ask yourself:

  1. What can I do to get my trainees to more enthusiastically participate in the training? Would the introduction of some form of competition facilitate more “buy in” from them, for example?
  2. Have I made my scenarios as realistic as possible? Do I use light and sound and other environmental factors to the best of my ability to create the chaos of a traffic stop or a DV call?
  3. How can I add further levels of realism which are unrelated to the use-of-force principally being trained? Can I add a segment after the scenario where the officer must write the report?
  4. When I see or a small handful of trainees not taking the training seriously enough, what is my plan of action to prevent them from ruining the training for the other participants?

These are just a handful of questions. You can think of many others which can help to ensure that you — as a trainer — have done everything you can to ensure these cops receive the proper training that will save their lives on the streets.

If you are hesitant to use force, even when it is justified and desperately needed, due to a fear of a complaint or lawsuit or negative media attention, then you need to re-think your mindset. Fearing a complaint or lawsuit more than fearing for your safety is skewed logic.

The bottom line is, we must prevail in situations where people pose a physical threat to us or others. We cannot protect anyone if we become injured or killed. The use of appropriate force — when lawful and justified — is sometimes the only solution to a violent confrontation.

We have an obligation to ourselves, our family, friends and co-workers to go home safely at the end of our shift. We are in a risky business and much of the risk we take is beyond our control. Many times however, we take unnecessary risks due to a hesitancy to use force. Don’t take risks that are not necessary.

Stay safe, everyone!

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