In police training, how much contact is enough?

When it comes to fighting, as with sex, there is no substitute for the real thing

In my August column, I examined the inherent dangers of full-contact training methodologies, including the medical and political realms. 

Given the concerns raised among administrators (and in my column) the question becomes: “Why make any attempt to use full-contact drills?”

The best way to practice to do a thing is to do the thing. If you want your emergency responders to be confident fighters who can execute defensive tactics under stress, they should have realistic practice. As a close friend and mentor once told me, “When it comes to fighting and sex, there is no substitute for the real thing.”

Stress Inoculation
In police defensive tactics training, this practice must include enough full-contact experience to inoculate the officer against the toxic emotional stress and physical demands of interpersonal combat. However, the training methodology must mitigate the inherent danger as much as possible. 

We should also examine the psychology of fighting; in order to dominate the will of another, one must develop force of will. Not all people in law enforcement have a developed sense of aggression or force of will — in some this has to be trained. Full-contact training can be a method for developing both force of will and self-control. Officers must have sufficient force of will to overcome the will or actions of an aggressor. They must also be able to escalate and de-escalate given changing circumstances. 

Therefore, our training must include the opportunity to flow under realistic conditions. 

Academy training must incorporate full-contact training. However, recruits must be given an adequate foundation for this training to be beneficial. Technique must be adapted from a ring environment (where referees will helpfully intervene) to the street fight. 

Full-contact sparring sessions must be integrated with realistic dynamic simulations that require the recruit to use striking techniques in order to gain sufficient advantage so as to apply control tactics. All of these pieces are integral to building a recruit that is ready for the street. 

Departmental in-service training should include realistic dynamic simulations or scenarios that include some contact. These scenarios should be carefully monitored in order to prevent injury. Given the limited amount of training time available at most police agencies, full-contact sparring as an in-service training methodology is not the way to go. 

Remember, in sparring, half of your participants will “lose” the exercise. Officers placed in sparring drills without the requisite conditioning will be likely to overlook the benefits of the training and to focus on the unpleasant aspects (pain, embarrassment in front of peers, heavy exertion, etc.). 

Both recruit training and in-service training must incorporate the concept of technique flow. Police officers must be able to move from striking, to control tactics, to weaponry, to ground control, to handcuffing while making solid use-of-force decisions. Sparring at one range is not sufficient to develop flow.

The Full-Contact Question
DT instructors are left with the dilemma of how much actual fighting should be conducted in training. An argument can be made for training with zero contact — there will be few or no training injuries and no chance of brain damage. Under such restrictions, DT training essentially becomes DT exposure — meaning you have seen it, you know what it looks like, and your ability to execute the skills under pressure will be determined by your ability (what you were born with), not your skill.

I counter with the Specificity theory of motor learning: Training should be created to closely resemble or duplicate the conditions under which a skill is performed. The closer the training comes to reality, the better the performance of the motor skill will be when the skill is executed “for real.” 

A person’s first immersion in the dangerous environment of interpersonal violence is very emotional. It is not reasonable to expect a police recruit to work through intense emotion while attempting to enforce the law. Therefore, this bath in the toxic soup of violence must take place in training, so that the recruit knows what to expect when fighting on pavement. This recruit training must then be reinforced by regular (at minimum yearly) exposure to dynamic simulation training. 

Law enforcement is a profession of arms. Recruit training must be specific to our unique work environment. Dilution of our essential skills must not be allowed. My belief is that regular in-service DT training that exposes the student officer to tightly controlled student-on-student sparring, IRS drills, and full-spectrum scenarios will produce an excellent result: a confident, competent officer who is ready to use reasonable, justifiable, and necessary force. 

Our initial training must then be used as a foundation for further skill development during ongoing in-service training. 

Our training is inherently dangerous — the danger can be mitigated but never completely removed. Defensive Tactics instructors must seek to minimize this risk while providing training that will produce officers able to fulfill our mission.

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