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Teaching police recruits real-world survival skills

Very few officers will have the opportunity to improve their tactical skills once they have graduated from the police academy

With the current rate of assaults on and murders of law enforcement officers, I expect police academy recruits to be provided with the skills necessary to survive on the streets. Unfortunately, a recent experience dashed my expectations (although I have witnessed this paradigm for some years now).

I had the opportunity to spend several hours with an academy recruit class teaching “special operations” topics. This group of academy recruits is very close to graduation. They have completed all their training in the tactical skills components including defense and arrest tactics, firearms, building searches, etc. Why, then when I put them through an elementary hooded drill did their tactics, techniques, and procedures not meet the requirements of the real world?

Here was the simple set up. Taking the recruits either individually or in teams of two into the mat room, I had them stand on the mat next to two portable mats that were upright and standing approximately five feet tall. Each mat had 90-degree angles creating at least two blind corners around which the recruit could not see. I told the recruits that the two mats represented walls. In their position, they were no more than two steps from using the “wall” as cover.

Each recruit had their holstered and unloaded, yet operational service weapon with a barrel plug inserted. An empty magazine was inserted in the magazine well, and a second empty magazine was stowed on their duty belts. They had their full complement of equipment including batons and handcuffs.

In their position near the upright mats, the recruits were outfitted with a hood that eliminated their ability to see. A role player entered the mat room from an adjoining room and stood approximately 30 feet away. The role player was armed with a training knife having a six-inch blade. Once the hood was removed, the role player walked at a moderate pace towards the recruit. The role player held the knife overhead in an obvious deadly display and stated, “I am going to kill you!”

My expectations for recruit performance

The general expectations of performance I had before conducting the exercise were as follows (not necessarily in this order):

  • The recruit will move to the available cover while drawing his weapon.
  • The recruit will discharge his weapon at the advancing deadly threat.
  • When the suspect goes down, the recruit will access his situation including his welfare, his position, and the status of his weapon.
  • If applicable, the recruit will perform either a speed or a tactical reload; and it will be executed “cleanly.”
  • If working in pairs, the recruits will verbally check the status of their partner and coordinate reloads as appropriate.
  • The recruit (or recruits) will maintain position of cover while covering the threat, advising dispatch of the circumstances, and calling for assistance.
  • The recruit will broadcast this transmission in what I call his “Barry White” voice (older readers will understand).
  • Once his cover officer arrives, the recruit will coordinate a clearing operation of the blind threat points created by the angles of the upright mats.
  • This will require one recruit to cover the downed suspect while the second recruit clears the corner.
  • Once the corners are cleared the recruits will verbally direct the suspect to a prone handcuffing position.
  • Upon receiving no response from the incapacitated suspect, the recruits will approach and disarm and handcuff the suspect without getting into a crossfire or masking fire situation.

At this point the exercise will be terminated.

Performance expectations not met

I was troubled by what I observed. For example, when I asked one what happened, he gave me a look of disbelief and said, “I didn’t get off the railroad tracks.”

Yup. True. The question is why?

While no one recruit made all of the following errors, here is a list of some of the suboptimal performance I observed.

  • Several recruits allowed the suspect to get within two steps of them before firing in defense of their lives
  • Some recruits back peddled while continuing to yell to the suspect to drop the knife, with one firing only when I prompted him to do so
  • Few moved to available cover while drawing their weapons
  • For a couple of them, the “Barry White” radio transmission was more “Alvin the Chipmunk”

Most recruits did not consider the status of their weapons. The reader may disagree with this concept, but when I teach tactical firearms I suggest that after the shooting and before taking any other action, the officer take a very quick look at his pistol to verify that it is in battery and there is no stovepipe malfunction. I do this since a number of times during training I have observed officers fire their weapons, move to cover, and then carry on with their post-shooting actions all the while ignorant to the fact that the weapon is out of service.

If the recruit did not consider a reload during this vignette, I directed him to do so for training purposes — even if he only fired one round. I wanted to see their weapons manipulations skills. While all did complete a reload, I observed an amalgamation of both speed, tactical, and I-don’t-know-what reloads. Magazines were fumbled and “cupped” rather than “indexed.” Guns were lowered to the waistline area instead of being performed in the “visual workspace” and thus eyes were taken off the target.

Some recruits failed to maintain a cover position, hold on the suspect, and call for assistance. These recruits simply began to approach the suspect alone after firing with the intent to disarm and then handcuff the suspect. No recruit cleared any of the blind corners before approaching the downed suspect, and thus walked into a kill zone. After coaching them to do so, it was not unusual to see recruits pointing their pistol at their own feet rather than at the threat point.

As the now unarmed suspect lay on his back in a supine position unable to respond to verbal commands, some recruits struggled with finding the perfect “technique” to physically roll the suspect over. They were more amused than amazed when I demonstrated by simply grabbing an arm and throwing it across the suspect’s body, thus rolling him over. “ Technique? I don’t need no stinking technique.”

Where is the breakdown in police recruit training?

While I recognize that this is going to tick off some folks, let me say this loud and clear. This was not the recruits’ fault. These conditions demonstrate training failures. I place the responsibility on the instructional system.

Of the 560-hour police academy mandated by California POST, 48 hours are required for the following domains:

  • Leadership, professionalism, and ethics domain (8 hours),
  • Community policing domain (18 hours),
  • Victimology and crisis intervention domain (6 hours), and
  • The cultural diversity/discrimination domain (16 hours).

Compare this to the hours required for “Learning Domain 20: Use of Force” which covers the constitutional and case decisions that govern the peace officer’s use of force, both lethal and non-lethal: (12 hours).

While I believe that some training is important in each of these categories, I’ll leave it up to the reader to render his or her own judgment regarding the specific hourly requirements. While these hours are unlikely to change, instructors can look to how they deliver training to make improvements.

As a trainer You Can Make a Difference

This exercise was an execution of psychomotor skills. Psychomotor skills involve both cognition (attention, perception, memory, decision making) and physical actions. An academy instructor literally has the life of his recruits in his hands. If he is going to teach tactics, he had better understand how to deliver psychomotor skill training. Sadly, all too often I see that this is not the case. Understanding psychomotor skill training includes knowing that transference of learning of “open-skills” does not occur without physical activity in an open-skill environment. You cannot teach open-skills in a closed-skill setting and expect it to transfer. Skill transference doesn’t just happen, specific training for it needs to be planned. Telling does not equate to training. And, training in one environment does not necessarily transfer easily to another.

Let’s take prone handcuffing. Subscribing to the “more reps” theory, believing that doing countless repetitions of handcuffing in a closed environment will develop the automaticity of skill needed for the real world is naive. Such training provides content, but without the necessary contextual features necessary to develop resiliency and adaptive skills. As another example, the recruit who stated that he did not get off the railroad tracks was obviously trained to move laterally from a threat. Yet, he did not do so. That is because working in a mat room environment with a cooperative training partner sans any element of surprise or ambiguous circumstances does not reflect the real world.

Remember, the subconscious mind takes things literally. Unless your practice for “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” conditions in situations involving ambiguity, then the “hardwiring” effect is unlikely to take root. It takes very little creativity and imagination for the defensive tactics instructor for instance, to get out of the mat room and work “reps” in a dynamic and novel environment. For instance, practice room clearing (of course it helps if the DT instructor knows tactics!) and take a hidden suspect into custody. Or, put a portable mat between two parked cars and do a prone cuffing in this confined space. While warming up recruits for an arrest and control session, direct them to perform weapons clearing or reload practice while jogging around the room and moving to cover. Obviously, the weapons and magazines will have been triple-cleared before beginning the training. During down time, EVOC instructors (if they know car stop tactics) can help practice vehicle approaches and clearing operations.

In my travels around the country I have connected with many trainers that have the capacity to make training challenging and “real.” These instructors most often possess the passion, caring, and desire to provide the best life-saving training they can. They have demonstrated that they are there for the recruits and not their own ego. Don’t be that guy willing to fail a recruit out of an academy and deny him a career simply because he “didn’t do the technique exactly as I told him to do it.” Remember, the “technique” will rarely be performed on the street as taught anyway, and if he solved the problem then he succeeded.

Very few officers will have the opportunity to improve their tactical skills once they have graduated from the police academy, so you better provide it for them now. They may very well depend upon these skills on their first day on the street in the FTO program. To my fellow academy instructors around the world, please tell me what I witnessed in this training session was an anomaly!

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.