New survey exposes 'disturbing' shortcomings in firearms training

After surveying more than 300 PDs, a former officer and firearms instructor concludes that some findings “appear likely to have serious implications”

A “national snapshot” of in-service firearms training for municipal and county LEOs raises grave “concerns about how prepared many police officers are” for winning life-threatening encounters, according to a new report from a respected university researcher.

The report also highlights post-shooting practices in many agencies that are hampering trainers’ efforts to improve their programs.

After surveying more than 300 local-level departments, Dr. Gregory Morrison, a former officer and firearms instructor who’s now an associate CJ professor at Indiana’s Ball State University, concludes that “some findings are encouraging, but others appear likely to have serious implications” regarding officer and public safety, the public’s perception of police accountability, and the toll taken “in lives, serious injuries, disabilities, and civil litigation.”

Among the “disturbing” shortcomings in training documented by his unique study:

• Only a small minority of departments includes trainers in OIS investigations or provides them feedback about deadly street confrontations that might be useful in evaluating and enhancing the effectiveness of their teaching curricula and methods
• In terms of time allocation, “many departments still heavily emphasize requalifying over vital handgun/deadly force training” that introduces new skills and improves existing ones
• Despite their “vital role,” nearly 40 percent of agencies do not require firearms instructors to take refresher training once they have been certified;
• Larger departments, which statistically have greater exposure to armed encounters, tend to require fewer firearms training and/or requalifying sessions per year
• Officers on some agencies are able to pass requalification tests even though many of their shots miss the target entirely, and those who fail to qualify may be allowed to re-shoot until they squeak by, “sometimes without diagnostic and corrective intervention”
• On the whole, “the overarching characteristic” of in-service firearms training is the “wide latitude exercised by departments” — essentially a jumble of inconsistent standards and instructional modalities that too often works to the detriment of officers, agencies, and the communities they serve

“A paradigm shift” in firearms training is “long overdue,” states Morrison, who specializes in studying deadly force programs and instruction. But with “strained budgets” expected to be “the norm for the foreseeable future,” he fears that decision-makers may view meaningful change as an expendable “luxury item,” despite the blatant need for improvement.

He told Force Science News that he believes the public would be “shocked” at many of his findings. “The public perception is that police are highly trained, far more than most actually are. Compared to 30 or 40 years ago, police training has definitely improved, but many departments have not kept up with what should be done, especially regarding firearms skills.”

He believes that his study results may, in fact, “paint a rosier picture than actually exists generally.” Departments that know or suspect that their programs are deficient are not likely to have participated in his voluntary survey, he explains.

“I agree with the thrust of Dr. Morrison’s findings and conclusions,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, which was not involved in the survey. “It’s tragic that the vast majority of firearms training today is not preparing officers for the brutal dynamics of real-world encounters and the sophisticated decision-making we hold them accountable for.”

Rich Data Set
Morrison’s Police Firearms Training Survey solicited confidential responses to an online questionnaire, providing data on “key policies and practices likely to influence officer preparedness for deadly force and other high-risk encounters.” He claims it is the first survey to sample “fundamental elements to in-service handgun/deadly force programs,” especially among medium-size departments (100-249 sworn personnel).

Specifically, he sought details on staffing and instructor development, the frequency and emphasis of training sessions, the degree of focus on judgment and tactics, the nature of requalification testing, and the use made of field-encounter experiences.

His resulting “rich data set” reflects information from 312 agencies, nearly 80 percent of them municipal and the rest county or city-county departments from 44 states. These ranged in size from fewer than 25 officers to more than 1,000. “All highly populated states were well represented,” he says.

Positive Developments
Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, Morrison notes, there have been “significant improvements in the scope and depth of deadly force training.” His survey indicates that “several general characteristics associated with officer-involved shootings have become relatively common elements to handgun training: dim light, officer movement while firing, multiple targets, and moving targets.”

Also “most departments have introduced some form of scenario training,” in part in response to three landmark Supreme Court decisions (Tennessee v. Garner, Graham v. Connor, and Canton v. Harris). The formats employed include role-playing exercises with marking cartridges, live-fire range training, and computer-based, projected-image technology.

The devil, however, is in the details of just what these “relatively new dimensions to police handgun training” actually consist of.

Scenario Shortfall
For instance, more than one-third of departments surveyed exposed officers to no more than 2 scenarios per year during in-service training, while roughly 60 percent provided a scant 4 or fewer. “Nearly 1 in 5 departments either provided none or only 1 scenario during the typical year,” Morrison reports.

Among agencies using computerized systems, one involved its officers in a single scenario every two years. The top exposure was 20 scenarios per officer per year, reported by just one department.

“If departments believe that scenario training can improve performance, they have to do enough of it to actually make a difference,” Morrison says. “Exposure to one or two scenarios a year is such a small part of an officer’s experience that it can’t be expected to have a substantial impact on field performance.”

At this point, he concedes, more research is needed to determine just what the effective “tipping point” might be.

Firearm Hours
The hours per year spent by officers in “handgun activity sessions” — i.e., “training and/or requalifying” — ranged widely among survey respondents. Eleven departments required only 1 hour of “activity” with a sidearm per 12-month period, while one agency reported the high of 52 hours.

Nearly half the departments mandated 8 hours or less of firearms activity; about a third called for nine to 16 hours. “Overall,” Morrison notes, “larger departments were more likely to provide fewer” activity hours than smaller agencies. Indeed, department with fewer than 100 officers were the most likely to hold three or more activity sessions per year.

When asked what the “primary emphasis” was during their handgun sessions, nearly one-third of departments “indicated that it is requalifying,” Morrison reports. Many said they split the time “approximately equally” between training and requalifying. Only 28 percent said they “emphasized training over requalifying.”

Questionable Requalification
About 35 percent of departments require annual requalification in basic handgun marksmanship skills, with about 44 percent prescribing this testing twice a year. But like much else in departmental firearms practices, requalification scoring and standards across the country are a duke’s mixture.

Alarmingly, nearly six in 10 departments reported that they do not require that officers hit the target with all their shots in order to pass. “Technically, officers with these departments could miss with many shots, but still requalify as long as the points they obtained from their hits reached the threshold score,” Morrison points out.

When officers fail to requalify, “it was not uncommon for departments to allow two or more attempts that same day, sometimes without diagnostic and corrective intervention,” his report says. Rare indeed is the department that requires failing officers to wait until the next scheduled testing cycle or to be reassigned to an unarmed capacity until they requalify.

“Only one in five departments reported that scenario-based activities were scored and used as a component to requalification,” Morrison says. Indeed, including “general characteristics associated with officer-involved shootings” as part of requalification is far from customary. For example, only a minority of departments require officers to address multiple targets (43.3 percent) or moving targets (18.6 percent).

“As a result,” Morrison declares, “some departments are requalifying their officers using rote courses-of-fire while not committing many resources to introducing new skills, improving existing ones, and/or conducting practical scenario-based training.

“If a department is going to say its officers are really ‘qualified’ to deal with deadly force, this assessment needs to go way beyond mere marksmanship, and involve scoring that encompasses judgment, decision-making, and tactics,” Morrison says.

Instructor Development
As to “requalification” of another kind — trainer development — “only three in five departments required their instructors to participate in refresher training.” Of those, more than one-third required instructor updating only “every 3 years or more” and a mere 10 percent specified as much as 40 hours of refresher training, even though “the continual development of instructors’ knowledge bases, skills, and abilities is of special importance because it determines the ceiling on the quality of training they can provide.”

Most departments, Morrison reports, depend on instructors who are assigned to training as collateral duty — “a secondary extra responsibility” — and their education and training “is far from universal. Little is known about its content or the quality of its delivery.”

OIS Analysis
Officer-involved shootings and other “high-risk encounters, including ones in which police threaten to use deadly force but ultimately do not discharge their firearms, should be particularly useful to trainers for assessing and continuously improving their programs,” Morrison observes. Yet despite the “vital importance” of such feedback “for gauging the impact of training,” Morrison terms the prevailing practices as particularly “disturbing.”

Over half the agencies surveyed reported that “no information was collected” after an OIS “on any of the four basic measures of performance” — marksmanship, gun-handling, tactical procedures, and judgment — for the purpose of evaluating the departments’ training programs.

Moreover, firearms instructors for the most part do not have access to investigative findings in order to draw their own conclusions regarding training relevance. Morrison offers this chart as stark evidence of the common freeze-out of trainers during post-shooting procedures:

Force Science Data on Firearms Instruction

“Conveying vital officer performance trainers who design and deliver programming is indispensable,” Morrison writes. Yet “few departments appear to have implemented such feedback loops,” thus hampering critical evaluation of the “connection between training program content, delivery, and certifying assessments and officer performances in high-risk encounters.”

“Departments ostensibly are all pursuing similar goals of safe, appropriate, and effective use or threatened use of deadly force,” Morrison states. But their widely disparate approaches to training “seem unlikely to produce comparable levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities among their officers. As a result, many officers may be inadequately prepared.”

What’s needed, he declares, is sufficient research and evaluation to determine scientifically which training approaches can best shape performance. He proposes a 3-point action agenda:

1.) “Large progressive departments with training-specific feedback loops” regarding field performance should “initiate internal evaluation projects and then share their results with the police community.” Departments that currently lack feedback processes should implement them.
2.) “The concept of being ‘qualified’ must be revisited, because it should reflect a full array of competencies that officers need to successfully perform in high-risk encounters,” not just “narrow measures of marksmanship and limited aspects to gun-handling.” Traditional rote requalification is “unacceptable given heightened expectations about use of deadly force, the introduction of new technologies in weaponry and in training, and the growth of accountability.”
3.) Law enforcement needs to build “practitioner-researcher partnerships to evaluate objectively the impact of training.” This collaboration “will be crucial to accelerating the development and then the continuous refinement of valid standards for training and qualifying. There is no shortage of research and evaluation opportunities,” yet at present “the role of science in improving training for high-risk encounters is far from being fully exploited.”

Improving current training with an eye toward developing validated model programs “will be challenging,” Morrison acknowledges.

But leaders who take up the task of analyzing, designing, implementing, and assessing innovative training programs “will improve police practices of benefit to both officers and public safety.” He urges that his report be broadly shared among trainers and administrators and expresses the hope that “it can act as a catalyst for renewed discussion of how to identify and promote best practices in this vital area of training.”

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