Training at the speed of a fight

If we don’t train at speed and get our brains accustomed to making decisions at that speed, we are setting our people up for failure

As police officers, we are students of human conflict. We get a front-row seat to the different ways human beings can hurt and kill each other. We get a chance to witness firsthand how dirty and messy real-life human conflict is compared to the scripted dances served up by Hollywood. Too often, we don’t just witness the conflict, we find ourselves immersed in the battle to defend our lives and the lives of others.

When in-car video became common, it provided an additional resource for studying these conflicts. Body-worn cameras, improved security camera footage and cell phone cameras have added even more data we can use to study these fights.

As a firearm instructor, I review officer involved shooting (OIS) videos with an eye focused on training officers for the realities of those fights. Over the years, one of the things I’ve discovered is that much of our square range training gets thrown out the window during a high-stress OIS.

Training vs. qualification

Let’s start with the premise that training and qualification are two different things. Qualification is a test of minimum standards. Since it is a test, instructors aren’t actively engaged in training students. Instead, qualification exists to measure whether an officer is minimally qualified to carry a firearm. When I watch OIS videos, I don’t see officers involved in a test of minimum standards. Those officers are being required to perform to the best their training has to offer.

Jason Weustenberg, the National Law Enforcement Firearms Instructor Association Executive Director and a Police1 columnist, wrote an excellent article about qualification versus training. Jason points out that qualifications are not representative of officer performance during an OIS. During an OIS, there are too many variables that can’t be reproduced in a qualification course of fire. So, qualifications are nothing more than a test of basic marksmanship and weapon handling.

In contrast, training is the opportunity for coaching, teaching and mentoring students. This is where firearm instructors earn their money by diagnosing and correcting shooting errors. Training is the place for students to test the boundaries of their skills and push their performance to the next level. This must include more than basic marksmanship and weapon handling. Training is the place where officers learn and refine situational awareness, threat assessment and shooting well quickly, and doing these things under time duress. Unfortunately, most of the training I see in law enforcement ranges doesn’t go much beyond qualification to prepare officers for performing on the street.

Drills that put officers under time duress, force decision-making, or require officers to problem-solve can help take their shooting and cognitive performance to the next level.
Drills that put officers under time duress, force decision-making, or require officers to problem-solve can help take their shooting and cognitive performance to the next level. (Photo/Todd Fletcher)

The street meets training

Many OIS videos involve an officer, or officers, under time duress shooting very quickly. Oftentimes, officers recognize the suspect’s threat cues, but it takes time to process what those cues mean, form a plan to overcome the threat’s resistance and carry out the response. Sounds a lot like the OODA loop, no? Since this eats up precious time, officers are frequently under time duress and forced to catch up to the threat. Even faced with the video evidence, I know firearm instructors who continue to insist that there’s no shot timer or stopwatch in a gunfight. Wrong, Skippy. There is a shot timer in an OIS, and it’s being controlled by the threat.

A common theme I see in too many OIS videos are officers shooting really fast and not hitting their intended target. Extreme stress, altered light conditions and cognitive overload are among the reasons for this, but one giant contributing factor to these misses is many officers were never trained to shoot well quickly. As I travel around the country training firearm instructors, most of the instructors we have on the range have never been shown techniques and methods to shoot extremely accurately very quickly. If the instructors and instructor candidates haven’t been trained to shoot well quickly, there’s no reason to believe their co-workers have been trained either.

Speed and accuracy

We have all heard the phrases, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast," and “Speed is fine, but accuracy is final." First of all, slow is just slow. And when it comes to speed and accuracy, who was the authority who determined they needed to be separate?

Many instructors associate being slow with being deliberate in their actions. This is baloney. We can be very deliberate in our actions very quickly if we train to be deliberate and fast. Having a good draw and presentation from the holster, seeing the sights, pressing the trigger, reacquiring the sights and doing each of these fast takes practice training at that speed. Training should help students develop an understanding of when they can be quick, when to be certain, and how to minimize recoil and unwanted movement of the gun.

Take football as an example. When a player moves from high school to college, the speed of the game goes up significantly. College players are faster and cover more ground much faster than high school athletes. Once the college player experiences the new speed often enough, the game starts to slow down for them again because they can process information faster. Their brain interprets information more quickly, and the player can react to the input appropriately. At this point, the game seems to slow down for them even though the actual pace of the game hasn’t changed. And no, I don’t think an OIS is a game. This is deadly serious and why this topic is so important. Football is just an analogy.

The bottom line is many OIS videos show officers on the street pressing the trigger as fast as they can in their attempts to stop the threat. If this is the case, we need to start training officers on how to make accurate hits while pressing the trigger at that speed. Officers need to be shown techniques to mitigate recoil, ways to train their brains to recognize information faster, and methods to shoot very accurately in compressed time limits.

Even drills that require precise shooting and quick decision-making can be trained at faster speeds.
Even drills that require precise shooting and quick decision-making can be trained at faster speeds. (Photo/Todd Fletcher)

It's not either/or

Don’t misunderstand the intent of this article. We absolutely need to train officers to make hits on their intended target. Accuracy is a must. But, once again, who determined that speed and accuracy had to be two different things? If we don’t train at speed and get our brains accustomed to making decisions at that speed, we are setting our people up for failure. If we shoot fast but don’t make decision-making and problem-solving an integral part of our training, we are setting our officers up for failure. It is possible to shoot accurately faster than our brains can process information. However, this can be overcome by training our brains to process information at a higher speed. Remember the football analogy?

Shooting too fast on the range can be just as bad as not training to shoot fast at all. The finger can move faster than the brain can process information if we don’t train the brain to recognize information and make decisions faster. We need to train the brain as well as the physical aspects of shooting.

Drills that build skills, and courses of fire that combine multiple skills, need to add a problem-solving and decision-making element to train the brain. Pushing the limits of officers in training can help them perform better in the street. The days of training officers to shoot slower in order to be accurate should be over. Likewise, nothing in this article advocates for run and gun training. There is a time and place for having a laser focus on the fundamentals. There’s also a time for getting officers to understand the techniques for shooting fast and accurately. But, it’s crucial to train the brain to recognize and process information faster so things slow down for officers on the street while under time duress.

As police officers, firearm instructors, defensive tactics instructors, field training officers, supervisors and investigators, we need to study OIS videos to learn more about how these fights occur in the real-world environment of police work. Once we understand how these fights unfold, we can train our officers to prevail in those fights. Focusing on qualifications instead of training officers to perform under time duress isn’t working. We can train officers to shoot fast and very accurately, but training to a minimum standards test isn’t cutting it. Training officers to shoot well quickly while making better and faster decisions is the key to improving performance.

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