5 ways cops can train to keep their less lethal skills sharp

Regular ongoing practice increases proficiency, muscle memory and performance under stress

As a police officer, you are responsible for keeping yourself mentally prepared and well trained for the confrontations you will meet on the street.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said it best: “Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own self rescue – if you care for yourself at all – and do it while you can.”

Here are five suggestions for on- and off-duty practice to help maintain your edge.

Take the time to go into the mat room and work with a partner.
Take the time to go into the mat room and work with a partner. (Photo/PoliceOne)

1. Train on your own time, on your own dime

Maintaining a high level of ability requires on-going training. Ten minutes of practice six days a week is better than one hour of training once a week.

Purchase or make your own heavy bag, and then use it. Empty-hand techniques, kicks, knees and elbows practiced on a regular basis will be stronger and more reflexive than those that aren’t.

Purchase a rattan stick to simulate your police baton and work on your baton techniques on the bag.

Practice drawing and opening your police baton, but be careful if striking a hard, heavy bag as it can bend the baton.

Regular, focused practice keeps your technique sharp, your confidence high and builds your cardio.

Consider joining a martial arts class, although remember that martial arts classes are not specifically designed for law enforcement. The rules of the art are not the rules you will operate by. Graham v Connor is the standard you work under, not a belt grading board. Simple, gross motor skills work best under stress so make them your focus.

2. Roll call briefings

One of the advantages of the internet and body-worn cameras is the ever-growing number of police use-of-force videos available online.

A simple, cost-effective method of reviewing department policy, state statute and use of force is to view a video of use of force by police officers.

This review can lead to a better understanding of all three components and identify weaknesses in your own training program when dealing with situations you hadn’t prepared for.

After watching a police use-of-force video, discuss what went well and what didn’t with the goal of identifying things that could have been done or said differently to improve the outcome. Learning points to consider include:

  • Whether to use force sooner;
  • Tactics to better create distance;
  • Strategies to slow down and calm a situation;
  • How to improve team tactics for a coordinated, focused response to a call.

3. Partner drills

One of the most overlooked aspects of police training is regular practice of empty-hand control skills. Physical skills perish over time. If you haven’t physically practiced a wristlock or armbar recently, don’t expect your technique to work well when you have to do it in the field. Regular ongoing practice increases proficiency, muscle memory and performance under stress.

Take the time to go into the mat room and work with a partner. You probably learned more than a few methods over the years. Pick the one or two that work best for you and focus on making them as effective as you can. One technique practiced one thousand times will work better than a thousand techniques practiced once.

Remember to work Plan B drills. Have you practiced to deal with the inevitable failure of a technique, tool or tactic? If one tool isn’t effective, have you trained to immediately transition to another? Does your training include escalating and de-escalation and re-escalation of force? Honing your Plan B strategy is as critical to your safety as Plan A training drills.

4. Reality-based training (RBT)

Effective RBT instructors train in scenario development, identifying objectives and outcomes, script-writing and safety protocols. Excellent instructors make it look easy, but what you aren’t seeing are the hours of preparation that took place prior to the five-minute scenario.

Every year officers are injured and killed in training by those who knew better, or would have known better if they had the proper training. RBT training is an incredibly powerful training tool that must be done correctly to reap the rewards.

With RBT, it isn’t the number of scenarios you do that is critical, but the quality of the scenarios. Scenarios should have an actual training objective versus a “Let’s see what happens if we do this” approach.

During RBT, whenever a police officer is at the point of making a mistake, the scenario needs to be stopped and the problem corrected. Under stress, the brain accesses whatever information or previous experience it can reference. If a mistake isn’t fixed while under the stress of training, it will become fixated in the mind. If a police officer makes a mistake in training under stress and they are only told what to correct, the brain will most likely reference the uncorrected behavior, not the corrective words. As a result, poor training creates poor results when officers replicate their uncorrected training mistakes in real situations. This can lead to injury or worse.

5. Online training

For use-of-force training, blended training – a combination of online training and hands on training – is the best recipe for success.

An online course required to be completed before the hands-on portion of training ensures police officers understand state statute, department policy and applicable court cases, as well as the safety protocol for RBT training. The time that would have been spent in a classroom going over these items is now freed up for hands-on training time.


You need to train both mentally and physically toward the goal of successful application of use of force. Failing to train is training for failure by allowing your skills to atrophy in the area you will need most often in order to protect yourself, your partners and your community.

These are just a few suggestions on keeping your skills sharp. Criminals are criminals 24/7/365. They are training every day to be what they are. You must to train to be what you are – the protector of your community, family and your own life.

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