While it was just one training exercise from years ago, it’s stuck with Justin Morris as an example of what not to do.
A SWAT team was faced with clearing the threshold to a basement where a teenager had a gun. The technique they were using, Morris quickly realized, wasn’t the best choice for their situation. “It was a technique that might work OK for a single-person entry, but for a whole team it was catastrophic,” he recalled. As the team reached the basement stairs, their formation left only one at a time able to shoot. Their 16-year-old opponent with his Airsoft, far from being overwhelmed, could focus his fire on a succession of individual officers.
“One would run out of ammo, and the next one would step up,” Morris said. “They were in a prolonged gunfight with this one person for an extended period – that one really stuck in my mind. We saw problems just going through normal clears too; just too much talking and too much hesitation at each threshold.”
The ill-chosen approach in this case wasn’t fatal. But trying it against an actual holed-up killer could have been tragic. Morris and his colleagues at Guardian Training Solutions are working to reduce that risk and help officers make better choices and operate more safely in a variety of tense, high-stakes situations. They do this with a cadre of elite instructors with law enforcement and military backgrounds; advanced, scientifically informed methods, skills and approaches to learning; and enhanced experiences they make as realistic as possible.
“What I came to realize was that traditional ways of instructing lacked retention,” said Kevin Cronister, Guardian’s founder and a 13-year law enforcement vet who still works as a detective and SWAT operator in Johnson County, Kansas. “People weren’t retaining what we were teaching. But we’ve learned that things you train under stress are more able to be replicated under stress, and so we started to implement a lot more scenario-based and hands-on type training. And we’ve seen a big difference using simulation equipment and live scenarios with role-players.
“We want to put officers in situations as close to real life as possible, because the brain doesn’t really know the difference between real and fake. It responds to stress, and you can replicate that in a controlled environment to help the brain learn proper responses.”
INDIFFERENCE IS A RISKY STRATEGY
As many know, the training new police officers in the U.S. get is comparatively minimal. Ten years ago the Justice Department determined the average police training academy provided about 840 hours of instruction over 21 weeks, with wide variations among and within states. Average required POST training was around 650 hours. In 2020, noted criminal justice professor Jason Armstrong, his state of Georgia required 408 hours of academy training to become a police officer … and 1,500 hours to become a barber.
But failure to train police properly can have a range of negative consequences. An undertrained officer who overreacts, as in some recent high-profile cases, risks charges and prison. With underreaction, innocents might die, tarring your department and drawing unwanted attention. And a department that ignores the mandate to train its officers risks being held institutionally culpable.
Relevant case law comes from the 1989 Supreme Court case Canton vs. Harris. In short, Geraldine Harris suffered a medical crisis at the time of her arrest, collapsing twice and speaking incoherently, but the watch commander who had the sole authority in that Ohio city never had her evaluated medically. When she was released from jail, her family summoned an ambulance, and Harris was hospitalized for a week and had outpatient issues for a year. Failure to train officers in Harris’ case, SCOTUS found, amounted to deliberate indifference to her rights.
It’s a difficult bar for plaintiffs to reach, but not insurmountable. “In general, it has to be demonstrated that training does not currently meet acceptable standards within the law enforcement training community – it omits important aspects, is not satisfactorily documented, is not properly taught or contains inadequate standards,” noted police tactical expert Matthew McNamara in a 2008 Police1 article. “In an effort to avert second-guessing of municipal training programs, the court took a position that training be afforded to officers in order to ‘respond to usual and recurring situations with which they must deal.’”
“When an agency does not properly train its officers, the agency itself can become liable,” Cronister emphasized. “If you knew your officers needed to be trained in these areas and didn’t seek that training out for them, that falls under 1983 liability” – the federal law that permits private citizens to initiate lawsuits against state actors. “Essentially people can allege an agency was deliberately indifferent and didn’t train their officers properly, and then an officer turned around and violated somebody’s rights by using too much force, not using enough force, executing an illegal search or something along those lines.”
OPEN UP AND START BUILDING
With numerous instructor certifications supplementing a master’s degree in forensic psychology, Cronister knows a bit about how people learn in the training environment. Over the years he’s also seen a good bit of what doesn’t work.
Back in 2014 he was chewing the issues over with some fellow training officers, and they hatched a plan to launch some enhanced training offerings in-house at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Those evolved into Guardian, which began offering its courses around the Kansas City region.
Cronister assembled a faculty of instructors with high-level backgrounds in relevant areas of law enforcement and the military and experience in areas like firearms and defensive tactics. Morris, for instance, was a cop for 13 years, rising to sergeant and serving as a SWAT squad leader, as well as range master and lead instructor for firearms and defensive tactics. He teaches for the Heartland Tactical Officers Association and is a purple belt in Brazilian jiujitsu. Fellow instructor Dan Lawrenz was a Marine who served in Iraq and spent seven years as a personal trainer, as well as working in law enforcement and SWAT. He trains in Muay Thai kickboxing, Brazilian jiujitsu and mixed martial arts (MMA).
Those advanced levels of personal expertise help inform what Guardian teaches and how. The company’s core offerings include adaptive gunfighter, ballistic shield instructor certification and edged weapon training, as well as defensive tactics instructor certification and defensive tactics for special circumstances (which includes some MMA content).
“A lot of training refuses to adapt,” noted Lawrenz. “‘This is the way we’ve always done it’ is something we won’t ever say. You have to look at what’s going on today. The UFC has gained a lot of popularity in the last 20 years, and that’s helped make everybody who watches it a little bit more trained as well. So if our adversaries are out there becoming more trained, we have to adapt to that.”
“If I’m a subject matter expert on this, I need to know what’s out there,” agreed Morris. “I always told new instructors, ‘You’ve just started. Go out and get as many classes as you can in this subject, because that’s just one little view you have – one little peek through a certain lens. Now you need to open up your mind to other lenses and start building.’”
‘THAT IS A LESSON’
In Guardian’s classes, that professional authenticity is supplemented with as much realism as possible. Scenario-based training may use FX training rounds with weapons that mimic the size, weight and feel of actual firearms.
“The kick on the gun is the same, and it operates fairly similarly to a real gun,” said Cronister. “If a bad guy shoots me in a scenario using these rounds, it’s going to hurt. Not the same as getting shot with a real round, obviously, but it replicates the fear of experiencing pain. And when you make a mistake and experience pain, that is a lesson. It sticks a lot better than somebody pointing at you and saying ‘pew, pew!’”
Further realism comes from role-players acting as suspects or inmates who actively resist officers’ efforts.
“The stress received from that is very similar to that of an officer actively fighting an actual suspect or inmate,” Cronister said. “We could tell that because initially some of the officers kind of froze – they exhibited a lot of the stress reactions we see in real life.”
That reflected shortcomings in their prior training, he adds, but also the effectiveness of Guardian’s approach. With repetition, Cronister notes, officers became more likely to recall the proper responses even under duress.
This is consistent with scientific literature and what we know about best practices in preparing police for use-of-force scenarios. A 2016 article described the integration of a resilience program into use-of-force training and found the officers who received it “displayed significantly better physiological control, situational awareness and overall performance, and made a greater number of correct use-of-force decisions than officers in the control group.”
That training, known as the International Performance Resilience and Efficiency Program (iPREP), was developed around the psychological and physiological factors thought to most influence use-of-force outcomes (i.e., psychological perception and anticipation of threat, followed by arousal of the sympathetic nervous system that can prompt sensory, motor and cognitive deficits) and training delivery methods that maximize skill acquisition, retention and use. These entail exposure to knowledge in a nonstress environment, gradually increased realism and stress while teaching relevant skills, then providing opportunities to build confidence by performing under stress.
That’s basically Guardian’s approach as well.
“I think you can see statistically that in real-life use-of-force situations, when officers start doing scenario-based training, the results of actual encounters improve dramatically,” said Cronister.
TRAINING EQUALS PROTECTION
If the organizational fallout from a use-of-force situation gone wrong can be devastating, the personal impact of killing a suspect needlessly or under-responding and allowing others to be hurt can be even worse. That’s the kind of guilt that can contribute to post-traumatic stress, burnout and even officer suicides.
Training, then, is a protective measure for suspects, for departments and for the safety – both physical and emotional – of officers on the streets.
“It’s not easy to live with the fact that you used too much force and hurt somebody you shouldn’t have hurt or didn’t use enough force to save somebody you should have saved,” said Cronister. “The psychological impact of not reacting appropriately under stress on the officer can cause family issues, financial issues and mental health issues. So training, in my mind, is probably the most important investment an officer or agency can make to avoid all those issues.”
That’s understood in the Kansas City region, where most metro agencies regularly send people to Guardian classes. Agencies that host can get a free spot, though attendees often come from other departments too. Scholarships may be available for departments with limited training budgets.
For more information, visit Guardian Training Solutions.