Ken Murray’s Reality Based Training Instructor School

By PM Staff

The Arizona DPS recently hosted a five-day Reality Based Training Instructor School taught by Ken Murray. The cofounder of SIMUNITION, Ken is among the top trainers in the world when it comes to simulation training. Reality Based Training has gained popularity over the years as agencies strive to improve officer responses during critical incidents. Reality Based Training is much more complex than many other kinds of training. The fact that this training has to distinguish itself from other types of training by including the words “reality based” raises the question, just what is the purpose and effect of other types of training—are they not based in reality? The answer is perplexing and, in a sense, terrifying. If training isn’t preparing officers for reality, it has the potential for failure under realistic conditions.

Prior to this school, Arizona DPS hosted Ken at its annual Firearms Instructor Update, where he lectured on Unintended Consequences of Well Intentioned Training. This lecture hammered home the point that much conventional training provided in law enforcement training sessions might have the chilling effect of not preparing officers for success—or worse. It might actually be preparing them for failure. There is a lot of data, both research based and anecdotal, that supports his position.

Trainers don’t intend to program officers for failure—in fact it’s just the opposite. However, Murray questions conventional training paradigms, suggesting that static forms of range training (as is the norm) provide officers with a great deal of experience firing their weapons while standing in place. Too much of the training that occurs during firearms sessions is geared toward ensuring officers “qualify.” As such, many well intentioned firearms instructors end up “teaching to the test” due to limited time, budgets, manpower, etc. Many of the standards set by training commissions across the country are based on the flawed belief that if officers have the skills necessary to qualify on a state-mandated course, they have the skills necessary to deliver accurate lethal fire during a critical encounter. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a lot more to gunfighting than delivering accurate fire. There are numerous psycho-physiological factors at play that conventional range training does not take into consideration. In many ways, a good number of the skills required to be an effective gunfighter are the exact opposite of those that are taught during range training and qualification. Across the nation, we can observe officers during lethal force encounters doing tactically unsound things such as standing in place, reholstering immediately after firing, failing to communicate and approaching a downed suspect when it is unsafe to do so. Alternatively, many are unable to get into the gunfight at all, or when they do they are unable to deliver accurate fire. Officers who have been involved in shootings and have survived often report intrusive thoughts, indecision, the inability to think their way through the situation, memory distortions, time and space compression, among others.
Many, if not all, of these negative effects can be corrected through realistic training. This is the reason DPS took the position years ago to adopt realistic training methodologies. This is not the first time Ken has taught this class. DPS has been responsible for bringing this type of RBT instructor program on numerous occasions for nearly 10 years in an effort to ensure the DPS instructors, and by extension DPS officers, have access to the most advanced and realistic training available.

The recent class began with two days of lecture that included a thorough briefing on the various types of training munitions available for realistic training. Participants studied the strengths, benefits and limitations of all the different types of training systems, including video simulators, reactive targetry, inert training devices, AirSoft training weapons, marking cartridges and even electronic shock knives for realistic edged weapon training. Various types of protective equipment were studied as to their necessity and usefulness in simulation training.

Following the lectures on the “hardware” of Reality Based Training, participants studied the “software,” or all of the complexities of developing realistic training exercises. Students learned about low-level drilling exercises that could help develop the skills necessary to solve the rapidly-developing problems officers face. Murray believes that much of the training failure on the street is related to an officer’s inability to choose or employ the correct force options at the correct time. The concept of teaching a use-of-force matrix (continuum) in an experiential fashion was discussed in an effort to help officers react more effectively to various threat stimuli. Once skills are taught in a contextual setting, Murray contends, access to those skills under similar conditions is much more likely. Murray states that “…much of the problem with conventional forms of training is that we tell officers what to do rather than teach them how to think. This is far too much like attempting to choreograph a tactical encounter. You can’t do it, because the other party doesn’t know the dance steps.”

By providing officers with realistic experiences through low-level drilling in contextual settings, officers tend to do much better during scenarios and—ultimately—actual encounters, since they have real world experience with similar encounters. Many officers who have found themselves in actual shootings after participating in effective reality based training exercises report successful conclusions, and that the shooting was “…just like it was in training.” Ken believes that such successful conclusions are only possible if training staff are properly trained in order to ensure their students not only complete every scenario, but complete them having been successful. Although this might seem obvious to some readers, much of the simulation training that is done throughout the country either ends with the role player (bad guy) beating (killing) the student, or other times will conclude immediately after the shots have been fired by either the student or the role player. Both types of conclusions program some measure of failure into the mid-brain of the student. “Killing” the student provides them with the experience of failure, and stopping a scenario after the shots have been fired programs a student to actually stop fighting in the middle of a gunfight.

DPS training staff who attended this program now have a thorough understanding of the essential nature of ensuring that officers come out at the end of a scenario as a winner, either through superior tactics or through perseverance. They also understand that an encounter is not over after shots have been fired. Student officers must demonstrate what Murray calls the “Three C’s”—that is Cover, Communication and Condition. Students must maintain a covered position, or a position of advantage, communicate with the suspect, other officers and dispatch, and they must assess the condition of themselves, their weapon (ability to deliver additional rounds) and the suspect. Only after these considerations have been met and the threat has been neutralized is the scenario concluded.

DPS instructors had a great deal of opportunity to put this information into practice during several days of practical exercises. During these exercises, participants took turns as instructor staff, role players, safety officers and students. Participants were sectioned into groups, each responsible for writing a scenario based on the principles learned during the classroom portion. Each scenario was run using other class participants as the students. Every participant had the opportunity to go through a scenario in the role of a student which gave them a firsthand opportunity to experience how such scenarios would be perceived by officers in the field. It was reportedly a very eye opening educational opportunity.

Participants learned techniques for debriefing and remediating ineffective tactical choices by a method that is much more student centered. Using the Socratic approach to debriefing, when participants completed a scenario as a student in the scenario, they were asked by training staff to describe their experience as though they were walking an investigator through the crime scene. By so doing, they were forced to relive the experience and were able to come to conclusions about the quality of their performance. Where tactics were questionable, they were required to repeat the scenario in order to assure the demonstration of peak performance that was in line with sound tactical and departmental policy.

It was a very full week for the participants, and those in attendance reported that it was an excellent program from which a much better understanding of the complexities of reality based training emerged. The goal of the program was to help new DPS instructor staff carry on the excellent tradition of highly effective simulation training. By all accounts, this class met that goal.

For additional information on this program or to obtain a copy of Mr. Murray’s book “Training at the Speed of Life” that describes much of the teaching philosophy, feel free to visit his website at

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