It is unfortunate how easily law enforcement trainers and departments can miss the mark when it comes to officer survival training. Most of these misses may be attributed to simple human errors including a lack of understanding, complacency and laziness. These factors simply mean that departments, for whatever reason, don’t want to change or don’t see the need to change training tactics and techniques.
If you step back and look at this situation you may see that those “misses” are actually failures and failing to properly train officers can lead to devastating consequences for officers, agencies and the public. Not only can failing to properly train lead directly to inappropriate and ineffective actions by officer it is also a major component of most law suits against law enforcement agencies when it comes to excessive force claims and claims of civil rights violations.
In Graham v. Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989) the courts not only set the precedent for the three pronged test, which most agencies and individual officers are aware of, but the court also set the custom, pattern or practice precedent. Custom, pattern or practice can be summed up to show that if a department’s customs, patterns or practices demonstrate such an obvious need for different training that policy makers could reasonable be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need, under the concept of knew or should have known, and liability could therefore arise for the department. Unfortunately for departments and officers involved in civil rights litigation the courts may believe they see an obvious need for different training when policy makers “missed” or failed to see the same need.
Even if departments are compliant with the orders set forth by the court in Graham v. Connor they may still be missing the root of the training issue, a lack of understanding of how the brain works along with body and how to positively affect change. In order for agencies and officers to overcome this hurdle they again often need to step back and look at the situation or training.
As more officers are learning, a good way to get a fresh look at survival skills training is to start with a basic understanding of the O.O.D.A. Loop and how it affects officers. The O.O.D.A. Loop is a simplified, but in depth way to look at how the human brain processes information and helps us makes decisions and spring to action when presented with potential threats.
One concept often missed when dealing with the O.O.D.A. Loop is what Boyd called “implicit guidance and control”. Implicit guidance and control represents an unconscious pre-planned physical response to a threat stimulus and is also known as a learned automatic response. Simplified, this ability means that we can perform a physical skill, such as drawing your firearm from a level three retention holster, under great physical and psychological stress without conscious thought or intent. When we perform these types of actions unconsciously they are faster, feel more instinctive and allow our conscious minds to focus on threats and other tasks at hand. While it is becoming more common to hear about the O.O.D.A. loop in magazine articles, web blogs or training seminars, many instructors miss the mark when they talk about the O.O.D.A. Loop because they fail to step back and see how to incorporate the ins and outs of the O.O.D.A. Loop into officer survival skills training for proper long term memory encoding and they only use it as the catch phrase of the day.
A recently published article claiming to have been written by a skills instructor with decades of experience in instruction taught that physical survival skills, much like the skill of knowing how to drive a vehicle, are stored in your short term memory. This constitutes a great “miss” when trying to get survival skills training to hit the mark and shows a lack of understanding of how and where memory is encoded, how the O.O.D.A. Loop works and how to maximize training to increase our odds of survival.
It is true that your short term memory is vital to officer survival and can be effectively used to make an action plan including available options for officers when facing immediate “what if” situations, thereby helping to speed up their O.O.D.A. Loops. It can also be very successfully used as a virtual trainer to help strengthen long term memory connections in the brain but the unconscious, pre-planned, physical threat-stimulus response survival skills that officers need to win the day must be properly rooted in an officers unconscious long term memory so the skills can be employed without the need for conscious thought or decision making in a critical stress environment. In order to accomplish this task we must understand how we learn and how memory is encoded, both positively and negatively.
Aristotle said “Learning occurs through the association of two stimuli or a stimulus and a response”. Survival skills training should consist of the association of true to life stimuli and a true to life response, or as close as we can safely get in law enforcement training to help properly encode it into our long term unconscious memory.
It is a challenge for supervisors, survival skills instructors and officers of all ranks and positions to step back, look beyond their typical training programs and find ways to maximize them to hit the mark. Take a fairly typical firearms qualification course and the phenomenons of sympathetic and contagious fire as an example.
For years the act of firing your weapon at a suspect or potential threat just because your partner fired was considered to be “sympathetic fire”. A deeper look leads many to classify sympathetic fire as an involuntary startle response from the sympathetic nervous system when the officer improperly has their finger on the trigger and for whatever reason becomes scared or startled. With this definition of a sympathetic nervous system response we can easily see that the training failure is allowing officers to disengage their safety and put their finger on the trigger before intentionally firing their weapons.
A better label for the old sympathetic fire syndrome, a voluntary responsive reaction by a fellow officer to fire at a potentially deadly threat based solely on the fact that another officer fired rounds at the same potential threat; would be “contagious fire”. Contagious fire incidents may involve numerous officers all firing solely because a fellow officer is firing. This phenomenon has also been called an “associative firing impulse” and occurs when officers believe that the other officer who initiated fire must have correctly identified a deadly threat. During these incidents officers who may not have originally fired their weapons may end up firing their weapons as the number of rounds fired by other officers increases.
When contagious fire is captured on video it often appears as sporadic uncontrolled mayhem where officers are sometimes caught in the crossfire, which can also cause more problems when the officers become mistaken about the actual origin of the firing. We all know that the news media and defense lawyers love to play up the number of rounds fired during any officer involved shooting but it sometimes appears that we may feed their fire during contagious fire incidents.
Not all situations where multiple officers fire a large number of rounds at a deadly threat to life indicate any type of a failure, but we must admit that there are situations where stress, emotions, a lack of information and a lack of proper training can easily lead to and have led to uncontrolled, contagious fire incidents by officers who never even saw or understood the threat that were trying to stop. Officers may also be mistaken about the origin of the shots fired which they are hearing thus compounding the situation.
The challenge to trainers and agencies is how to combat this type of overreaction and to keep the officers and public safe while limiting their liability. First ask the question, “Do we train officers to shoot just because other officers are shooting?” The answer should be “No” but look at a fairly typical firearms qualification course. Officers are lined up in front of paper target and told to “fire” or given another threat command when the instructor wants them to fire a set number of rounds at the target, which may or may not be a lifelike threat target with a deadly weapon. If an officer misses the instructor give the threat command he/she will likely begin firing just because other officers are firing. If they don’t respond to the sound of gunfire in this manner they will likely fail the qualification course because they did not get enough rounds on the target.
Repeat this type of qualification course over and over throughout the years and it can easily seed in an officer’s long term unconscious memory as a threat-stimulus response to the sound of gunfire next to them.
We all know that officers are all responsible for their own actions and rounds down range but if you don’t think this type of response is programmed into officers then imagine this training scenario. Officers are safely lined up in front of threat targets at an indoor range. The instructor turns out the lights and without the officers knowledge turns the targets to the side so no physical threat target is presented to the officers. The instructor gives the threat command and fires a blank round aimed downrange from the line. Do you think other officers will fire their weapons? Will more officers, who did not originally fire, fire their weapons because more and more officers are? If you think that even one officer will suffer from contagious fire there is a training failure.
How can we combat this, especially if we don’t have access to turning targets? It may be as easy as making the officers think momentarily before firing on the threat command. An example of how this may be accomplished is by placing different colors, shapes and or numbers on the threat targets. When the threat command is given a color, shape or number is also called out so that officers must quickly analysis their own target to see if it matches the threat target before engaging the target. If the color, shape or number does not match the threat indicator the target is not a threat and the officer must wait to engage even though officers next to them are firing their weapons. This type of training can also help to encourage officers to better scan their threats to ensure that they are not missing vital information like a police badge on the belt line. If you want to make sure that officers are still willing to shoot and assist their partners, allow them to safely shoot at a partner’s threat target if safe to do so.
While this is just one possible solution, and creative thinking by officers and trainers can yield many different training options, it may be the first step to avoiding a future deadly mistake. All agencies need to occasionally step back, look at the physical survival skills training that they are providing to their officers, and be willing to review their training programs to ensure that they are not missing the mark when it comes to officer survival training.
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