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6 Steps To The Cutting Edge: “A Plan For Winning”

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Are you making your career a daily opportunity for growth and skills enhancement? Or are you, perhaps unknowingly, sliding into complacent practices that, in a crisis, could seal your doom?

As a subscriber to Force Science News, chances are you’re a lifetime learner who regularly reinforces a commitment to be well-prepared for whatever comes your way. But periodic self-assessment is an important ingredient of peak performance.

To assure that you stay on the cutting edge, Craig Stapp, firearms training sergeant for the Tempe (AZ) PD and a member of the Technical Advisory Board for the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, has devised a 6-point plan that trainers and line officers alike can use as a guide for establishing and maintaining survival readiness.

His concepts were shared with a standing-room-only crowd this winter at the annual conference of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, where Stapp spoke as part of a panel organized by FSRC. Here, incorporating some thoughts from other trainers, is an adaptation of what Stapp calls “A Plan for Winning.”

1. Imprint the relevance of training.

This requires something of a tightrope act.

On one hand, trainers and trainees alike have to overcome the strong human inclination for psychological denial and imbed a deep-in-the-bones acceptance that any officer can be the target of violence at any time, on or off duty. This leads trainers to emphasize and reinforce with dramatic and graphic war stories the many dangers of the street.

There’s definite value in that. “Trainers have to believe that what they’re teaching has significant relevance in order to maintain their enthusiasm and effectiveness, and their students have to understand the relevance in order to absorb, retain and practice what they’re taught,” Stapp says.

If an officer goes to work fully expecting and accepting that “today I could be challenged, threatened or attacked,” that can help him reduce potentially fatal lag time, Stapp believes. “His reaction will be, ‘I thought this would happen’ and he’ll defend himself accordingly,” Stapp says, “rather than getting stuck in thinking, ‘This can’t be happening to me.’ By the time you repeat that denial to yourself a couple of times, your life could be over.”

On the other hand, mentally obsessing day after day about an anticipated deadly threat can “clothe an officer with a mantle of sub-clinical paranoia,” points out Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSRC’s executive director and a specialist in law enforcement behavior. This not only will negatively impact all of an officer’s interactions, including those with his own family as well as those on the street, but ironically will also result in a decrease in effective performance.

What’s needed is balance. You remain keenly aware of the vital need for caution and good survival tactics, but your focus is positive. “You protect yourself by being attentive, intense, involved and fully in control of your professional tools, yet emotionally neutral,” says Lewinski. Your self-talk is along these lines: “Today my professional skills are honed. I am as sharp as I can be. I am going to read people and situations and respond appropriately to whatever cues are out there for me.”

Or, as Craig Stapp puts it, “When I am challenged, threatened or attacked, I will make it impossible for the offender to be successful.”

2. Establish and reinforce your commitment to winning.

The popular trainer Bob “Coach” Lindsey, a member of FSRC’s Technical Advisory Board, recommends that you write down the following and then repeat it to yourself every time you leave the protection of your home and enter the Great Unknown beyond: “I will win any encounter and I will return home to _____________.” Insert the name of your spouse, your child, your parents–whoever is a primary motivation for you to stay alive.

To make this anything more than an empty promise, of course, you need to work diligently to expand, practice and improve your professional skills, from your awareness and verbal communications on up the force continuum to your ability to deliver deadly force.

“Human performance-your skill level-is either increasing or decreasing with each passing day,” Stapp emphasizes. “You may feel you have learned or mastered something, but to maintain a given skill base requires constant study, practice and training.”

He draws the analogy of a glass of water. “Sitting out on a counter, will the amount of water in the glass remain the same, or will it evaporate over time? For the level to increase or even stay the same, new water must be added. Where skills are concerned, that means practice and new learning must occur to maintain proficiency.”

Even with dedication to training, Stapp says: “We must remember that there is only one absolute of human performance. That is that the performance will vary.” Just as a highly skilled bowler does not score the same in every game, there will be days when your use of your professional skills will be less impressive than others, perhaps for reasons you can’t explain.

The value of sustained training, however, is that “officers with high levels of skill usually experience less variance in their performance than those who have low levels of skill,” Stapp states. “And when a highly skilled officer has a dip, his performance is still higher than those with less skill.”

For his academy classes, Stapp often brings in a Tempe officer who was shot 7 times after OC failed to stop a horrendous encounter with a suspect on a domestic call. Down on the ground, fighting for his life, the officer was finally able to shoot the attacker dead. The officer was so gravely injured he was forced to retire on disability, but he did survive.

Stapp remembers him as “someone who took part in every training opportunity the department offered, including the optional stuff.” When this officer recounts his near death, he tells Stapp’s trainees: “I needed every bit of training I had that day. Even one ounce less could have changed the outcome.”

3. Promote success with key concepts.

Key concepts are fundamental tactics that apply across a broad range of circumstances to help you buy an edge in preventing or overcoming a violent assault.

Contact/Cover, for example, is a key tactic that allows 2 or more officers to divide their responsibilities during an encounter with a subject. The Contact officer is responsible for dialoging and otherwise dealing with the subject, while the Cover officer’s duty is to provide surveillance of the suspect and surrounding scene and to intercede protectively when any threat is detected. This approach minimizes dangerous distraction and confusion of command and maximizes the possibility of detecting early warning cues.

Stapp phrases another key concept this way: When I see, feel or suspect a threat I will move, or move to cover if possible.

“If you end up behind cover when you move, so much the better, but the movement itself will usually be of benefit,” Stapp explains. “When a suspect initiates an attack and you move, he must recognize it, process it and compensate for it. Will he detect your movement? Will he be able to adjust to compensate for it?

“Movement not only turns reaction time to your advantage but also introduces opportunities for the suspect to make mistakes. During his or her delay or misdirection, you may have a chance to shoot, move to cover, tactically retreat and so on.

“If you just stand in place as you try to react to a lethal threat you’re in what I call a ‘half-and-half gunfight.’ That means you’re about as likely to get hit as not, just because you’re in the suspect’s line of fire. At close range, suspects can close their eyes, fire several rounds and hit the target at least some of the time. Why would we want luck to determine our survival? Just the act of moving will make it less likely that you will be hit.”

Another key concept Stapp favors he calls BLT: Breathe, Listen, Think. He elaborates:

Under stress, you tend to BREATHE shallowly, curtailing the flow of oxygen through your system. Deep breaths have a calming effect and feed more oxygen to your brain, permitting clearer thinking.

By LISTENING–and looking around–you’re better able to pick up important cues that can influence your reaction. Apart from detecting threats, you may become aware that another officer is already giving commands to the suspect(s). Often in hot situations, multiple officers who aren’t consciously listening to each other fire contradictory commands at suspects, thereby delaying or complicating the establishment of control.

In approaching and engaging in any situation, you need to THINK about strategy. What are going to be your next moves? What is your best reaction to whatever the suspect is or isn’t doing?

4. Constantly research incidents and patterns.

Thanks to the Internet, there’s now a rich reservoir of valuable information that’s available to officers and trainers at little or no cost. This offers you an opportunity to enhance your professionalism that didn’t exist a few years ago.

At a free website like www.PoliceOne.com, for example, you can read law enforcement-related news stories from all over the US on a daily basis, as well as explore the latest writings of experts in a wide variety of tactical disciplines. From these reports, you’ll be able to detect patterns or trends that will give you a heads-up on problems that may be coming your way–and a chance to preemptively protect yourself by devising tactical strategies before you need them.

“Have you noticed a pattern lately of officer-involved shootings and moving vehicles?” Stapp asks. “Have you observed the number of officers who’ve been run over or assaulted while trying to arrest suspects in vehicles? Have you noticed the criminal prosecutions of officers after they’ve shot at moving vehicles?”

In a recent 4-month period, Stapp noted “at least 8 incidents across the nation in which officers were attacked with or run over by motor vehicles. Four officers were either hit or dragged by cars or trucks. Five were reported to be charged criminally in relation to shooting at suspects in vehicles.”

After he noticed an earlier wave of such incidents a few years ago, Stapp constructed a 4-hour training course for his department that briefs officers on the hazards of vehicular assaults, tactics for best avoiding them and the legal parameters for dealing effectively with this unique form of lethal threat. The course is periodically updated and repeated department wide.

“Historically in law enforcement training we haven’t picked up on patterns until we have already been sued, officers have been hurt or killed or, more recently, until he have faced the consequences of an officer being charged criminally for his split-second decisions.

“Now by taking advantage of the Information Age, we can proactively detect issues in the law enforcement community in their early stages and ensure that we formulate training concepts to address them.”

5. Promote specific tactics and techniques that minimize or eliminate risks.

Supplementary to employing key concepts as mentioned earlier, you need specific tactics and techniques that are tailored to particular LE activities–building searches, vehicle stops, domestic disturbances, silent alarm responses, active shooter situations, physical takedowns, ground fighting, handcuffing, prisoner transport and so on. These should be formulated on a “risk management” basis-that is, by determining which methods best eliminate or at least minimize danger to you when it is possible to do so.

Sadly, tactical improvement is often motivated by tragedy.

“After the Newhall incident (a legendary shootout during which 2 offenders killed 4 California Highway Patrolmen), we came to understand that instead of approaching an occupied vehicle on a high-risk stop, we should devise strategies for getting suspects out of the car and directed back to officers who are occupying a cover position,” Stapp says. “From unintentional discharges we have learned to train officers to keep their fingers outside the trigger guard until they have made the decision to shoot. From officers getting killed trying to control potentially violent situations alone, we now know to position ourselves in a defensive location and wait for backup, and so on.

“Remember: dangerous situations will come to us uninvited. Why promote or create them by accepting risks unnecessarily by using flawed tactics?” Realistic, full-force simulation/scenario training can help you identify tactical shortcomings before they become bloodily evident on the street.

Tactics and techniques should never be learned and practiced in a vacuum, Stapp advises. “Developing shooting skill is important,” he explains as an example, “but your training must include other elements involved in the use of deadly force as well. How did you get to this critical moment in the first place? Your ability to quickly assess threats, to make valid decisions and to perform the actions necessary to carry out your decisions all need to be part of your training mix.”

6. Constantly evaluate methods and results.

Finally, keep in mind that “training is a moving target,” Stapp urges. Life on the street is always in flux. “When we think we have identified a pattern or a need, expect the pattern or need to change. When we think we have mastered good methods and achieved high levels of performance, we may discover other methods that are better or find that we can promote higher levels of performance if we critically evaluate all aspects of the issue.

“We have to be careful not to change just because we get bored with the tactics we use or because some new fad seems cool. But as instructors and officers we do need to be constantly reviewing: WHAT we teach and learn…HOW we teach and learn…WHY we teach and learn it…and its effect on professional performance.”

He suggests using this checklist to assess what you’re doing and what you need to improve on:

Is it efficient from a physical and biomechanical standpoint as well as psychologically?
Can you execute the tactic or technique effectively in periods of distress?
Does it increase your personal safety?
Does it enhance your professional performance?

For trainers, these additional considerations:

Can the tactic or technique be taught within the time and budget constraints of your agency?
Is what is taught what is learned?
Are testing and evaluation faithfully employed to verify improvement and performance?

“Will we ever get to the point where we have identified every pattern or goal and have absolutely effectively trained in all aspects of those issues?” Stapp asks.

Hardly likely. Growth and improvement, too, are “moving targets.” Continually striving to be the best you can be is what life on the cutting edge is all about.

[NOTE: the ASLET panel mentioned above, “Surprising Discoveries Bring New Challenges,” discussed the latest research findings related to officer survival and use of force issues. In addition to Sgt. Stapp, panelists were: Dr. Bill Lewinski, chief researcher and executive director of the Force Science Research Center; Dr. Alexis Artwohl, law enforcement psychologist and FSRC National Advisory Board member; and Dr. Barbara O’Kane, a psychophysicist who researches thermal imagery for the US Army. Chuck Remsberg, senior contributor to PoliceOne.com and a National Advisory Board member of FSRC, was moderator.]

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