Three Battles: Top Challenges for Deadly Force Trainers

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What does it take to train today’s officers to face deadly force successfully?

A panel of nearly a dozen experts spent almost 4 hours voicing opinions on that topic at the recent annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Assn. (ILEETA). But the bottom line was neatly capsulized in a matter of seconds by one of the group.

Trainers need to prepare officers to win 3 battles, said Randy Revling, firearms instructor and coordinator of the basic LE and corrections academies at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay:

  • the battle in an officer’s own mind
  • the battle on the street, and
  • the legal battle that comes after a lethal-force encounter.

In probing the current challenges of this complex mission, the panelists stirred a multitude of formidable questions, including:

  • is it possible to develop excellence in any of these areas, given the population entering LE today?
  • are officers more afraid of being sued than they are of being murdered?
  • are they making any better street decisions now than they were 30 years ago?
  • are trainers realistically bringing the street to the range…or trying unrealistically to impose the range on the street?
  • is training getting “too militaristic and muzzle-heavy”?
  • how much risk of financial ruin do officers really face in court?

Using Revling’s “3 battles” as a structure, here’s how the experts addressed those and other provocative issues.


What this battle hinges on, Revling explained, is a trainer’s ability to overcome an officer’s “initial resistance to destroying the species”–in other words, getting the trainee psychologically willing to shoot another human being–so he or she can deliver deadly force when it’s demanded.

These days, several panelists agreed, that type of resistance can constitute a formidable mental roadblock.

“We’re seeing a greater number of people [in law enforcement] who are not inclined to use force,” stated Tom Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council and a member the Force Science Research Center’s national advisory board.

Indeed, said retired NYPD sergeant Phil Messina, head of the Modern Warrior(r) Inc. training organization, in reviewing tapes of deadly force encounters, one frequently sees “prey behavior”-fateful submission-on the part of officers who are under attack from human predators. The officer who needs to display so-called warrior traits in order to survive “all of a sudden is a civil servant who is more concerned about what he’s not supposed to do than he is with protecting himself.”

If, as a trainer, you produce merely “social workers with a firearm” who don’t accept that using deadly force may be a critical part of their job, “you’ve got a problem,” declared Jeff Chudwin, a suburban police chief, a former prosecutor and president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Assn. “We need fighters we can train to act like social workers” when that skill-set is needed but who understand the distinction between “talking at the right time and fighting at the right time.”

The brutal truth is that “there are violent offenders whose actions must be stopped, by shooting if necessary, or they will continue to do evil deeds to innocent people who will suffer and die,” Chudwin said.

Besides cultivating the commitment to use proper force decisively, Messina believes trainers need to instill a mind-set that makes an officer “always more afraid of losing [a deadly force encounter] than he is of dying,” so he’ll keep fighting until he wins.

Motivating officers to win is superior to training them just to survive, some panelists emphasized. “There’s a difference between surviving and prevailing,” pointed out Chuck Soltys, a federal agent and firearms/tactical survival trainer based in Chicago. Officers need to come out of life-threatening clashes not just alive but sufficiently intact physically, emotionally and legally “that after the event they have a quality of life worth surviving for.”


For greater officer safety and public safety alike, today’s training for the street needs to be more realistic, incorporate more of the breakthrough findings of the Force Science Research Center (FSRC), and place more emphasis on good decision-making, the panelists concluded.

In Chudwin’s words, “We have to start bringing the street to the range and stop trying to bring the range to the street.” Too many agencies, in his opinion, still “put holes in paper and say an officer is qualified. Qualified to do what? Put holes in the next piece of paper he encounters!”

“We need to create and train in the same adverse environments that officers face on duty,” said Revling, whose college is a strategic partner of FSRC. Messina concurred. “If we see a lot of vehicles in tapes where cops are killed, why not a vehicle in the training area?” Messina asked. “If it’s raining, why not rain? If cops are dying in living rooms, build a fake living room. That’s part of my job as a trainer.”

Revling added: “Once we know how to kick, why continue kicking blue bags? Start kicking people [protected by Redman gear, for example]. Once we’ve shot paper targets to the point of proficiency, why not shoot people [with marking cartridges]?”

He stressed the importance of “validating what we do as trainers. Is it having a measurable effect on the street?He s
We should have no interest in doing anything that does not work, no interest in just creating tools for the toolbox. We should strive for 100 per cent accountability.”

Quoting Ken Murray, an advocate of realistic training, a member of FSRC’s Technical Advisory Board and author of the relevant book “Training at the Speed of Life,” Aveni charged that law enforcement spends “so much time teaching people how to shoot and so little time teaching them how to think.” In fact, Aveni declared, “I’m not convinced we’re training officers to make any better decisions today than we did 20 to 30 years ago.”

Before Tennessee v. Garner, for example, the ACLU claimed that roughly 1 in 4 of the people shot by police were “not armed and not assaultive when shot.” Aveni’s current research, he says, shows that this percentage of “mistake-of-fact shootings” remains about the same today.

“Unless there is more emphasis by trainers on how to make valid decisions under stress, we are going to find more and more cops accused of questionable shootings,” Aveni predicted.

He expressed some personal concern that training is overemphasizing “extreme equipment and tactics,” becoming “a little too aggressive,” “muzzle-heavy” and “militaristic” in the process. He cited “SWAT tactics being pressed down on street officers.” (A member of the audience from Arizona reported that in his area there is pressure to teach SWAT techniques even to Explorer Scouts.)

Soltys took issue with Aveni on this point. He said he considers it “a positive that SWAT tactics are trickling down to the street level” and believes the process “needs to be ratcheted up, based on the demonstrated skill level of individual officers.” He pointed out that departments are gravitating to advanced equipment like the patrol rifle “because of what they are seeing on the street. The officers I encounter are capable of carrying this weapon and to make the right decisions about using it.”

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the FSRC at Minnesota State University-Mankato, underscored the importance of enhancing decision-making training and expressed the hope that the Center’s on-going research will continue to reveal valuable new insights about human performance under stress that will help strengthen and focus law enforcement instruction.

Lewinski mentioned several studies currently in progress or soon to begin under Center auspices that promise to have potentially profound training implications, including:

  • a 2-year “hit probability” study, relating to shooting accuracy under various conditions; what works, what doesn’t and how to improve performance.
  • an EEG study in London that will identify brain processes involved in tunnel vision and tunnel hearing.
  • a study of perception and memory that will also incorporate brain data collected via EEG readings.
  • a study aimed at evaluating and improving strategies for conducting cognitive interview of officers after lethal-force encounters.
  • continuing studies on psycholinguistics, specifically the command styles officers use in high-stress situations, their impact and how to make them more effective.

Several panelists expressed appreciation for the Center’s efforts at “debunking myths” and providing “science that is going to help us” and reminded trainers that the challenge they face is not only to be aware of FSRC’s findings but to consciously integrate them into their training programs.


In any deadly force encounter “you want to stay out of court if you can,” said Chudwin, “but a greater imperative is to stay out of the ground, not be killed.” Regrettably, he believes, many officers are “more afraid of being sued than of being murdered,” and this unacceptable mind-set is something trainers must work to change. Fear of legal consequences, Revling added, “must to be resolved before an officer goes on the street so he doesn’t hesitate” when he needs to save his life.

During his career as both a prosecutor and a police chief, Chudwin said he has not known officers to actually lose anything in court “except peace of mind and tranquility.” At a shooting scene, he reassures surviving officers that they “aren’t going to lose your house” and can, in fact, cope ably with legal consequences. Keeping them “fully informed” through the process so they “don’t feel like just one more piece of meat” is crucial.

The need for legal counsel to guide an officer through the aftermath of a critical incident cannot be emphasized enough. Soltys recommended that officers have an attorney who “specializes in representing officers involved in shootings” lined up before they get involved in one. “He should be on speed dial on your cell phone and he should be one of the first calls you make” after a lethal encounter. “Searching for this kind of legal specialist after the fact can be extremely difficult and can leave an officer very vulnerable.”

An officer should be cautious about what he says at the scene, Soltys advised. “It’s common to seek peer approval, to ask your buddies if you did the right thing. You may say emotional things that could come back to haunt you later.” Best to say little and get off the scene as quickly as possible, preferably to a medical facility to check for injuries and monitor vital signs that will likely be abnormally high due to the stress of the incident.

Certainly, Soltys stressed, do not talk to the media, which is capable of “unbelievable distortion” and can make a justified shooting “look like something completely different.”

Soltys points out that some department shooting investigation policies mandate that officers give a statement within a specified time period after the incident and do not allow the involved officer(s) adequate time to settle down and clearly articulate the facts and circumstances. Use of proper vocabulary is important and is another reason why involved officers should seek legal guidance before giving their statement.

If pressed to provide an official statement sooner than you’re comfortable, Soltys said, “the first sentence out of your mouth should be that you are giving this statement under duress and against your will and that you have not yet had a chance to consult with counsel.” To help remind its personnel of proper procedures that may otherwise be overlooked or compromised under stress, his agency issues plasticized wallet cards advising step by step how to maneuver the post-shooting protocol.

Officers need to understand that “even if they did everything right, a jury is not always going to agree with them,” said panelist Laura Scarry, a cop-turned-attorney in Chicago who specializes in representing officers.

She cited a harrowing recent case in which officers were sued after shooting an EDP who charged at them with a fireman’s axe raised over his head. Even the plaintiff’s expert witness agreed the shooting was justified, Scarry said. Yet the jury found the police liable for $425,000 in damages.

Although the officers were not personally assessed, the injustice of this “justice” was hard to take psychologically. “Once you put a case in the hands of a jury, you never know what you’re going to get,” Scarry declared. “I’m still trying to get to the point where I have a great amount of faith in the jury system.”

Massad Ayoob, the noted firearms trainer and author who chaired the ILEETA panel, suggested that in hopes of positively impacting the legal aftermath of force incidents in the future, trainers should share what they learn at LE conferences with their local prosecutors and judges. Offer to make presentations on FSRC’s research findings and concepts like the Tueller Drill (the basis for the legendary 21-foot rule in defense against edged-weapon attacks) to further “their continuing legal education,” he proposed.


During the Q & A period after the panel’s presentation, a trainer in the audience observed that “the dumbing down of America” was producing police recruits in whom it is becoming “harder and harder to invoke the warrior spirit.” How is excellence in training possible, given the poor quality trainees he perceived nowadays?

Panelist Vance McLaughlin, a subject control expert from Georgia, agreed that the problem is a perplexing one. “No one can train some of these people to the level that we need,” he said. “We know the type of people who should be selected [for academy enrollment] but there isn’t the political will to do it. We have physical tests, written tests-but no one can fail them. When you hire criminals to be police officers, there are going to be problems.”

Out of one recent class of 12 recruits, McLaughlin said, 3 came to him and asked, “How can I get a real job?” These people are headed toward a career in law enforcement “and they don’t even want to be on the job!”

Another panelist, Atty. Adam Kasanof of Arlington, VA, formerly a lieutenant and trainer with the NYPD Academy and author of the new book “How to Be an Expert Witness,” suggested that in most LE agencies, generally only a small percentage of recruits are unsatisfactory. But he agreed that “often they don’t get thrown out.” The fault, he says, lies with a reluctance to discipline or to fire.

“One thing that replaces real discipline is monitoring programs,” he said. “There is a point at which you have to retrain, discipline or fire” people performing poorly, “not just generate endless amounts of paper showing how bad they are.

“If you get rid of the lowest performers, you find out that people farther up on the scale get a lot better. If you’re going to have quality people, the commitment to change has to start at the highest level.”

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