Eye-Opening Study Suggests Deep Flaws In Academy Firearms Training

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By the time an average police recruit completes typical academy firearms training, how much more skilled in shooting is he than a person who has never shot or even held a handgun before?

Not much, according to a first-of-its-kind study by the Force Science Institute that is set for publication in an international law enforcement journal.

“[T]his study’s results indicate an alarming need for improved firearms training for officers,” writes lead researcher Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSI’s executive director. After finishing academy instruction and practice, new officers “were a mere 13%” more accurate than novices in shooting at distances where a high proportion of officer-involved shootings occur.

“What these statistics appear to imply,” Lewinski states, “is that officer firearms training is not extensive enough and occurs too sparsely for officers to gain, and maintain, the expert level of accuracy with their service weapons that is expected of them.” This training deficiency “may result in injury, death, or other severe consequences.”

Also revealed in the study: At close quarters, untrained shooters often aim for the head, the most vulnerable and critical part of an officer’s body in a gun attack. And they hit accurately with disturbing frequency.

TEST SUBJECTS

Lewinski’s research team tested 195 male and 52 female recruits and students on ranges at two police academies and one college with a law enforcement preparation program at geographically separated locations in the US. Most of the volunteers had not yet been exposed to academy firearms training, but roughly 25% had completed that course of instruction.

The subjects were divided into three categories:

  • “Experts,” who had finished formal handgun training through the academy or in the military
  • “Intermediates,” who had not yet received academy training but had some personal experience in shooting, either through hunting, recreational sport, or military training for a long gun
  • “Novices,” who may have fired a weapon once or twice but for the most part had never held or shot a gun “in their life.”

After choosing a 9mm Glock, .40-cal. S&W, or 9mm Beretta semiauto, the volunteers were told to quickly shoot three rounds each at a total of nine grey-silhouette targets which were randomly placed at staggered distances ranging from three to 75 feet. Where they were to aim was not stated–only that they should fire at each target “as quickly as they could without compromising accuracy.”

SURPRISING HIT RATES

Generally, the Experts scored the most hits. But the edge they enjoyed often proved, at best, surprisingly narrow. Notably:

  • At most distances, there was “no significant difference” in percentage of hits between Expert and Intermediate groups.
  • Against targets 18 to 45 feet away, Intermediates actually registered a higher hit ratio than academy trained shooters–about 41% vs. 38%.
  • At three to 15 feet, where most officer fatalities occur, Expert shooters hit one of the major-damage zones on the target “with eight out of nine bullets they fired,” the researchers found, while Novices hit “with seven of the nine bullets they fired”–a scant advantage for the trained recruits of just a single round.

Considering the high volume of shootings that occur “at such close ranges, officers need to have a better advantage over threatening suspects,” Lewinski writes.

  • It was not unusual for Novices to cycle through rounds at a cadence of one quarter to one third of a second per shot.
  • At longer distances, Novice accuracy fell off significantly. But Intermediate shooters, apparently able to adapt their long-gun experience to handgun firing, continued to be “nearly identical” to the fully trained Experts.

In summary, Lewinski writes, “[I]ndividuals who had completed standard law enforcement academy firearms training were not more accurate in their shooting” than those with Intermediate skills and “were only moderately more accurate than individuals who…had little to no handgun experience… It was unexpected that the Novices would be so accurate in comparison….

“These findings underscore that critical importance of officers taking every step necessary to maintain control of their weapon,” he continues. “Officers will often shoot at a suspect in an attempt to end their efforts to gain control of the officer’s gun and these findings highlight why this is understandable and necessary. The result of a suspect gaining control of an officer’s gun–even someone who has little or no experience firing a gun–can be catastrophic.”

HEAD VS. BODY

Also, the researchers surprisingly found, “the number of headshots taken significantly varied between groups.”

  • At three feet, for example, the academy-trained Experts attempted and delivered headshots with only 21% of their rounds, preferring body hits by more than a three to one margin. Novices and Intermediates, by contrast, went for and scored head hits about 57% of the time.
  • At nine feet, successful attempts at head strikes by Experts had dropped to 6%, while Novices were still firing a quarter of their rounds to the head–“shooting more dangerously than the trained recruits,” Lewinski told Force Science News.

Lewinski speculates on the placement differences: “While officers are trained to sight and shoot at a suspect’s center mass, novices have no training at aiming or handling a weapon, and therefore are more likely to aim where they are looking.

“In close contact social situations, [untrained] individuals tend to look at the face, watching for facial gestures, expressions, etc.; therefore, shots aimed at the head during close-encounter shootings may be more heavily linked to natural instincts, resulting in shooters automatically pointing the gun to where they are looking, directly at the ‘face’ ” of the target.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR CHANGE

“[L]aw enforcement officers are expected to perform at a much higher level” than lesser or untrained shooters “and to do so under highly stressful conditions,” Lewinski writes. So why didn’t newly minted officers fresh from firearms training significantly excel and why, according to other studies, do working officers’ gun skills tend to degrade over time?

Lewinski points to two important potential culprits related to traditional police training:

  1. the tendency of instructors to use “block education” in firearms training, and
  2. the tendency of officers to lock into an “internal attentional focus” when firing, because of inadequate practice.
  • Block education, he explains, is a teaching format in which skills are broken down, taught, and repetitively practiced in “long-duration sessions over a short length of time (i.e., four- to eight-hour classes over the course of two to four weeks, each class teaching a new skill component).”

This is efficient and can be beneficial for short-term learning, Lewinski says, because students tend to pick up the new skills rapidly. But “block training, which is used in most academies, including the ones in this study, produces one of the highest rates of swift deterioration of a skill once it is acquired.”

Extensive research, he says, has shown that “when individuals are challenged with complex, unusual, and new conditions,” those trained and reinforced at frequently spaced intervals over longer periods of time tend to perform much more successfully and better avoid skill degeneration than those who have had block education.

“Spacing out instruction and practice over time gives your brain the chance to better consolidate and integrate information about the skill on which you are working,” Lewinski says.

  • Internal focus, he explains, refers to a shooter’s predominant concentration on his or her weapon and body. “Here, officers’ attention is on themselves, on their grip, trigger press, stance, body and arm alignment, balance, sight picture, and so on.

“They haven’t had enough practice to move past this concern about the manipulation of their weapon to an external attentional focus, where their visual and cognitive concentration is on their target and their situation.

“That state can be reached only when weapon management and the motor movements of shooting are so ingrained that they’re automatic, freeing an officer’s mental resources for observation, cognitive processing, and immediate decision-making.” Considering that the average academy offers only “a mere 60 hours” of firearms training and in-service perhaps 12 to 16 hours or less a year, it’s currently difficult if not impossible for officers to reach that level of expertise without supplementary training and experience on their own, Lewinski points out.

Addressing these concerns, the researchers note, should be an important part of efforts by academies and in-service training programs to improve officers’ preparation. The study further suggests that trainers may want to expand their instruction to include head-shot tactics for extremely close encounters, especially considering that gang members and some other offenders are now wearing ballistic vests to defeat center-mass firing.

Greater emphasis also needs to be placed on teaching “pattern recognition” that allows officers to pick up quickly on pre-attack cues and thereby better dominate or avoid gunfights, Lewinski says.

The full study, titled “The Naive Shooter from a Law Enforcement Perspective: Hit Probability,” is scheduled for a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Police Science and Management, based in England. Articles can be accessed for a fee through the Journal’s website.

In addition to Lewinski, the research team included Ron Avery, president/director of training for The Practical Shooting Academy; Jennifer Dysterheft, a doctoral student in the Dept. of Kinesiology at the University of Illinois; Nathan Dicks, assistant professor in the Dept. of Human Performance at Minnesota State University-Mankato; and Jacob Bushey, a master’s student in exercise physiology at Minnesota State.

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