In my three decades (plus) as a trainer — first in the martial arts then in law enforcement — I’ve come across a number of instructors who seem to have something to prove. Some have needed to prove how smart they are, and as usual by doing so they look stupid. Some have had to prove that they were the Swami of SWAT by listing all the tactical courses they’ve attended (including some that don’t exist!). These are the “high-speed, low-drag, all-thrust no-vector, paint it black and call it tactical, call every tool a system,” guys.
Some have to prove that they’re “in charge” and must be “respected” so they’re prone to telling police recruits that they must do exactly as they say or they will willingly fail them out of the academy. They may say stuff like:
“You let your hand spin on that prone handcuffing position — yes the suspect’s shoulder is still pinned, yes the elbow is still locked in an arm-bar, yes the wrist is still in a flexed wrist-lock, yes the suspect is in the perfect prone position I taught you, but you allowed your controlling hand to spin 180 degrees and your fingers are now pointed in rather than out, so I need to fail you out of the academy.”
Some have to prove how tough they are by punching the crap out of recruits while they themselves are protected in an impact suit. As you can probably tell, I have no time for these individuals.
Recruit Officer John Kohn
Now, don’t jump to conclusions as I reference the recent death of Recruit Officer John Kohn, who died after suffering a head injury during training at the Norfolk Police Academy. I am not implying that any of the instructors who were present when he was injured meet the descriptions above. This incident simply serves as a reminder and a wake-up call to all police trainers. I am sure that the trainers present during the event had the best interests of the recruits in mind. PoliceOne has posted a couple of news items on the incident. You can see them here and here.
Please keep in mind that, as always, these videos cannot tell the entire story.
According to news reports, Kohn was punched in the face by a police trainer on December 7th of last year. Kohn explained to classmates and his wife that he “got his bell rung” and that he had a headache. It is not clear if he reported this to his supervisors. Two days later — during a ground-fighting session — he first collided with another student and then was punched several times by an instructor. Kohn was admitted to the hospital and died from head injuries on December 18th. Doctors determined that he had suffered two brain injuries.
Training-related Deaths are Anomalies
Although extremely rare, the death of a law enforcement recruit during combatives training is not unheard of. In May 2005, a recruit at the Texas Department of Public Safety academy died after having participated in a full-contact sparring match with another trainee. It was reported that even though two trainers advised against it, those trainers were overruled by the lieutenant and the recruit was matched against a physically superior classmate. That death led to an investigation of the training conducted at the Texas DPS academy.
The investigation disclosed that between 1996 and 2005, there were 392 injuries sustained by recruits during “Active Countermeasures” training. Fifty-seven of those injuries were classified as compensable head injuries (covered by worker’s compensation.) This included 36 concussions, 18 contusions, two lacerations, and one sprain. At least eight of these concussions were diagnosed as serious head injuries. These 57 head injuries did not include eye, ear or other non-concussion facial injuries. As a result of the death and subsequent investigation, the Active Countermeasures program was discontinued.
Thankfully, these are rare events. Considering the number of police recruits going through reality-based-training, these deaths are anomalies. We want recruits to gain an experience of combat in a controlled environment. We need to prepare them for the interpersonal violence that each of them will face someday on the mean streets. It is rare that an officer will use deadly force during his or her career. But, no matter how eloquent and persuasive a law enforcement professional is with his verbal skills, at some point a subject is going to become physically resistant. And, the officer must use his physical skills to convince the individual that “resistance is futile.”
Policies, Procedures, and Protocols
So, what can we do to fulfill the need of realistic training while minimizing injuries? First, make the training realistic. In other words, stop trying to teach the perpetual yellow-belt/black-belt tactics. Your average recruit will be expected to control an aggressive maniac with far fewer hours of training than your high school freshman wrestler gets before his first match. Don’t get me wrong. I love training in wrestling, BJJ, judo, muay thai, Krav, and MMA. But, much of that is not what we should be emphasizing to our recruits.
Next, remember why you, as a trainer, are there. You’re there for the recruit, not to prove how tough you are or to practice your skills on a human punching bag. Being there for the recruit means caring about his welfare. If you are in an impact suit and the recruit accidentally strikes you in the head with a soft baton that can’t possibly do any damage to you, why get angry and “punish” him? Trying to convince him that he needs to be better with his targeting by punching him repeatedly in the face is not productive.
Recruits need to know that they must acknowledge and report injuries. There is no room for “walking it off” in our environment. If they are injured, they need to know that they can report the injury without attaching any stigma. Train your instructors how to punch a recruit without injuring him. I can honestly say that I cannot remember ever injuring any of the thousands of recruits that I have trained. Oh, I’ve tagged them, but because I have never been trying to hurt them, pay them back, or see how good I am, none has sustained any significant injury.
Make sure that you have policies, procedures, and protocols in place for any high-level training. This will include the use of personal safety equipment such as head gear, padded gloves, and mouthguards. Know what your instructor to student ratio should be to enhance safety. Never allow a trainer to overwhelm a recruit. They should be progressively pushed to higher levels of performance, but going too far too fast is a recipe for disaster. Have water, a first aid kit, and ice packs close at hand in case of injuries. Most importantly, we can reduce injuries to recruits by remembering why we are there.
We are there for them. We are there to make them better. We are not there to practice our own skills or to prove how tough we are.