Police firearms training: How often should you be shooting?
The courts have said that our firearms training needs to be relevant and realistic — however, it must also be conducted regularly
At a recent use-of-force class I was instructing for a Public Risk Management group, the topic of firearms training frequency came up. The discussion was prompted by the fact that during the latest round of FBI suspect interviews conducted for the third book in the Officer Assaulted and Murdered trilogy (“Violent Encounters”), it was revealed that those suspects believed that police officers trained between two and three times a week with their firearms. In reality, most police departments only train about two times a year, averaging less than 15 hours annually. In contrast to our frequency of training, those same suspects revealed that they practiced on average 23 times a year (or almost twice a month) with their handguns.
During a poll taken during this class which represented about a half dozen Florida law enforcement agencies, I asked how many train more than twice a year. No hands went up. When asked how many train or qualify with their duty guns only once a year. Everyone raised their hands. Hence, the genesis for this article.
The courts have said that our firearms training needs to be relevant and realistic. However, it must also be conducted regularly — as in, occurring close enough to the incident in question so as to assist the officer in making proper deadly force decisions. Back when I was the Rangemaster at my agency in upstate New York, we managed to get twice-a-year range training with our revolvers. When we transitioned to semiautomatics shortly before my retirement, we doubled that to four times a year — albeit with fewer rounds. Most of the time, our range was open and staffed 24/7 with instructors, so quite a few officers came out almost monthly to get in some training time. So the question is “how often should today’s law enforcement officers be training with their duty pistols?”
I know no court of law which has ever addressed that specific question. While there are a lot of cases that have addressed the substance of that training, no federal court has come right out and said how many times police officers need to actually train or qualify. Most often, that magic number is left to the various state POST boards and most only address basic firearms training, not in-service training. Notwithstanding those POST mandates, as a professional firearms trainer and frequent court expert, it is my opinion that law enforcement officers should train at least four times a year with their handguns. By handguns, I mean duty pistols, off-duty pistols, and if they’re allowed, back-up pistols. Same goes for shotguns and patrol rifles. Specialized units that equip their officers with subguns and sniper rifles need to be heading out to the range on a monthly basis. And this isn’t just Dave Grossi that’s suggesting this level of frequency.
Most certified firearms instructors belong to IALEFI, the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors. It is that body of professional firearms trainers who’ve set that level of training for good reason; the learning curve required for the psychomotor skills needed for semiautomatic pistol manipulation is such that without constant and frequent reinforcement, those skills will deteriorate. Even the IACP, the International Association of Chief’s of Police, have suggested that firearms training should preferably be held three times a year. Most of the legal beagles I’ve spoken to have suggested that annual, or even semi-annual, firearms training is insufficient for the purposes of avoiding liability.
What should be covered during these quarterly training sessions? In addition to classroom instruction of deadly force policy and procedure and other topics, most trainers suggest the range work should include:
1.) Clearing stoppages with either hand
2.) Drills that simulate malfunctions
3.) Emergency tactical reloading with either hand
4.) Manipulation of safeties and de-cocking levers with either hand
As well as the usual and customary range topics like:
1.) Low-light and judgmental (decision-making) shooting
2.) Shooting while moving to cover
3.) One-handed firing
4.) Giving verbal challenges
5.) Firing and clearing malfunctions from various “officer down” positions
6.) Engaging multiple targets
If your agency falls into the category above — having once- or twice-annual firearms training — you may want to take a look at what these authoritative bodies are saying about that level of frequency in addition to the substantive issues regarding that training.
Popow v. Margate, 476 F.Supp. 1237 (N.J. 1979)
Zuchel v. Denver, 997 F.2d 730 (10th Cir. 1993)
Young v. City of Providence, 404 F.3d 4 (R.I. 2005)
International Association of Chiefs of Police Model Deadly Force
International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors
Firearms Training Standards (2004 Revision)