By Robert C. Willis
Lead Defensive Tactics Trainer
Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College
Greek citizen warriors would fight till age 65 — no “early retirement” for them. I just reached the age of 60 in the fight on crime and have at least five more years as a deputy sheriff, police officer, and law enforcement educator and trainer ahead of me.
As I mature though, it becomes apparent that battling on the front lines, in the trenches, has lost some of its allure. Not that I don’t relish a good fight and a righteous battle, it just hurts too damn much and healing is not as quick as it used to be. Consequently, the teaching and educating part of me has become my main focus. Also, the days of the “good fight” have devolved to inordinate concern over liability and political correctness. The presumption of innocence has seemingly trumped “probably guilty” as personal responsibility has eroded to collective blame. Service orientation has caused departments to forge a softer metal into sword and shield as we try to “fit in” and please society rather than police it.
We work for the people and must conform to their wishes — if they see a different paradigm in law enforcement, so be it. As the saying goes, society ultimately gets the law enforcement it deserves.
Unfortunately for us, the demands of the job remain constant and unyielding. Needless to say though, officer safety and survival must continue to be a priority. Most of us, because of age, fitness deficits, and previous injury, lack of continuous and realistic fight training and the sedentary nature of our business are not “fighters” but yet occasionally we have to fight. Make no mistake about it, we are warriors but not in the gladiator sense but rather the “sniper” sense. Surgical precision and quick closure must be the order of the day.
Philosophy aside, physical battle is not desirable nor in most cases even feasible. Physical battle is looked upon by society — and by jurors — as archaic and brutal and those who participate are always considered suspect. It is always called a “police beating” no matter what the circumstances.
Mrs. Smith the librarian, Mr. Jones the upwardly-mobile businessman, and Ms. Campbell the college student (as well as all the other non-warriors chosen to be jurors) wince at the report of punching and kicking and clubbing by police officers. As we try to explain “reasonableness” the plaintiffs’ lawyers play to emotion, with emotion they somehow trump reason. Sterile courtrooms become a battlefield, suits replace armor, and rules of civil procedure govern the day. The battle is with words instead of the weapons.
I suggest a change in perspective as a start to the process of surviving the future in law enforcement. Because training is my domain I will use it as the means to convey my meaning. Physical defensive tactics, arrest and control tactics, or whatever the current terminology, serves all other police disciplines. However we interact with the public — whether that be shooting, driving, talking, or any one of the thousands of other things we do, there’s always the potential for getting physical. We talk people into handcuffs, we control and manipulate people into handcuffs, we stun them into handcuffs, we hit them into handcuffs, and sometimes we shoot them into handcuffs, but when those means do not immediately work, we get physical.
When it gets physical it gets complicated. Training can help simplify our physical force applications by defining them properly and also improving our ability to persuade Mrs. Smith, Mr. Jones, Ms. Campbell, and the other nine people sitting in the box (as well as those watching their TVs and their computer screens around the world) that we did the right thing — the only thing possible.
Recent training methods and training gear have made this possible but change is necessary. The past practice of dressing up in protective gear and whooping the hell out of the simulated bad guy must end. People get hurt in this type of training and worse, the wrong message gets sent. The protracted struggle degenerates into a “polyester pile” replete with harsh tactics. Techniques become extreme and the “not trained but supposedly justified” responses begin to appear. These are the ones that run the risk of not being understood by those who judge us.
I keep thinking of the line spoken by the comedian Chris Rock in one of his routines... he was speaking about O.J. stabbing his wife and her friend to death and his line was: “I don’t condone it but I understand!”
So how do we get those who do not condone to understand? When and how will the non-combatant understand combat? Well why do we fight and why do we hit someone?
An evolution in training may be the answer. Rather than “pad up” for a battle royale and attempt winning by approximation and beating someone into submission, a better use of the equipment (and of training methodology) is necessary. The use of scenario-based training stormed the police world and is an excellent tool but it may have its best application in the world of training deadly force.
Scenario-based training demands that an officer make a decision, verbalize, and then properly perform techniques. The unpredictable nature of a scenario itself precludes safety for all those other than the most experienced role-player instructors. Consider also the padded bad guy — whose padded body parts are struck with padded weapons — rarely reacts realistically when injury does not occur. Consequently, control measure attempts become a brawl, which in turn exacerbates the problem.
The use of isolation exercises predicated upon predictable occurrences and circumstances that jurors will understand will diminish the injury problem and also send the right messages to officers. Isolation exercises are preformatted events — they demand precision and proper execution but limit decision making as everyone knows what will happen at the onset. Protective training gear can assist in the process. Padding can be placed in prescribed locations and suspect responses can be choreographed to approximate reality and expectation. So what can be formatted to prepare for battle and to also make the general public understand? What events require the officer to be the sniper who decisively resolves crisis?
As a trainer I would much rather have an officer use the tools of the trade to overcome adversity. The TASER, OC, and baton offer quick resolution potential with minimal potential injury to officers.
So the first obvious exception to the “keep your hands and feet to yourself” rule is when those weapons are not available. Sometimes in close quarter battle the officer is grounded and cannot access his less lethal tools such as TASER, OC, or baton. It is then reasonable (and understandable) for the officer to resort to using his hands, feet, elbows, and knees. Jurors will understand that you had to do something. They may not like it, but they’ll understand that no other reasonable alternative was available. We can pontificate all we want, but the jury and public (even when they’re instructed properly on the law and the legal standard of reasonableness) are prone to impose the stricter standard. Isolation exercises that place officers in those circumstances are physically safer in the training environment, more realistic, and have the necessary justification built into them.
Another situation we must address is weapon control. Isolation exercises that replicate situations in which the officer is disarmed will pre-arm the officer with an immediate response that carries with it an acceptable justification. Weapon control gets “crazy” in the scenario venue but can be controlled in the isolation exercise format. Please don’t misunderstand me, scenarios are great but before they can be safe in the physical arena, isolation exercises must prepare the way.
The bottom line is that protective training gear can be used in a whole new way by reducing injury potential in training, prolonging the life of the gear, creating realistic training that replicates possible occurrences, and by training officers to use physical tactics in the proper context, and in a way that will be understood by those who ultimately must condone our practices in a court of law.
About the author
Bob Willis is currently a full time instructor of Law Enforcement tactical and academic topics at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. He is a sworn deputy sheriff and a lake patrol officer. Bob is often consulted in litigation matters involving law enforcement officers and their agencies.