It was a bullet to his assailant’s head that saved Corporal Jim Van Alstine’s life. But it was his stamina in sustaining an intense physical struggle, he says, that made that decisive shot possible.
That’s why Van Alstine, of the Pickens County (Ga.) SO, has become a committed advocate of incorporating hand-to-hand combat drills into your firearms training.
Van Alstine recounted his near-death experience at the recent annual conference of the Assn. of SWAT Personnel-Wisconsin. Then later in conversation with PoliceOne, he described the physical drills he has introduced to his agency as a result of his lessons learned.
Prior to the conference, Van Alstine described his crisis in detail in a memorable interview with PoliceOne’s Dave Smith.
In short, he got into a foot pursuit with a passenger fleeing from a traffic stop one night in the small jurisdiction north of Atlanta where he specializes in criminal patrol. After about 200 yards, the chase ended up, as they so often do, on the ground.
Van Alstine was shot — the round stopped by his vest.
But before he could control the offender’s gun and get into a position where he could draw his own to deliver a conclusive round, he and the suspect fought with full-out intensity for close to a minute.
“Fifty-two seconds doesn’t sound very long when you hear it as a number,” the corporal said. “But when you’re in the fight of your life for your life, it seems like an eternity.
“He was a scrawny little guy” — Van Alstine outweighed him by 90 pounds — “but he was coked up, adrenalized, and extremely motivated. Like any cop, I’d been in fights before, not nothing at that level.
“If I hadn’t had the physical capacity to keep fighting him until I was able to shoot him, I’m absolutely certain he would have killed me.”
In the wake of his encounter, Van Alstine, an instructor for his agency, began incorporating physical combat drills into in-service firearms training. The result, to some deputies, was a dramatic wake-up call.
In a typical drill, with everyone well-padded, officers respond on the range to a crisis scenario, such as an officer down. They have to run 50 to 100 yards from their squad car to the scene of the action, adding stress and, for the less fit, some degree of fatigue. Then they get attacked physically by an instructor who simply won’t give up.
“You can see them deteriorate,” Van Alstine said. “Things happen that they’ve never experienced before in training. Many can’t breathe, can’t communicate to the suspect or on their radio. They lose an awareness of their location. Their fighting gets sluggish, ineffective. Some can’t control their gun well enough to shoot. They can’t perform control techniques. Some try to run away. Some get disarmed. Some just give up. The bad-guy role-player simply overwhelms them.”
These reactions are by no means unique. The Force Science Institute has conducted a landmark experiment involving physical exhaustion that confirms how quickly all-out exertion can sap an officer’s defensive capabilities.
In this research, 52 officers representing a cross-section of law enforcement were instructed to physically “attack” a 300-lb. hanging water bag “with as much ferocity as they could muster” — an activity comparable in exertion to a desperate struggle to control a “strong, dynamically resisting suspect.”
The average officer’s capabilities, as measured by the strength and frequency of blows delivered, peaked at just 15 seconds. Some quit or were thoroughly exhausted by 25 seconds. By 30 to 40 seconds, most were significantly weakened.
They were not able to breathe properly, their cadence of attack dropped, their strikes scarcely moved the bag if at all, and they were resorting largely to “very weak, slowly paced blows that would have had little impact on a combative assailant.”
“A lot of officers have never had to literally fight for their life,” Van Alstine said. “Experiencing a taste of what it’s like and finding out the truth about what your body can and can’t do can be a huge motivator for getting in shape. If that’s not part of your training, it ought to be, because your real test on the street may be as close as the next suspect you encounter.