New survey exposes 'disturbing' shortcomings in firearms training
After surveying more than 300 PDs, a former officer and firearms instructor concludes that some findings “appear likely to have serious implications”
A “national snapshot” of in-service firearms training for municipal and county LEOs raises grave “concerns about how prepared many police officers are” for winning life-threatening encounters, according to a new report from a respected university researcher.
The report also highlights post-shooting practices in many agencies that are hampering trainers’ efforts to improve their programs.
After surveying more than 300 local-level departments, Dr. Gregory Morrison, a former officer and firearms instructor who’s now an associate CJ professor at Indiana’s Ball State University, concludes that “some findings are encouraging, but others appear likely to have serious implications” regarding officer and public safety, the public’s perception of police accountability, and the toll taken “in lives, serious injuries, disabilities, and civil litigation.”
Among the “disturbing” shortcomings in training documented by his unique study:
“A paradigm shift” in firearms training is “long overdue,” states Morrison, who specializes in studying deadly force programs and instruction. But with “strained budgets” expected to be “the norm for the foreseeable future,” he fears that decision-makers may view meaningful change as an expendable “luxury item,” despite the blatant need for improvement.
He told Force Science News that he believes the public would be “shocked” at many of his findings. “The public perception is that police are highly trained, far more than most actually are. Compared to 30 or 40 years ago, police training has definitely improved, but many departments have not kept up with what should be done, especially regarding firearms skills.”
He believes that his study results may, in fact, “paint a rosier picture than actually exists generally.” Departments that know or suspect that their programs are deficient are not likely to have participated in his voluntary survey, he explains.
“I agree with the thrust of Dr. Morrison’s findings and conclusions,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, which was not involved in the survey. “It’s tragic that the vast majority of firearms training today is not preparing officers for the brutal dynamics of real-world encounters and the sophisticated decision-making we hold them accountable for.”
Rich Data Set
Specifically, he sought details on staffing and instructor development, the frequency and emphasis of training sessions, the degree of focus on judgment and tactics, the nature of requalification testing, and the use made of field-encounter experiences.
His resulting “rich data set” reflects information from 312 agencies, nearly 80 percent of them municipal and the rest county or city-county departments from 44 states. These ranged in size from fewer than 25 officers to more than 1,000. “All highly populated states were well represented,” he says.
Also “most departments have introduced some form of scenario training,” in part in response to three landmark Supreme Court decisions (Tennessee v. Garner, Graham v. Connor, and Canton v. Harris). The formats employed include role-playing exercises with marking cartridges, live-fire range training, and computer-based, projected-image technology.
The devil, however, is in the details of just what these “relatively new dimensions to police handgun training” actually consist of.
Among agencies using computerized systems, one involved its officers in a single scenario every two years. The top exposure was 20 scenarios per officer per year, reported by just one department.
“If departments believe that scenario training can improve performance, they have to do enough of it to actually make a difference,” Morrison says. “Exposure to one or two scenarios a year is such a small part of an officer’s experience that it can’t be expected to have a substantial impact on field performance.”
At this point, he concedes, more research is needed to determine just what the effective “tipping point” might be.
Nearly half the departments mandated 8 hours or less of firearms activity; about a third called for nine to 16 hours. “Overall,” Morrison notes, “larger departments were more likely to provide fewer” activity hours than smaller agencies. Indeed, department with fewer than 100 officers were the most likely to hold three or more activity sessions per year.
When asked what the “primary emphasis” was during their handgun sessions, nearly one-third of departments “indicated that it is requalifying,” Morrison reports. Many said they split the time “approximately equally” between training and requalifying. Only 28 percent said they “emphasized training over requalifying.”
Alarmingly, nearly six in 10 departments reported that they do not require that officers hit the target with all their shots in order to pass. “Technically, officers with these departments could miss with many shots, but still requalify as long as the points they obtained from their hits reached the threshold score,” Morrison points out.
When officers fail to requalify, “it was not uncommon for departments to allow two or more attempts that same day, sometimes without diagnostic and corrective intervention,” his report says. Rare indeed is the department that requires failing officers to wait until the next scheduled testing cycle or to be reassigned to an unarmed capacity until they requalify.
“Only one in five departments reported that scenario-based activities were scored and used as a component to requalification,” Morrison says. Indeed, including “general characteristics associated with officer-involved shootings” as part of requalification is far from customary. For example, only a minority of departments require officers to address multiple targets (43.3 percent) or moving targets (18.6 percent).
“As a result,” Morrison declares, “some departments are requalifying their officers using rote courses-of-fire while not committing many resources to introducing new skills, improving existing ones, and/or conducting practical scenario-based training.
“If a department is going to say its officers are really ‘qualified’ to deal with deadly force, this assessment needs to go way beyond mere marksmanship, and involve scoring that encompasses judgment, decision-making, and tactics,” Morrison says.
Most departments, Morrison reports, depend on instructors who are assigned to training as collateral duty — “a secondary extra responsibility” — and their education and training “is far from universal. Little is known about its content or the quality of its delivery.”
Over half the agencies surveyed reported that “no information was collected” after an OIS “on any of the four basic measures of performance” — marksmanship, gun-handling, tactical procedures, and judgment — for the purpose of evaluating the departments’ training programs.
Moreover, firearms instructors for the most part do not have access to investigative findings in order to draw their own conclusions regarding training relevance. Morrison offers this chart as stark evidence of the common freeze-out of trainers during post-shooting procedures:
“Conveying vital officer performance information...to trainers who design and deliver programming is indispensable,” Morrison writes. Yet “few departments appear to have implemented such feedback loops,” thus hampering critical evaluation of the “connection between training program content, delivery, and certifying assessments and officer performances in high-risk encounters.”
What’s needed, he declares, is sufficient research and evaluation to determine scientifically which training approaches can best shape performance. He proposes a 3-point action agenda:
Improving current training with an eye toward developing validated model programs “will be challenging,” Morrison acknowledges.
But leaders who take up the task of analyzing, designing, implementing, and assessing innovative training programs “will improve police practices of benefit to both officers and public safety.” He urges that his report be broadly shared among trainers and administrators and expresses the hope that “it can act as a catalyst for renewed discussion of how to identify and promote best practices in this vital area of training.”
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