What do a swimming pool, a dark room, and interrupted simulator scenarios have in common?
All can be instrumental parts of innovative training that can help officers win against armed assailants, according to Chris Ghannam, president of Sark Securities Inc., an independent advanced-training organization based in Tampa, Fla.
Recently PoliceOne attended a three-day Sark workshop on Advanced Human Performance, featuring Ghannam as lead instructor, along with Dr. Mike Asken, a psychologist with the Pennsylvania State Police, and Dr. William Horton, a specialist in neurolinguistic programming. In an exclusive interview, Ghannam addressed six ways you can strengthen your own recruit and in-service training to better prepare officers to meet their moments of truth on the street.
Take to the Water
Consider having your trainees perform certain firearms drills in a swimming pool, Ghannam suggests. It’s a good way to build much faster and more correct full-body shooting mechanics.
Start off with the officers in water that’s about chest high, so that once they bend their knees for their shooting position, water will reach their necks.
“There’s no better exercise for building speed than to practice against resistance,” Ghannam explains. “But providing controlled resistance around an extended arm is difficult in most training environments. If you’re drawing and punching out your weapon with your arms underwater, though, you have consistent 360-degree resistance around your gun arm. This builds muscle strength, and when you’re shooting on land without the resistance, your movement will be much faster.”
The water also helps polish form. “If you draw incorrectly, your gun will move through the water like a paddle, and you’ll feel it,” Ghannam says. “If you’re punching out correctly, from the center of your body rather than in a sloppy arc, it’s more like a blade piercing through the water. This allows you to self-correct and consciously develop perfect practice.”
Use training guns and plastic holsters, and keep the water level such that you can plant your feet comfortably, without bobbing or treading. Start slowly and smoothly and gradually get faster with continued reps. Among other things, your students will quickly recognize the importance of having a solid base.
“Officers who are not physically fit will have a hard time staying in a correct stand for extended periods while on a traditional firing line,” Ghannam says. “You’ll generally see many allow their pelvic region to sway forward and their upper torso sag back to compensate. This is one of the first signs of lower back and body fatigue. Being in water tends to reduce this tendency, allowing for extended effective training time.”
Another water drill Ghannam uses is to have trainees swim full-body, free-style sprints—intense 30-second bursts to get the heart rate about 160 bpm, a point where many officers start to lose their fine motor-skill functionality. “This saves training time because it’s much quicker than taking a 30-minute run, with less risk of injury,” he says.
“Once a physical element of full-body stress has been developed, officers then take training weapons that are lined up at poolside with prearranged malfunctions, where they must clear stoppages and fire at paper targets from the water. With practice, you can recondition the point where you lose your fine-more skill functionality.”
Train in Multiples
“Training often becomes overly individualized, even though police work often presents team challenges,” Ghannam says. “Most officers are taught handcuffing one-on-one with a suspect, for example. But many times on the street multiple officers are involved, and the extra officers may not have a clue about working in tandem. Everyone tries to ‘help’ by doing their own thing, and the result can be chaotic or end up looking like excessive force or even be physically damaging to the officers involved.”
Ghannam encourages extending multiple-officer training to firearms simulator scenarios. “Training should mirror reality, and life is three-dimensional, with infinite vantage points. So instead of having cops stare at the screen one at a time, put multiple officers there at the same time. How do they interact? If one jumps to a higher level of force, do others just react off what he or she does, or are they evaluating the circumstances independently? Do they know how to complement each other’s actions? Are they communicating properly?
“Learning to cooperate with other officers can’t be left to on-the-job training in the field and it shouldn’t be confined just to SWAT teams. Nor should it be limited to just Contact/Cover role-playing. On many calls, especially trouble calls, you’ll have multiple officers responding, and there won’t be a choreographer on the scene to direct what you should have learned by training in advance.
“On the flip side, what about multiple offenders? In weapon retention classes, we need to train for multiple people coming after your firearm. What does your partner do in that case? And in ground defense, it may not be enough to escape from just one attacker. He’ll likely have buddies who’ll be on you, too.”
Manipulate Simulator Scenes
Simulators allow for more creative training than just routinely running everyone through a scenario from start to finish and then critiquing them afterward, Ghannam believes.
“Black out the screen for five seconds,” he suggests, “but keep the scenario playing so when the screen is lit up again the action is at a different stage. This adds some realism, because on the street you don’t always fixate on the suspect all the time. You may be distracted or deliberately look away to check the environment, and while you’re diverted you may miss some of the action. The suspect may be in a different posture, or in a different place. You need to learn how to adapt quickly to changes as they present themselves.
“Sometimes it’s effective to fast-forward the action so what you’re seeing goes really fast, or slow it down. Visual distortions are extremely common in shootings and other high-stress situations, so this gets you accustomed to what you may experience in the real world and you won’t be as likely to be thrown when it happens.
“Don’t wait until the end of the scenario to debrief. Start and stop the action and probe the officer’s mental processes as the action unfolds: ‘Why did you pull your weapon at this point?’ ‘When did you start feeling the hair on the back of your neck go up?’ ‘How would you explain what you just did to someone who wasn’t there?’
“Debriefing at various points along the way will give you a much better idea of why a trainee reacts as he does and how well he can articulate his actions. You need to know his logic and reasoning so you can modify your instruction to fit your student.”
Embrace the Dark
A pitch-black room offers many opportunities for eye-opening training exercises, Ghannam says.
One possibility is to somewhat create your own simulator, cheaply, simply by toggling a light switch or by using a strobe with preset timing intervals. The simplest format is to position your trainee facing a lone suspect. Flip the lights on and off a few seconds at a time. Each time the room is blackened, the suspect side of the encounter changes so the officer faces an altered scenario each time the lights come on and must react accordingly.
“Maybe one time the suspect is holding a baseball bat in a threatening stance,” Ghannam says. “The next time he has his hands up in surrender, facing away from the officer. The next time he’s at a different location with a gun pointed. Another time he starts running toward the officer and the lights flash on when he’s right in your trainee’s face. There’s no time for the officer to pull his gun. He’s forced to go to DT.
“You can add players and add props to make these mini-scenarios more complex. You don’t need a lot of room. The keys are that they’re short and your trainee can’t see the changes taking place in the dark, so when the lights come on he’s got an immediate-action drill to contend with.
“This gets officers more accustomed to working in the dark, out of their comfort zone, where a lot of police work occurs. When they temporarily lose their ability to see, they learn to enhance their other senses, and they also get a sense of how fast people can move and change when you’re not focused on them.
“Many times in-service officers, especially, know what kind of training they’re going to be tested on and they mentally prepare themselves for that. But training shouldn’t be predictable. This is a way to surprise them, and get them to react spontaneously to whatever is suddenly in front of them. You—and they—get to see their strengths and weaknesses real fast.”
As you know, one of the most dangerous mental traps an officer can fall into is the ‘routine’ rut, thinking: “I’ve done this before. No big deal.” But how do you overcome the complacency that sprouts so readily from the repetition of the street?
What’s important, Ghannam says, is to persuade officers that they can never be in exactly the same situation twice. “There is always some environmental element—or several—that’s different,” he says. “You need to mentally search for what’s different as you approach even the most common activity, telling yourself, ‘I don’t know this place or this situation or this person this time. I don’t know what’s going to happen here.’ When you think about it, are we ever, ever really in anything but an unknown environment?”
An effective way to “recalibrate” thinking, he has found, is to ask your trainees, “When you came home yesterday, what was the first thing you saw?” Then tell them, “When you come back to class tomorrow, tell me the first thing you saw when you got home tonight.”
“There’s always something different,” Ghannam says. “The people, the noise level, what’s in the yard, how you feel—something. When officers realize that their own residence is constantly changing, they become much more aware of how things on the street keep changing.
“Keeping complacency at bay is much harder for a street officer than for a SWAT officer, for instance. SWAT knows they’re going someplace where something bad has happened or may happen, and they’re mentally prepared for that.
“But street officers deal with a lot of essentially good people and benign situations. It’s mentally harder for them to stay alert for what may be lurking beneath the surface. It takes frequent self-talk to remind yourself that you never step in the same river twice, that you may ‘know’ this environment—just not today.”
Remember Your Training Goal
“The goal for any instructor should be to help your students become better than you are, to pass the torch of excellence in a given skill,” Ghannam declares.
“Nothing is more important than this. Yet, regrettably, we all know trainers who seem determined to reinforce their superiority by intimidating, belittling, or humiliating their students. They may keep key information to themselves as a means of staying on top. They may not teach certain tactics or techniques that took them a long time to learn, in the mistaken belief that their students are not capable of doing what the instructor can do. They may teach to the lowest common denominator because that’s easiest for them.
“We don’t know what our students are capable of until we push them—and push ourselves. Challenge yourself to find new dynamic ways to teach, to simplify tactics and techniques so students will be able to retain them more efficiently. Be willing to teach at various skill levels, not just one, in order to meet each student’s aptitude.
“Remember, it’s not just what you know, it’s what you share. The better your students perform, the better you are as an instructor. Teaching is an honor and a privilege. It’s a job that should not be taken lightly.”