Cognitive thinking and the tactical warrior

I would like to dedicate this article to Officer “Mark Sawyers” of the Sterling Heights Police Department. Badge “76,” your memory lives on.

As we all know, this week is National Police Week and as we reflect on our Warriors that gave the ultimate sacrifice I would like to share with you the importance of cognitive thinking as it applies to SWAT and to all police work.

Cognitive thinking may be the single most important trait of a SWAT warrior — when dealing with a deadly adversary in that dark moment of combat your success may hinge on your cognitive thinking abilities. The cognitive thinking process includes:

Divided attention and your ability to manage it: Divided attention allows you to handle two or more tasks at one time.
Working memory and your ability to utilize it under pressure: Working memory is the ability to retain information for short periods of time while processing or using it.
Processing speed of the information presented to you: Processing speed is the rate at which the brain handles information.
Long-term memory of past incidents and training: Long-term memory is the ability to both store and recall information for later use.
Visual processing of the situation: Visual processing is the ability to perceive, analyze, and think in visual images. Visual discrimination is seeing differences in size, color, shape, distance, and the orientation of objects. Visualization is creating mental images.
Auditory processing of the situation: Auditory processing is the ability to perceive, analyze, and conceptualize what is heard. Auditory discrimination is hearing differences in sounds, including volume, pitch and duration.
Logic and reasoning of the information and situation: Logic and reasoning skills are the abilities to reason, prioritize, and plan.

SWAT warriors should focus on these cognitive thinking skills to quicken and more effectively respond to an adversary’s action(s). Creating training with realism is the primary factor that will help build better cognitive thinking skills so when SWAT cops are subjected to actual combat they will feel that they’ve already been there and been exposed to that environment.

There are several techniques you can use when training SWAT cops to achieve this, but introducing stress into all of your training is paramount. Stress can be as simple as physical activity such as running in full SWAT gear prior to engaging targets on the gun range, or performing SWAT tactics in full SWAT gear, with your protective gas mask donned, while being timed on the task. These are some simple ideas and obviously the list can go on and on — you’re only limited to your imagination in dreaming up different stress techniques. The key to introducing stress into your training is to make it applicable to what the training objective is and make sure you take your SWAT cops to that dark, uncomfortable place, over and over again.

Simunition scenarios are another great technique. Training on SWAT tactics using Simunition provides stress while conducting the training operation. The mere presence of the possibility you may be shot by simunition induces stress. Simunition induces stress on two levels. First is the fear of the sting when you’re shot but most importantly, SWAT cops do not want the stigma of being ‘the guy that got tagged’ by his adversary — it’s embarrassing. This is the time a lot of SWAT operators throw their tactics out the window and it’s a great time to capitalize on training points, as you will now have a captive audience. Processing speed, auditory perception, and divided attention are the focus of Simunition scenarios.

The best leaders in combat tend to be low motivators who can give instruction under perilous conditions. So try this technique to build leadership skills and induce stress for those who lack in leadership skills. Pick different team leaders for the day during training sessions, including less experienced officers. Then during the training day, throw challenging tasks at them that will incorporate some type of physical stress, with a deadline to complete the challenge and make the challenge some type of SWAT problem to work out like a hostage rescue, barricaded gunman, warrant service, or a physical challenge.

Incorporating a physical challenge into your training can be very simple. For example, take your two entry teams or split your team in half and have them compete against each other by pushing a police car up a hill for time and after they get to the finish line have them complete a SWAT tactic while being tired and winded. This is great for team building but when you add the SWAT tactic after they will be forced to use logic and reasoning under a great deal of stress from the competition and the physical aspect that was performed. On the gun range have the teams matched up in head-to-head competition, running and traversing obstacles while engaging targets. Range safety is paramount but head-to-head competition splits their attention, and they will train their auditory processing and visual processing skills while trying to move without endangering the other teams shooters. As the rookie team leaders command their team they will experience all of the above cognitive thinking processes and improve their cognitive thinking. The focus of this training is logic and reasoning as well as divided attention.

Observation training is another great technique that improves cognitive thinking skills. Give your SWAT cops a simulated scout mission during training such as a room in a building and have them proceed to that objective. Set up the room with items that are natural to that environment but also add things that can be critical pieces of intelligence to a SWAT commander. Give the scouts time to report to the team leader the intelligence they collect.

When they are finished you can evaluate the information — don’t be surprised by the difference in perceptions your officers will have. The focus to this training is the memory and the visual processing of the information.

The key component to training for cognitive thinking is repetition and intensity. You should strive to replicate the fear of the battle, the intensity, the uncertainty, the chaos, and the ambiguity of combat and repeat it over and over again until your SWAT warriors’ cognitive thinking process is as sharp as the knife in their pocket.

About the author

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

He is the author of the award-winning book Police Tactical Life Saver, which has been named the 2012 Public Safety Writers Association Technical Manual of the year. Glenn is also the owner of Rubicon Tactical Strategies and can be reached at

Glenn has instructed basic and advanced SWAT / Tactical officer courses, basic and advanced Sniper courses, Cold Weather / Winter Sniper Operations and Active Shooter Response courses, Terrorist Response course, Tactical Lifesaver Course and others. Sgt. French also served in the U.S. Army. During his military tenure Sgt. French gained valuable experience in C.Q.B., infantry tactics and explosive breaching operations.

Contact Glenn French.

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  3. Officer Safety

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