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When 'less is more' in police training

As much as possible, design and practice techniques that use redundant core skills — keep it simple and keep it effective

The statement, “One can become a jack of many trades, and a master of none” applies to law enforcement defensive tactics training as well as it applies to anything. An officer can be taught dozens of techniques — handcuff a suspect, apply control holds, disarm a suspect, use a baton as an impact weapon — and after being exposed to these multiple techniques, the officer may have not truly learned any of them unless he/she is given the appropriate amount of time and repetitions to make the technique “mindless.”

There is a temptation as a trainer to design a new and very different solution to every variant of the same basic problem. If the trainer falls prey to this temptation, it might lead to a curriculum including multiple technique “responses” for the same problem “stimulus.” Each of these different responses would only apply to a slight variation of the same stimulus. Officers learn in the basic academy how to respond to a situation where a suspect pulls a handgun on them at close range (“weapon take-away” for ease of reference).

Keep it Simple...
It can become completely overwhelming if these weapon take-away techniques are taught differently for each potential type of attack. Soon the student must learn a very different response for a weapon take-away depending on which angle of attack the suspect is taking and which hand the suspect is holding the gun in. Under stress of having a handgun stuck in his/her face, it is unrealistic to believe that an officer will be able to analyze the several variables and then sort through the “card catalog of techniques” in their mind to select the appropriately specific response.

With every fix of a “tactical problem” we sometimes create another or more serious problem. Unless the officer can spend sufficient time to master each and to build the neural pathways under stress he/she will never really become proficient. In that same thought, unless the officer has mastered the technique to the point that it becomes an automatic response to the stimulus, too many technique choices may increase the time lag in the decision-making process of the officer, thus creating a dangerous stall point where the officer is more vulnerable.

About one year ago my training partner went to a weeklong train-the-trainer ground fighting school. This class was advertised as a “law enforcement” class to learn techniques that would be applicable to law enforcement officers while on the ground with resistive/combative subjects. In this 40-hour school they learned more than 80 different ground fighting techniques. That roughly translates to two techniques per hour or sixteen techniques per day. Remember that this course was designed to be a train-the-trainer course. How realistic of a goal can it be to learn and retain 80+ different techniques in 40 hours to an end-user level, let alone an instructor competency level?

There are training systems that teach several — if not dozens of — ways to strike with a baton as an impact weapon. Some of these techniques look very pretty when practiced on the mat with little or no stress but have little application in a law enforcement baton application. We have to be honest with ourselves — as an impact weapon the law enforcement baton is a stick, not a sword or other mystical ninja weapon. The baton is designed to hit other people with. Teaching officers several different impact weapon strikes using overly complicated skill techniques is not an efficient way to spend your training hours.

Those officers may be able to perform the skill in the sterile environment of the mat room after several hours of practice. However, when put under the stress of a real fight, they will most likely use the baton as a stick.

Do a Self-Assessment
How much time do you really have to practice? Practicing defensive tactics is an important task and it should be a priority to all law enforcement officers. There also needs to be a reality check with some honest evaluation of how much time is available for good practice. Most officers today have several things happening in their lives that preclude them from practicing and honing their defensive tactics skills on even a monthly basis. With the reality that practice hours do not come around too often, officers should make the best use of that valuable time by concentrating on fewer techniques that are less complicated.

Make Effective Use of Your Training Time
Many skilled and competitive martial artists will tell you they have learned hundreds of different techniques in their art. They will also tell you that when they compete they only have three and five “go to” moves. These are the techniques that they have mastered and feel most confident in.

When the training hours present themselves, stay with techniques that are principle based and involve gross motor skills as much as possible. Principle based skills have more overall usefulness than techniques that have a very specific stimulus/response sequence that must be followed exactly in order for the technique to work. A humorous example of a technique that is overly dependent on stimulus (edged weapon attack)/response sequence is the Jim Carrey video from “In Living Color.”

Techniques that require fine motor skill manipulations also require more attention to successfully complete. This may divert the officer’s attention from other problems that may require it. It is also well understood that under stress fine motor skills will be diminished. Utilizing techniques based in gross motor skills will give the officer a better chance at being able to complete the skill under stress induced situations.

As much as possible, design and practice techniques that use redundant core skills. If the lower body mechanics of a baton strike are the same as the lower body mechanics of a weapon retention technique, they have redundant core skills. Take advantage of these redundancies to get more training accomplished and to facilitate transference of skills.

Static line drills are an important step to introduce the basic mechanics of any new law enforcement defensive tactic skill to the student. These drills can be accomplished in many ways. The complexity of the skill and the skill level of the students will determine how much static practice is needed. In any event, the skill should be practiced enough so that the technique becomes practically “mindless.” Once the student has an understanding of the technique, insert reality-based training that requires the student to make proper decisions about how and when to use the technique.

Defensive tactics training is an important part of any law enforcement officer’s duties. Keep it simple and keep it effective.

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