How to train cops for a terrorism threat

Trainers must expose cops to high levels of simulated stress and develop scenarios that force them to make critical decisions


Preparing America's Cops For Terrorism in 2017: PoliceOne is providing special coverage on terrorism to help law enforcement prevent, combat and recover from a terrorist attack. Our expert columnists address prevention, preparedness, training, mitigation, response, recovery and lessons learned from incidents on U.S. soil. Check out all of our coverage here.

By Brian Ruck

Since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, police agencies, large and small, have been training to respond to incidents involving active violence and mass casualties. As with any threat, the mechanisms for attack and response have evolved for the attackers and first responders. Now, as officers continue to prepare to defend the public from attacks, we are faced with more ambush scenarios targeting the defenders. We are dealing with the specter of international extremist groups, such as ISIS, threatening and attacking the homeland.

Although self-reliance is an admirable trait, officers need to be trained to understand the power of the team.
Although self-reliance is an admirable trait, officers need to be trained to understand the power of the team.

As police agencies across the country grapple with higher calls for service with less personnel resources per capita, how do we effectively prepare and train to meet the enhanced threats? How do we balance the challenges of policing in the 21st century with the need to give our officers the confidence, skills, and most importantly, aggressive mindset to overcome the evolving threats? Teamwork development, consistency in curriculum and stress inoculation involving rapid decision making are the core concepts to any effective training plan.

Developing effective team building exercises

Many law enforcement agencies regularly deploy single officer patrol units. Depending on the size of the jurisdiction and available resources, these officers become accustomed to working alone in their mobile office. Although self-reliance is an admirable trait, officers need to be trained to understand the power of the team regardless if it’s two or fifty.

When I teach small unit tactics to new or veteran police officers, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is communication. When faced with a high-stress training scenario many trainees forget they have a team of officers with them, and they perform poorly because they act as individuals and not teammates. Team building exercises must be performed on a regular basis initially in the academy, and then the exercises should be incorporated periodically throughout an officer’s career. The team building exercises will benefit officers by requiring them to work together on calls for service instead of acting as individuals.

If your agency has the resources for scenario-based training, develop evolutions that will fail if the students do not perform as a team. This type of training should not be shunned as being a set up for failure, but rather embraced as a way to show your trainees as individuals they are strong but as a team they are invincible. 

It is vitally important to ensure all instructors relay a consistent and unified message to the trainees. Depending on the size of the agency and academy configuration (department specific or regional) maintaining a consistent curriculum will be a challenge. Academy directors should strive to develop a dedicated cadre of instructors to regularly teach these concepts so the same message is delivered in the same manner during each training session.

Active shooter training

I started training officers to respond to active shooter events in 2003. Since then, the training has evolved from basic interior movement to include our Paramilitary Attack Counter Offensive Plan program. Our PACOP program includes enhanced stress inoculation training, heart rate testing during scenarios, and most recently, integration with fire and rescue personnel. One of the staples of the training program is to ensure consistency in training and tactics. It doesn’t matter what tactical discipline your agency chooses to employ as long as you maintain the fundamental concepts.

I use the term ‘lowest common denominator’ during instructor schools to ensure trainers focus on engraining the basic tactical concepts and decision-making skills into the trainees. Ensuring officers understand the fundamentals of cover, tactical movement, weapons handling and communication through repetitive walkthrough training will allow them to perform the tasks under simulated or actual stress. This truly needs to be a gross motor skills approach so officers, regardless of tactical ability, can master these core concepts.

Stress inoculation training

As agencies struggle with civil unrest stemming from officer-involved shootings, we, as trainers, are mandated by principle to effectively train our officers to operate under extreme stress. We are failing as trainers if we don’t expose students to high levels of simulated stress and develop scenarios that force them to make critical decisions while dealing with a stress response.

This needs to be designed as a building block approach since officers who have never truly experienced their stress response may completely freeze and subsequently will gain little from the training. Ideally this stress inoculation starts at the academy level to help new recruits transition into their new role and mentally prepare to operate at the highest level in the worst situations.

Measuring heart rates during training

In 2009, we conducted a heart rate study to demonstrate how consistent training and mental preparedness can affect performance and physical stress response. The medical community has clearly defined how our heart rate affects us physiologically and psychologically. At 175 beats per minute, the average person will start to experience tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, impaired decision making and fight, flight or freeze response. 

The study tested two different groups of officers during a scenario involving high levels of stimuli to elicit stress response. The scenario involved rapid response, decision-making and extended periods of movement.

As expected, the SWAT officers handled the scenario more effectively than the patrol officers, and their heart rates illustrated they managed the stress better than the patrol officers. The SWAT officers completed the extensive scenario almost 15 minutes faster, their heart rates stayed well below the 175 beats per minute threshold, and they communicated effectively and operated as a team.

Conversely, over 90 percent of the patrol officers had heart rates reach 175 beats per minute and several spiked to over 200 beats per minute. As a whole, the patrol officers had difficulty communicating with each other and experienced high levels of auditory exclusion when tested by instructors during the scenario.

Does this mean that the SWAT officers are better cops than the patrol group? No, it does not. It simply illustrates that members of a highly functioning tactical unit, who train and operate multiple times a week in high-stress environments, function more effectively than those who don’t have the opportunity to consistently train and operate while experiencing a stress response. 

A separate study, conducted at the same time, showed patrol officers were more likely to shoot an unarmed role player when their heartrate was raised above 175 beats per minute.  As police officers, we know there are multiple factors that determine how we make decisions when faced with a potential threat. As police trainers, however, we need to force our trainees to experience a stress response during training or we will fail to prepare them for a real-world confrontation.                

Most agencies have limited funding and staffing, so it is imperative to use time and resources effectively during any training evolution. This is achievable, regardless of constraints, if the instructors have clear training objectives in mind and focus on the most important aspects of response to these critical incidents. 

Because of the new threats police officers face, training programs need to give officers the ability to train functionally in multiple environments and disciplines. Keep in mind, the goal is to train the fundamental concepts for each topic – lowest common denominator – while allowing the student to experience several different applications of the training.

Research shows us that officers will freeze up under simulated stress or fail to make decisions because they are completely overwhelmed with stimuli. This mandates trainers to test students under simulated stress so they understand their individual reaction. At some point in their career these officers may be called upon to run toward the sound of gunfire, so let’s prepare them to respond as a force multiplier to meet any threat they face with confidence and resolve.


About the Author
Lieutenant Brian Ruck has served with the Fairfax County Police Department for eighteen years. This includes fourteen years of experience as a SWAT operator, firearms instructor and tactics trainer. Lieutenant Ruck has been the lead trainer for the department’s active shooter programs since 2005 to include the nationally recognized Paramilitary Attack Counter Offensive Plan (PACOP) model. He was also responsible for coordinating the joint police / fire Rescue Task Force response training in 2015. He is currently assigned as the Police Liaison Commander to the county Department of Public Safety Communications center.               

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