SIGHTING IN ON: Quality training instead of CYA

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If they can’t pass the test, they’re not ready for reality.
By Sara Ahrens

 

It should go without saying a police officer’s continued employment is contingent upon successfully passing his/her state’s annual firearms qualification. However, every year the same, small percentage of officers struggle to pass their annual qualification. It’s frustrating for them and even more so for the firearms instructors who are tasked with coaching officers in the midst of a department-wide qualification.

The truth is neither remediation nor coaching has any business occurring during a structured qualification; however, that decision usually is not up to those working the firing line. That decision usually comes from the administration and many times it is made in order to expedite officers back to duty. This accommodation communicates a dangerous message: “We accept failure.”

Even in today’s economy, there are still some agencies that provide their officers with range access, ammunition, targets, firearms instructors, and time (on duty) to maintain their marksmanship skills. It is almost offensive when these repeat offenders fail to take advantage of the additional opportunities their agencies offer. Even more offensive is the logical conclusion that these officers apparently are not concerned about their ability to defend themselves or others.

Qualifications are scheduled at roughly the same time of the year, hence the term annual. It’s not a secret event and neither is the fact that qualifications are never going away.  Maybe that’s why it’s perplexing to firearms instructors that those who continually fail also seem to be the officers who are least likely to invest their own time, money or energy into improving their skills. Marksmanship skills are the one skill that if absent, could cost an officer his/her job, or worse…his/her life. After several years of observation, participation, and decision-making in firearms training, the main obstacle to solving this ongoing problem seems obvious—it’s us!

Enabling Failure

Think about this: On the first day at the police academy, officers are told they will not, under any circumstances, graduate if they do not pass their firearm qualification. They will be terminated. The academy provides support and individualized training to those in need, but every cadet understands that marksmanship is a required skill. So what happens between an officer’s graduation from the police academy and his/her first qualification with his/her own agency? New officers may translate that change into the realization that once at their agency, it somehow becomes acceptable to fail, or at least it’s tolerated.

What typically happens when new officers arrive at their agencies is that their focus is changed. They learn how to perform the myriad of other functions necessary to become a successful police officer. This change in focus is a good diversion because it allows the officers who struggled to qualify at the academy to place those painful experiences out of their mind, which they will gladly do. If the agency doesn’t immediately and clearly communicate to their new officers they are responsible for remaining proficient with their firearms, then they are in essence enabling failure.

Verbally communicating expectations is necessary, but actions do speak louder than words. When an officer fails a qualification, the agency’s response sets the stage for the rest of that officer’s career. That response ultimately determines the level of responsibility the officer will assume. What’s the worst response? To coach and remediate that officer during the qualification and then send him/her back to work with one minimal, passing score. In order to understand why this response is problematic, we must first understand the difference between training, qualification and reality.

Training is to Qualification as Studying is to Test

Training is to qualification as studying is to test, but both are intended to prepare people for reality. Training, like studying, is supposed to be where learning, practice and coaching/mentoring occur. Open-book tests are a rare occurrence, especially with such high stakes as when a life is on the line.

Firearms qualification is a test that gauges to see if our officers are studying. This test is not supposed to be open-book and there shouldn’t be anyone verbally providing officers with the answers (such as ‘watch the front sight’, ‘press the trigger’, ‘sight picture’, ‘trigger reset’). The goal is for the officers to be able to say those cues themselves. If firearms instructors are allowed to provide the answers to officers during the test, what happens when the real test comes on the street? That test is called REALITY.  It’s the test where failure equals death or great bodily harm.

It’s a very bad idea to provide officers with the answers during the test and then put them on the street. What makes it more dangerous is the officers know they don’t possess the necessary knowledge and skills. The end result is that neither the agency nor the officer knows if they can handle themselves in a gunfight. Should the street decide to conduct its own test, both the officers and the agency may find themselves in a world of hurt.

If there is a problem identified during the test, it can be assumed that problem will be magnified in the real world. The cause of the problem should be identified during training and resolved on the spot. If an officer experiences a failure during a qualification, then it should be resolved in a separate remediation session where training and observation can occur without the need to divide attention. During remediation, the firearms instructor will have to determine if the cause for failure was a failure to study or a learning disability. Once the problem is identified, it must be addressed because, in the reality of police work, we aren’t allowed to fail our “tests” and there generally are no “retakes.”

How to Handle a Failure

There are several recommendations an agency should consider when faced with an officer who fails his/her qualification. If a failure is not handled properly, the officer, the agency, and the community may suffer the consequences. When a failure to qualify occurs, the agency should:

1. Send the officer home. The officer needs to understand it is unacceptable to fail.  If they can’t pass, they can’t work. The agency should never send an officer back to duty immediately after a failure. Without a doubt, failing a qualification mentally defeats an officer. This is an inappropriate mindset for a police officer and bad things can happen to officers who lack focus and confidence.

2. Immediately assign the officer to a structured remediation session after the qualification concludes. This remediation must initially identify any and all issues impeding the officer’s success. Issues can be as simple as equipment problems or as complicated as lacking multiple shooting fundamentals simultaneously or intermittently. Many times failure is the result of a mental obstacle.

3. During remediation, give the officer an individualized training plan with clear instructions. Make sure the training plan is demonstrated for them. Write it down and, if possible, videotape the proper performance. Once the issues are identified, provide drills that can be practiced at home (dry fire drills, magazine changes, or drawing from the holster) and drills that can be practiced at the range to correct specific issues. Be sure to emphasize safe methods for dry fire practice.

4. Explain to the officer the ramifications for continued failure (termination) and remind the officer that success is his/her responsibility. Assure the officer the agency will provide needed support. It is really important this conversation be frank and unambiguous. The burden of success must be placed with the officer.  The agency should only assume the responsibility of providing support and only if the officer seeks it.

5. Before the officers return to the streets, they should successfully pass two consecutive qualifications, not just one. They need to rebuild their confidence. One passing score may be a fluke in their mind, but not two.

6. There must be a fair policy in place that clearly draws the line in the sand regarding an agency’s level of tolerance for qualification failures and the policy must be applied consistently.

A Final Word of Caution

When an officer fails a qualification, the agency must be very careful about assuming responsibility for that failure. The officer must possess the motivation to cultivate skills that will save his/her own life. The agency should monitor their officers’ reactions, their level of personal commitment, and their motivation for resolving the issue. Their reactions may be indicative of bigger problems and may cause an agency to reconsider the retention of a certain officer.

Police work is a dangerous career and the responsibility to provide quality marksmanship training begins the moment an agency hires an officer. That responsibility necessarily falls on administration because they create and enforce the policies. The agency needs to create an environment that unequivocally communicates firearms proficiency is a bona-fide occupational necessity. Their officers must possess these basic marksmanship skills because in the real world, if other tactics fail, the officers need to be confident they can hit the target in order to defend life, especially their own.  PM

Sara Ahrens is a Patrol Sergeant with 17 years of service and a US Army veteran. Sara has held a variety of positions within her agency to include: Range Master, Master Firearms Instructor, Training Sergeant, Armorer, and SWAT Team Supervisor. Additionally, Sara participated in Season 3 of the History Channel’s Top Shot. She can be reached at sara.ahrens@yahoo.com.

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