Cops aren’t machines, even though most of our training treats us like we are.
By George T. Williams
“Discipline must be a habit so ingrained that it is stronger than the excitement of battle or the fear of death.”
—George S. Patton, General, US Army
The late Louis Awerbuck taught that surviving a gunfight is 95 percent luck. You just can’t control the suspect’s skills, cunning, or the stray bullet that has your name on it. You may react perfectly, tactically moving as you empty a magazine into the suspect’s vital areas, inflicting mortal wounds with each round. But in his dying reflex, he may fire and fatally wound you—and, unfortunately, all ties in a gunfight go to the suspect.
Control in a gunfight is limited. Within your purview of control are only the preparation of the skills and knowledge you bring to the fight, your decision-making within the law to respond early enough to make a difference, and your ability to control your emotional reaction to the attempt to murder you.
The mechanics of hitting a target are important. Skill development involves a moderately reliable level of accuracy on a square range rather than focusing only on tight groups. Teaching officers deadly force policy and the laws of defense of self and others should be a mandatory component of every training session—not just reading the policy or law but actually digging into what it means. Ease in the application of the law and policy, combined with the early recognition of the deadly force threshold, can be gained through force-on-force drills and scenario training. However, this preparation alone is apparently insufficient given the low rates of hits on suspects in many close-range shootings.
Fundamentally, the ability to reliably put bullets through a suspect who is attempting to murder the officer is as much about controlling emotions and overcoming fear as it is about skill alone… perhaps more. All deadly force training and, indeed, all force and tactical training must address the emotional component of responding with force to prepare the officer to meet the combative needs of the job.
Freeze, Flight, Fight
The survival strategy of ‘Freeze, flight, or fight’ is inherent in all mammals. Prey animals freeze because many predators key on movement. Like our mammalian counterparts we, too, demonstrate the same survival strategies. Everyone freezes to some degree when the unexpected happens—think meerkats at the first hint of alarm. It takes time to orient to the new situation. We tend to stop moving, hold perfectly still, and look in the direction of the alarm.
The next natural response is flight, or fleeing from danger. Fighting tends to be the last response of prey animals and is also the natural last response of untrained non-sociopaths. Training can change this, but only if the training is relevant to its application in the real world of threat. Effective police training creates the ability to quickly transition through the freeze state into the fight. This rapid reaction is necessary for many of the threats officers face in the street that are in proximity and unexpected.
Highly experienced military operators say surviving a gunfight is more about controlling emotions than it is about raw shooting ability. How we train officers through the entire range of skill responses, both on the range, in scenarios, and in the mat room creates the possibility of rapidly transitioning through the freeze and flight responses and into the fight stage where it becomes possible to prevent injury and death. And it is not simply more reps or more rounds fired downrange that constitutes a trained individual.
Transitioning Through the Fear
Having sufficient experience to automatically respond to an imminent threat means you have had the good fortune to have lived through enough threatening situations that your dominant survival response is to fight. For the rest of us mere mortals or the inexperienced, training must assist us in transitioning through that fear response to a functional level of skill competency.
First, recognize that freezing in the face of sudden danger is not a character issue. It is an emotional issue that must be over-written by a more positive or, put better, a more effective emotional response. A tiny portion of the brain, the amygdala, acts as the first filter of external stimulus entering the brain. Even before we consciously recognize something, say, a thin, long, coiled shape on the ground as we turn a corner, the filter of our amygdala causes us to jump back and away well before our rational brain recognizes it to be a coiled hose rather than a dangerous snake.
The amygdala is the first filter we have to quickly alert us to danger. It is not reasonable nor is it rational. It simply interprets a possible danger and sends an alarm to which the body reacts. It creates emotional integration and learning through association (associative learning)—it is a key part of how our memories embed and are retrieved from long-term memory. It is able to learn through reward (pleasure or not being injured) and punishment (injury or unpleasant consequences). In the training environment, the training of our officers’ amygdala responses prepares them to transition through the fear and better apply their skills when responding to sudden threat.
Mimicking: Training the Transition From Freezing to Fighting
In the training environment, it would be immoral to place officers into a situation where they might actually die to retrain the amygdala. All training, including the best scenario experience, has some degree of falsity—everyone knows they are not actually going to be shot or stabbed by the suspect/role-player. How can we override the emotionally based fear response that degrades actual performance if we are unable to duplicate the fear they must face in real life? Pushups and running sprints don’t do it. Being yelled at by up-range instructors won’t either.
We do this by mimicking the body’s fear response. Emotional responses (via the amygdala) create changes to the body’s systems. Fear causes physical alterations to cortisol levels in the blood, heart and breathing rates, blood distribution, vision and hearing, muscle tone, and ability to digest food. It can result in the bladder and/or bowels involuntarily voiding. It also creates psychological changes in pain tolerance, attentional focus, cognitive flexibility and adaptation, as well as memory and perceptual distortions. When we become truly fearful, our emotional response changes our physical body and mind, affecting our ability to apply the skills we have so carefully built.
What does sudden fright—the type that officers experience when they’re suddenly assaulted by a suspect who is close to them—look like? It looks like a ‘startle reaction,’ simultaneously eliciting the following:
• Your eyes go wide and your pupils dilate to gain as much light as possible and jerk your head to face the source or direction of that surprise or threat.
• You gasp, taking in a sharp intake of air. This is the body preparing for flight or fight. Most people will hold their breath following the initial gasp (remember: stillness).
• Your body moves, orienting your chest to that threat as you take an athletic stance (much like a linebacker, with your dominant-side foot back a bit), your body has a slight lean forward from the waist. Your body actually drops a bit, lowering your center of gravity.
• Your hands tend to come up to face level, palms out, your non-dominant hand slightly forward.
• Your shoulders rise, moving up and forward while your chin sinks a bit to better protect your extremely vulnerable throat and neck.
The reciprocal of that process also holds true: mimicking the physical response to sudden threat—the startle response—activates to some degree the amygdala’s emotional fear response. Emotional reprogramming can take place by mimicking the body’s reactions to fear. By taking in a sharp gasp, suddenly opening your eyes wide, while jerking your shoulders up and forward and quickly lowering your center of gravity, most people experience a slight to moderate cortisol (adrenaline) reaction. While some officers are too salty to try this, the large percentage quickly identify that there is an element of validity to the concept of duplicating in training the emotional environment where skills application intersects with the existential fear experienced in the street.
For example, in our range training, we ask you to close your eyes and imagine the face of the last person you thought was going to kill you. Every cop with a few weeks of street experience can conjure up this person’s face. Rather than paper targets, this is the person the shooter is shooting in response to imminently threatening actions. We then ask each person to explain or demonstrate what that imminent threat is doing to cause him/her to shoot the suspect. Upon every initiation command of “Threat!” (short for “imminent threat,” or that action by the suspect to which the officer is legally justified to respond with deadly force), the officer is directed to take a quick, sharp intake of breath, jerk his shoulders up and lower his center of gravity. This physical action creates an emotional tie (and a small adrenaline cocktail dump) to the response (hit the threat). The mind associates sudden threat with moving, drawing, and hitting the suspect rather than freezing as a survival strategy.
It’s the same in Defensive Tactics. During some of our drills, we will have the coach (not the ‘suspect’) begin a monologue in a low, menacing voice of how this coach wants to kill the officer and how he/she is going to do it. At first, many officers react with fear (strange how in a safe environment with someone that officer KNOWS won’t harm him/her, yet the brain reacts with a degree of survival emotions and fear). Just this monologue often causes the officer to speed up or become inappropriately intense. So instructors begin to coach these officers to calm down, to breathe, to focus on their skills as the coach continues his/her threats. Soon the officer is able to over-write previous programming and work comfortably with the coach. Then we change coaches’ instructions to produce a low, menacing, animal-like growl. We see officers instantly ratchet up in intensity, eyes-wide, breathing faster than the physical requirements demand even though there’s no change in the intensity of the coach working with that officer. Again, instructors coach them to breathe, to work at speed, to continue to problem-solve and function effectively. When the officer is able to calm down and work through the growling, we then have the coaches begin shrieking insanely. Officers often instantly seize up emotionally and physically, and are again coached back to effective emotional response—and reasonable physical response.
Incorporating this emotional integration into all aspects of training pays off in scenario training where, if the officer hitches up, we hit the pause button, and talk privately about not only what that officer is seeing but, as importantly, what he/she is feeling. If the officer is unable to identify his/her emotional response (or unwilling to share it), the instructor then describes what it looked like from the outside, how that emotion is negatively affecting the officer’s performance, and how to take the steps to counter it. We then rewind and continue to replay the event where the emotionally charged hitch occurred, with the officer taking that sharp intake of breath and bodily reaction to simulate being startled, until the officer signals that he/she can continue on without undue or negative emotional reactions. We then rewind and play forward toward success.
Sometimes we are forced to go back to our force-on-force exercises or even back to our drills to get the proper emotional reprogramming. For instance, one very experienced officer from a very busy large city was excellent in DT and fearless in contact simulations. On the range, he was very competent, handling his live-fire weapon competently while gaining solid hits. However, during force-on-force drills using Airsoft pellet weapons (face/eye protection with long-sleeve T-shirts only) prior to scenario exercises, he literally melted down. The first time the ‘suspect’ drew his weapon, the officer literally pirouetted, non-gun hand curled around his head, and emptied the magazine by blindly shooting behind him in the general direction of the suspect while being pelted by the suspect’s ‘bullets.’
The exercise was halted and he removed his protective mask. He was breathing as if he’d run a world record mile up stairs. His face was pale and he really couldn’t articulate what had just happened to him. We removed him from the exercise and talked about what he experienced. Embarrassed, he literally had a blank spot in his memory. Other than he knew he had been hit a lot, it hurt, and that meant he was dead—he had no clue what his physical response was.
Helping him to emotionally reprogram is the key. This officer’s response was not due to a lack of skills or deficiency of character. It was due to an overwhelming and inappropriate emotional programming. So we went back to the foundations of programming a positive physical response within his emotional experience.
• Intellectual Foundation: This is a combination of reinforcing his understanding of Early Orientation Markers,© or what threatening behavior looks like and how the body moves when the suspect is obtaining a deadly weapon or about to initiate an assault. It covered in depth the legal/policy basis for response. It also provided tactical suggestions such as movement and why that is often beneficial. Emotional reprogramming also included a discussion about mimicking the body’s startle response in training and why that was important.
• Drills: Drills including seeing a ‘suspect’/coach access a hidden firearm dozens of times with the officer mimicking the startle response and moving appropriately. As soon as the officer was successful, the next step was to have the coach draw and fire where the officer had been standing just a moment ago. That was sped up until it was “at speed.”
• Force-on-Force Drills: With the coach self-initiating a hidden draw, the officer gasped and moved. At first, the coach was tasked with firing around the officer (behind or in front) as the officer successfully moved and hit the coach. At one point, the officer became lackadaisical and arrogant in his movement because he wasn’t being hit. The coach was quietly directed to hit the officer twice if it happened again. Two sharp hits to the officer reinforced the need to remain focused. After that happened, the officer was properly motivated and continued to move and hit. Finally, the two combatants were directed to work ‘at speed.’
• Scenario Exercise: The officer was able to complete the scenario satisfactorily.
Cops aren’t machines, even though most of the training they undergo treats them as if we just need to give them the correct number of parts in a specific sequence and all will come together in a combative environment. Human beings are far more subject to their emotional programming than many care to admit. Everyone has some aspect of their life where emotional fluency hampers their effectiveness. When this negative emotional programming intersects their ability to competently respond with their skills on the street, it endangers their lives and the lives of officers and citizens.
Creating a training environment where officers are able to condition themselves to operate competently through drills where the normal emotional response is tied to the proper physical reaction assists them in responding competently in dangerous, high-risk situations. By simulating the physical response to overwhelming emotions, officers are better able to function and win.PM
George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He has been a Police Training Specialist for more than three decades, as well as an expert witness in federal and state courts nationwide and a widely published author for more than two decades. Mr. Williams develops and presents revolutionary concepts within integrated force training solutions through a problem-solving format, functionalizing police skills and tactical training. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.