Low Light Firearms Training
If an officer is to be involved in a shooting, it will most likely occur in low light conditions. It is in the dark that misidentifications of weapons or people occur that can result in tragic consequences as well as civil liability and the loss of officers.
Under stress, officers respond the way that have been taught to respond. Stories abound of officers, following a shooting, emptying their revolver cylinders into any bucket like container they can find because that is what they had been taught to do on the range. If such behavior can be trained into an officer, why isn’t the same training producing positive, survival-oriented behaviors?
The answer requires law enforcement professionals to re-evaluate their training paradigms.
- Trainers need to have a better understanding of human performance under stress.
- Training programs should be developed upon adult learning principles rather than through intuition or worse “the way that we have always done it.”
- Agencies and officers must accept the moral obligation to assume responsibility for quality, useful training is a leadership and professionalism issue.
The Israeli Defense Forces have a rule of thumb regarding training resources. If 30% of combat will occur at night, then 30% of their training will occur at night. Therefore, if 60% of officer shootings will occur in low light conditions, why are the majority of firearms qualifications occurring during daylight hours?
Given the notoriously poor accuracy of officer-involved shootings, something is obviously lacking in firearms training. Researcher Thomas Aveni says it best “But when it comes to the way in which we train police officers to assure their own survival, and the survival of others, we’ve clung to old, problematic paradigms.”
Human Performance and Stress
Human perception is a complicated system at the best of times. In a shootout, officers rely on habits, expectations, and experience built before the incident to better react to an impending threat. Task complexity and an individual’s response to stress are important factors when predicting how an officer will respond to a sudden threat.
Certainly physical health is important as well. In a dark environment, visual acuity may drop to as low as 20/400 or 20/800. Lack of physical conditioning may cause a spike in blood pressure and heart rates to soar. Even blood sugar levels and the previously eaten meal play into an officer’s physical response to an engagement in a dark room.
Consider the complexity of the cognitive, perceptive, and physical actions that must be negotiated before a response to a sudden attack. Cognitively, task complexity is defined by the number decisions, the number of alternative decisions, and the required sequence of the decisions. All of these complicate responding to an attack before the issues of perception and physical action also enter the equation. With diminished physical capabilities in the dark, officers must discern between limited, conflicting cues and then engage in complex motor actions to respond to the threat. All of these actions and decisions occur within fractions of a second and under stress.
Moving from a brighter environment into darkness will negatively affect an officer’s eyesight and visual perception. A day patrol officer stepping into a dark basement or a night shift officer switching on the map light before getting out of the squad car will take 40 minutes to fully adjust to the darkness. If so much as a quick flash of light occurs, vision will immediately deteriorate.
Vision functioning will naturally deteriorate due to high stress situations and without sufficient lighting, the eye cannot form an accurate image of the environment. Research has demonstrated that even in lighting as bright as car headlights, test subjects were not very good at detecting threat objects such as a large revolver from non-threat objects.
Due to the poor visual functioning, an ambiguous image is transmitted to the brain from the retina. The image is integrated with cognitive, memory and emotional images that can distort the officer’s perception of what or who is being seen. This creates errors that affect judgment and places the officer and public at risk. An officer’s ability to see, properly identify a threat and properly engage the threat in low light, hinges on one thing-the availability of light.
Pre-planning offensive responses, visualization, and reality-based training helps to improve a human’s response to a shooting in any lighting condition. Building an officer’s confidence in their equipment and their abilities to function is an important aspect of training. Further, understanding the role that nutrition, physical conditioning, and health plays in surviving a shooting identifies topics that need to be introduced in law enforcement training.
Adult Learning and Police Training
Adults require engagement to learn new skills. For an adult, learning is very much an interactive exchange of ideas rather than rote drills. Officers will need to be actively involved and learn through experimentation to understand the practical application and advantages of any new skill or technique. In law enforcement, new skills can mean the survival of officers or innocents.
Too often, police training is unimaginative or lacks engagement simply because it takes work to read research and write new courses. Further, police administrators tend to avoid innovative training programs simply because it is politically and professionally safer to stick to the status quo. Even in the face of research, police leadership tends to make decisions based upon their experience and biases.
In the face of law enforcement tendencies, add the complicating factors of an aging police force. The days of 20-year retirements are all but history resulting in officers serving into their 60s before retiring. Police trainers have to appeal to not only rookie 20 something, but also to older new hires entering law enforcement as a second career and older officers who have served over 30 years. Older officers have their own needs:
- Officers must realize that they need the training and that they will benefit from learning the skills.
- They must understand what they are expected to learn from a strategic and tactical perspective.
- Officers need to practice new skills and demonstrate what they have learned in the class and while in the field.
- They require positive reinforcement that they are learning the new skill.
- Individual blocks of instruction need to be presented in a logical sequence.
- Older officers must be motivated to learn and actively participate in training.
Regardless of the trainee’s age, considering the probability of low light shootings and human behavior, firearms training needs to move from paper and pepper poppers to dynamic scenarios in which targets shoot back and behave unexpectedly like real people do. Police training tends toward the fantastic “high speed-low drag” firearms training rather than the mundane – which kills far more officers than active shooters. It’s the traffic stop, not the sniper that kills officers.
Returning to the IDF rule of thumb, if 60% of shootings occur in low light conditions and 50% of engagements are within five feet, that is where training should be focused. This is not to say that school shooting scenarios or long pistol courses be ignored. They just shouldn’t be emphasized as much.
Police shootings do not occur in a vacuum. There are situational, organizational and environmental factors involved that affect the course of an incident. Aircraft investigators understand that few aircraft accidents occur as the result of a single issue, but a chain of failures and decisions that lead to a catastrophe. Police trainers need to examine tasks and core competencies involved in police activity addressing issues as a whole and not just one aspect such as marksmanship.
Aveni and other researchers recommend not only firearms training in low light conditions, but exercises in simple, realistic likely to be encountered scenarios that require situational awareness and decision making. Simunitions, Air Soft, and other training weapons add a dynamic element to training that simulates combat. Officers who experienced targets that shoot back performed better in simulated shootouts with subsequent exposure. Even the use of visualization techniques in which the officer mentally rehearsed the use of lethal force improves performance.
Research regarding reactions during traffic stops indicates that more practice, more training and more visualization in realistic scenarios is needed regardless if the training is about low light shooting or any tactical aspect of law enforcement Force Science news. The key to effective training is not more technology but more creativity to create realistic exercises with the objective of protecting lives.
Moral Obligations, Leadership, and Professionalism
Police officers typically characterize themselves as modern day centurions or warriors. Although this acknowledges the profession of arms and the protective nature of police work, police officers often do not acknowledge the true warrior ethos. On the part of agencies and individual officers, there is a moral obligation to fellow officers and the citizens to be capable and proficient in the intelligent and skillful use of their weapons.
Indeed, in some law enforcement circles, it is offensive to label the various articles of police equipment such as expandable batons, flashlights, TASERS or pistols as weapons. Regardless of how they are referred, that is exactly their purpose. In a profession of arms, it is morally negligent for an officer to not be proficient and morally negligent on the part of the agency to not require proficiency. Proficiency requires the safe and accurate use of weapons under all conditions.
This is a leadership issue incumbent on police administrators to maintain the same mindset and proficiency as street officers. What distinguishes military from police leadership is that a military officer’s primary responsibility is war fighting. An Army Finance Corps officer is expected to possess the same core skills as an infantry officer.
Although it is the department’s responsibility to properly train officers, ultimately it falls upon the individual officer to maintain their skills. In a low light fire fight, it is the individual who pays the price for improper or insufficient training. Having read this article, the reader now understands that 60% of their personal training time should be utilized on moving and operating in the dark.
Ignoring the reality of low light shootings isn’t going to change the facts. Training police officers to succeed in low light lethal encounters requires updated training paradigms, better equipment, and professionals who are intent on protecting their lives and the lives of the public. Law enforcement training should encompass the basic skills but also address the foundational issues of stress, nutrition, and physical conditioning. The example set by administrators, field supervisors, and senior officers will influence the survival of future generations of law enforcement officers.
Dave Thornton, MPA is an experienced law enforcement trainer and college educator. He consults for Tactical Design Labs and Pioneer Forensics LLC as a trainer, writer and course developer. He is an active member in the International Association for Identification, the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and American Society for Training and Development.
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