Firearms: Shoot/Don’t Shoot Training on the Cheap
Every day we have officers that are on the street, or “in the stack” carrying a firearm that they are ready and prepared to use against another human being in defense of themselves or another person. These officers have been given a grave responsibility. It is our responsibility as leaders to train and equip them for. Anything less than the best we can provide is a disservice to them and our departments.
Let’s talk law suits. I know the thought alone makes us cringe and we prefer to stick our heads in the sand and wish them away, but that is not being realistic. Each of us have heard the horror stories and been given the warnings from previous law suits that we each deep down hope we will never face.
I want to specifically address a few court decisions that you may or may not be familiar with that impact our firearms training and qualification planning.
For many years, the courts have been telling us that our training should be more reflective of the actual conditions our officers will face when placed in a deadly force situation. In Popow v. City of Margate, the officer in question was chasing a suspected kidnapper and while running down the street shot and killed Mr. Popow. This shooting was considered accidental and the constitutional analysis of accidental shootings in this case is not used by the courts, but the aspects of training are still being cited.
The court determined during this case that the Officer in question, had received deadly force training in the Police Academy many years previous to the shooting and his continued training had involved bi-annual range days for qualification. The court specifically noted that there had been no specific training in low light, or moving targets and found that the training by the department was “grossly inadequate”.
Zuchel v. Denver involved the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and was based on officers responding to a disturbance call. The officers were informed that the subject they were looking for had gone around the corner of the building and when the officers observed Mr Zuchel, his back was turned to them and someone shouted that he had a knife. When Mr. Zuchel turned towards the officers, one of the officers fired 4 times, killing Mr. Zuchel. A pair of nail clippers was found next to Mr. Zuchel after the shooting and the other officer testified that she was “surprised” when her partner shot and killed Mr. Zuchel.
The city lost the civil suit and the city was ordered to pay $330,000 based on the cities liability due to failure to adequately train the officer. The case was appealed by the city and upheld partially due to a police training expert who testified that the only “shoot-don’t shoot training” that the officer had received “consisted of a lecture and a movie” and that this training was “grossly inadequate”.
So how about a success story. Young v. City of Providence was brought before the United States District Court of Rhode Island involved two officers who responded to a call of two women fighting and when they arrived, observed a male subject in the parking lot with a gun. One officer took cover behind a telephone pole and remained. The other officer, who had very recently completed field training, took cover behind the patrol vehicle. The officers ordered the man to put down the gun and get on the ground. The subject complied and the officer moved from his position behind the vehicle to maintain visual contact. A second male subject exited the restaurant brandishing a firearm and the officers ordered him to put the weapon down. When he did not comply, both officers fired killing the second male subject. It was later determined that the second male subject who was killed was an off-duty officer who was coming to assist. While this was a tragedy and a department’s worst nightmare, it brought some outstanding learning points about training.
The courts dismissed all “failure to train” aspects of the case based on clear documented training that was scenario based “shoot-don’t shoot” decision making. This training included interactive simulations. The court agreed that the department had given the officer real world training.
So what have we learned in the past years about how the courts feel about training? Are we taking these lessons to heart, or are we just hoping it won’t happen to us?
I know the first response is, “we can’t afford either the money or the time”. So let’s think outside the box a bit and look at how we can train shoot-don’t shoot decision making without spending a fortune of our training dollars that are becoming harder and harder to come by. While the methods I am going to share have not, to my knowledge, been tested in court, they are a vast improvement over no training at all. Check with your County Attorney about this and other options when it comes to training and work with your Police Union if you need to.
This about not only training our officers, but protecting them and our departments.
But we do qualifications. So what? I can take any person off the street and teach them to shoot at a paper target from a known distance and hit the paper with a few hours of training. While our State required qualifications are important, they are not necessarily training. Most of our required qualifications include a set number of rounds, from a known distance and are usually done in the daylight (hopefully when the sun is shining and it’s not too hot). The officers are shuffled through the qualification and only if they are struggling, do they get some “one on one” time with the instructor. Target shooting and accuracy is only part of the equation. What we have the potential to do when we teach precision target shooting only, is guaranteeing that our officers will hit the target, even when they shouldn’t be shooting at all. Do not take this to mean that precision shooting is not an important part of our training, but remember that it is only part, and should not be the whole of our training.
But we can’t afford it. Trust me when I say, I feel your pain. If I were to tell you the total of our departments training budget, most of you were need an emergency room because you hurt yourself laughing. Of course, not being able to afford it will never help you in court and in fact the lost lawsuit is going to make it much, much worse. When you are training a 10 officer Emergency Response Team for less half the price of a new squad car every year, you have a pretty good handle on how bad the money issue can be.
Of course we still have to train. Money or not. Realistic training does not have to cost a lot of money. We would all love to have a scenario based shooting simulator in the basement of our stations and all the overtime budget in the world for officers to use it. When you find that department, let me know, so I can put in my application. Until that department exists, let’s get to training.
As I looked at these high speed/low drag training simulators a pretty amazing thought struck me. I thought “this is some great training, but I can think of hundreds of different scenarios that should be in it.” Wait a minute. What exactly does this simulator have?
A screen, a projector, some videos, and some officers. “I could make one of these”. Of course I don’t have the ability to have laser guns that shoot the screen and register hits, but is that what I’m looking for? No, what I am looking for is training that places the officer in a position to use his or her head and make a decision based on the information presented. Does the officer have to actually shoot a real gun? While that is a great training set and I would love to have one that uses computers to register hits and times and all the cool bells and whistles, I can’t afford it.
What I could do is break out the old video camera and start making video files of scenarios. The sky is the limit. Get your officers together and create realistic scenarios. I’m not talking about the “zombie hoard coming down the street”, make scenarios that your officers are likely to face. Create scenarios that are indoors, outdoors, in schools, in mobile homes, on traffic stops. Your imagination is the limit to the different things you can expose your officers to.
Get some officers together and “act out” the scenarios. Use different clothes, different kinds of weapons and make sure you put in lots of “don’t shoot” scenarios. The object of the visual is to place your officer “behind the gun” in the video and let them “become part of the scenario”.
When you have a good bank of scenarios on video, you have the most important piece of you own simulator. So let’s use it. The best part of this idea is that it can be done anywhere you have access to a computer, a projector and a screen or even a white wall.
Set the mood. When you are doing night scenarios, turn off the lights. Set up an old light bar with a battery pack and get those lights flashing. Make your officers hold the flashlight in their off hand. Different scenarios can be done with the officer beginning the “walk through” with weapon holstered or in their hand. Have your officers do jumping jacks before the scenario to get the heart pumping. Make it as realistic as you can and mix it up.
Weapons safety. For our training, we use our actual duty weapons. If you want to do this, all weapons must be cleared personally by the instructor and verified by someone else. Take some yellow tape and put it around the front of the weapon as well as over the magazine well to ensure that no ammunition is used. You can also use “red/blue guns” for this training.
The reason our officers use their actual duty weapon is that when the scenario calls for a “shoot” I need to hear the click. The officer must actually pull the trigger. This is what makes it actual training instead of a “discussion” about the scenario. The officer must make a decision and act accordingly.
So, you want to take it a step farther, take your laptop and projector out to the range in the dark and put a white sheet up on a piece of plywood and let your officers use live ammo to work the scenarios. Again, your imagination is the limit.
Document the training. None of this training will matter if you don’t have it documented. Number your scenario files and track which ones your officers have done. Make a lesson plan. I will cover this in a later article. Keep this documentation organized and safe. Assume that next week you are going before the Supreme Court with your documentation because someday you just might. Officers, if your instructor is not documenting your training, do it yourself and get his or her signature on it. Keep your own documentation. It’s your career and your butt on the line.
When a jury wants to know if you or your officers have received decision shooting training, you can confidently affirm that they have and will have the ability to back it up.
Written and Submitted by Corey D Roberts
Officer Corey D Roberts is full time Police Officer and twice deployed combat veteran. Corey is an NRA Law Enforcement Select-fire Instructor and held the positions of Training Officer and Tactical Commander for a Multi-Jurisdictional Emergency Response Team. Corey is also qualified in Police Precision Rifle.