It is imperative that commands during confrontation be clear, concise and consistent with other officers. The author recommends, “Police, don’t move!” Photo R.K. Miller
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Probably like many of you, my years as a student going through firearms training normally consisted of getting on line facing a target with my handgun at the ready or in the holster. The instructor running the range would then give the fire command, and we would blaze away at the target until we had expended the requisite number of shots to finish the course of fire. This process was repeated over and over throughout my career.
At some point after I became a firearms instructor and thanks to folks a lot smarter than me I realized and accepted that there was an important element missing from this training regimen. This missing aspect was some form of a Challenge Drill that should be incorporated into law enforcement firearms training on a regular basis.
What do I mean by the phrase Challenge Drill? Basically, it's included in normal courses of fire to reinforce the fact that on the streets, we don't shoot our weapons every time we confront a subject. If you look at firearms training as described in the opening paragraph, however, that's exactly what we're training officers to do. In the context of justified lethal-force encounters, we obviously want them to respond with accurate fire.
Contrary to the TV and movie depictions of our jobs, the reality of the streets is that we don't get into gunfights each time we draw our weapons. I can look back on my less-than-stellar 30-year career as a street cop and remember some of the many times I pointed my firearm at a suspect. In comparison, I pressed the trigger only once. The rest of the time, I was demanding that the people in front of me comply with my orders, and they usually did just what I told them to do.
So, here's where the Challenge Drill comes into our firearms training. We should condition our officers on the range for shoot as well as no-shoot situations. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It s been mentioned a number of times in case law regarding law enforcement firearms training.
The Challenge Drill can be easily incorporated into existing training just by the instructor first talking to the officers about it, and then during the course of fire, calling out without warning a word such as challenge instead of the command to fire. If a student does press the trigger at the sound of this word or whatever you choose then they're in range-robot mode and aren't thinking before using lethal force. The shooter heard a sound and started firing rather than processing the information and making a conscious decision to shoot.
Taking this a step further, it might be a good idea for the firearms instructors to encourage the acceptance of a department-wide challenge verbalization. The goal here is to develop consistency throughout the department that will be used by all your officers. Bad things can and perhaps will happen if simple, consistent commands aren't used. For example, two officers confront a suspect who s a potential lethal threat. They don't have enough information to use deadly force just yet, but it's one of those times you know what I'm talking about when they're getting pretty darn close to sights on center mass and pressing the trigger.
By definition, this is a stressful situation that frequently happens in police work. As this scenario develops, if one officer is yelling Show me your hands! while simultaneously the other officer is yelling Don t move! , what s wrong with this picture? Number one, the officers may be so amped up, they don t realize what the partner officer is saying to the suspect at the same time. Number two, if a con-wise suspect is involved, they may key on the officers confusion and handling of the situation. This could translate into the suspect going on the offensive due to the officers own communication problems and lack of control.
A final scenario may develop with the officer yelling Don t move now seeing the suspect moving his hands in compliance with the other officer's orders, but again the fact that the partner is giving that command doesn't register. The first officer fires in reaction to the suspect moving their hands and not following commands.
Can this happen? You bet. Are we on solid legal and moral bedrock for this use of lethal force? I know my answer to this question. What are your thoughts?
A way to proactively address this potential problem is to establish some type of generally accepted opening command with a suspect. For me, I like Police! Don't move! I m a 30-year cop realist, so I know it may not work under all circumstances or for you specifically. But I prefer this for a number of reasons. First, it clearly identifies us as law enforcement officers. Second, it gives a quick, firm and clear command to the suspect. Third, it can alert other officers nearby that I m confronting someone just by the fact that they hear me say Police! Don t Move! It s even better if nearby civilians also hear our commands.
Once this verbalization has been adopted by officers it can be practiced and justified through other training, such as realistic force-on-force scenarios. So, from an effective tactical communications standpoint, using an economy of words, such as Police! Don t Move! works for me, especially in stressful situations with multiple officers confronting the suspect. Once we have communicated that command, the next step is up to the suspect. As we know, they often decide what s going to happen next.
Let s return to the range with this Challenge command in mind. Throwing the Challenge command into firearms practice gives the instructor feedback on the student s level of focus during the training at hand. I suspect as well that the offending officer s pride will be impacted by the embarrassment of ignoring the Challenge when everyone else on the line complied. This could be the best way short of shooting an individual without proper justification for the officer to grasp the importance of such awareness.
Instructors should be prepared for a variety of reactions from students when they do shoot on the Challenge command. The best would be the officer immediately recognizes the mistake and concentrates on not letting it happen again. If embarrassed, however, students may let their ego get in the way of the learning process.
Another example of behavior triggered by the Challenge command may be laughter from the student with a statement like, Well, he deserved it anyway. This attempt to dodge or minimize responsibility for one's actions should not be allowed during lethal-force firearms training. The instructor should immediately address this behavior to reinforce the ethical, moral, decision-making and tactical awareness issues that go with such an attitude.
Another aspect of the Challenge command that should be understood by those involved is the reality of how such verbalization is applied on the streets. As my friend Dave Gledhill, manager of the NRA s law enforcement training unit puts it: There s a time to talk and a time to shoot. In a gun fight, you ve got to know what time it is. What does this mean? Essentially, if a suspect is pointing a gun at you, using any kid of dialog that doesn't start with an immediate trigger press could be very wrong. We should be using lethal force appropriately.
But each time I teach a firearms class, I usually have at least one student who begins barking orders, such as, Drop the weapon, upon hearing the command to fire. This is wasted time in a gunfight that can never be reclaimed! The use of the challenge and similar orders should come only if the suspect doesn't pose an immediate lethal threat. That awareness can be developed in an officer's spontaneous lethal-force decision making through good effective firearms training that should include the Challenge Drill.
If you've traveled with me through this discussion to the end, I thank you, but also ask that you just give it a try. Throw in the Challenge command on the range, discuss it with your fellow use-of-force instructors, talk it over with the cops on your squad. Give it a chance to do some good, so the day when one of the young officers you ve trained is in a real lethal-force situation, they ll have the mental awareness under stress to challenge or shoot based on what the suspect does and not based on range-robot factors that could cause a tragically wrong response for that officer.