Photos courtesy Dave Spaulding
Instructors who feel impervious to error haven't placed themselves in their students' shoes. Don't fall into a rut of thinking you have all the answers and are not subject to error. Photos courtesy Dave Spaulding
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I took my first firearms instructor course in 1980. I'll never forget what the lead instructor said on the first day: "Never shoot in front of your students. If they see you cannot accomplish the skill you are trying to teach, they will lose faith in the technique and will be less likely to do it themselves." At the time, this advice seemed to make sense. Today, I realize it's the largest load of crap heaped on anyone who wants to be a serious instructor of defensive skills. No one wants to look bad, especially in front of officers we try to reach with a message that will help them prevail in life-or-death circumstances. But refusing to demonstrate a skill in front of students just to save face is one of the biggest mistakes an instructor can make.
Never forget what we in law enforcement really do. Yes, we perform many public safety functions, but our primary mission is to place ourselves between the honest citizens we serve and the criminals who wish to rip them off or do them harm. To do this, we need to confront hostile suspects and deliver force with greater skill than our opponents. In simple terms, police firearms training should give officers the skills they need to save both themselves and others from deadly attack. The difference between police officers and the citizenry is police officers intentionally place themselves in harm's way, and if their defensive skills are not up to the task, they perish. This is the harsh reality of police work.
Police firearms trainers must instill as much skill as possible in their students with the limited training time available. As much as we don't like the concept, we know law enforcement officers are minimally trained with their sidearm. After graduating from the academy, where they receive the most firearms training of their career, the majority of police officers go to the range only one to four times a year. Why so few? Because it's all their agency will pay for, and many officers won't practice with their primary piece of defensive equipment unless compensated, even if the purpose is to defend their own lives. The reality: Every agency firearms instructor encounters and trains complacent officers who don't consider shooting skills important. So, firearms instructors must keep skills simple, effective and easy to perform. If an officer can't call upon a skill months after a few hours of training, then the skill carries no value.
To better assess a skill's validity, instructors must continue to experience training from a student's point of view. Instructors may easily fall into positions of "shadow superiority" as day after day they watch officers in training repeat the same mistakes. Because instructors stand on the sidelines, anticipating the correct responses and techniques, they easily assume they will always perform well. Truth be known, this is false confidence. Let me give you a few examples involving one of my favorite students me.
For many years, I stressed the need to verbalize commands to suspects while shooting or performing subject-control techniques because it's vital for officers to know how to convey directions to a suspect. Like many instructors, I told my students to yell commands such as "Let me see your hands" and "Stop and turn around 360 degrees. Keep your hands where I can see them!" Sounds reasonable, right? Easier said than done, but I wouldn't have known this if I had not participated as a student. In this case, I performed an arrest scenario using an Airsoft training gun against a suspect who was hiding a knife. I confronted the suspect, pointed my gun at him and yelled, "Let me see your hands!" As he pulled the large knife from his coat, I kept yelling, "Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands!" even though he had his hands right out in front of him. According to other students in the class, I kept yelling the same phrase right up until he attacked me with the knife. I stopped the attacker, but my verbal command never changed even though it wasn't appropriate. I have no idea why I did this. Had I been the course instructor watching on the sidelines with the knowledge of what was going to happen, I would have thought the student lacked skills.
This incident made me re-think how I teach verbalization during confrontation. I'm someone who practices regularly and understands how humans deteriorate under stress, and if I could screw this up, how could I expect such a high level of performance from the minimally trained officer? After this wake-up call, I simplified the verbalization skills I teach. I now use what I call the Get family, which uses the word "get" for every warning: "Get down," "Get back," "Get away," etc. I add to this family the ever-popular "Stop" a command that covers many situations and is easy to say, even when a situation grows extremely tense. Over time, I've seen the Get family work quite well in the street, but had I not been a student again, I would have continued on as before.
Even simple shooting drills can prove problematic if something unexpected happens. During a carbine course I attended recently, I performed a snake (or weave) drill, in which I moved among orange cones, depressing the gun's muzzle when I crossed a cone (as if it were a person), then raising the gun and shooting once I was clear of the cone. During this drill, a malfunction locked up my AR-15 as tightly as Fort Knox. Instead of transitioning to my handgun (the correct response), I tried to clear the uncooperative gun. The harder I tugged on the gun, the more it resisted, and I got really pissed! As I tried to clear the gun, I moved off the target line, and the safety officer had to stop me. Not good, but it happens, and it happens to everyone at one time or another. Truth is, I'd rather it happen to me in training than in the field. Humbled again, I realized I needed to be more understanding of the failures of my students.
Instructors who feel impervious to error haven't placed themselves in their students' shoes. Don't fall into a rut of thinking you have all the answers and are not subject to error. This smug attitude not only leads to loss of respect from your students, it also makes you less of an instructor. A good instructor must understand the task from all points of view.
While recognizing their own fallibilities, instructors must possess enough confidence to be willing to demonstrate skills. Merely explaining a technique is never enough. Most students begin to learn skills best by seeing an example. Thus, the instructor must be good enough to physically demonstrate the skill so students can imitate the instructor's example. If the skill should be executed within a timeframe, the instructor must be able to perform it in that amount of time (preferably faster). Modeling the skill not only gives students something to duplicate, it also boosts their confidence in the technique because they have seen its successful execution. If you flub-up the drill, don't sweat it. Tell the class no one is perfect, and do it again. You'll be surprised by how forgiving a class can be. But then you should know that, because you, too, were a student once.
Stay safe and check 360 often.