Incorporate post-force tactics into the firing line.
Incidents don’t end immediately after shots are fired. Firearms instructors must bear this in mind and incorporate it. Incorporate post-force tactics into the firing line. Photo Courtesy R.K. Miller
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It’s a given that we train our officers in using their firearms to prepare them for lethal force encounters. This may seem obvious, but from my experience, firearms instructors may want to pursue this concept beyond their current standards. This opinion stems from a relatively simple force-on-force drill we use during both the Basic Police and SWAT academies.
We begin this drill by prepping a room or area appropriate for Simunitions force-on-force scenarios. (If necessary, we’ll hang tarps to protect the walls if we’re using a facility where we want to exercise extra care.) Students are brought in two at a time. The safety officer instructs them to face a wall and draw to the ready with the Simunitions handgun they’ve been issued. After this, two instructors step out from behind a curtain or tarp hanging in the room. The students know they’re there, but don’t actually see them until the proper time. One instructor acts as a “no shoot,” while the other uses a Sims handgun to start the lethal force encounter. Upon command to “engage” from the safety officer, the latter begins shooting at the backs of the two students. They now have to face the threat, and assess and apply lethal force appropriately.
The above scenario is videotaped. It’s later played for the students so they can see and hear how they reacted. Sometimes it’s worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos. But we also find that this is a pretty good indicator of the firearms training they’ve received. Frequently, the video results aren’t encouraging. One common scenario develops after the armed suspect is down: The students are either “frozen” in place, not saying a word, or they both start yelling instructions with no coordination between them. Thus, we get a clear indication of the officers’ ability to deal with everything that follows pressing the trigger.
With this lead-in, this article focuses on the need for effective tactical communications on the heels of a lethal force encounter. After running the above scenario hundreds of times, I’ve come to believe that firearms instructors should regularly incorporate some form of post-shooting verbal exchange so that their officers are more aware and effective. Such a multi-layered approach teaches cops on the firing line how to communicate at different levels after shots have been fired.
Partner, You OK?
Communicating back and forth to make sure that both officers are OK is an important step in the aftermath of a shooting. This should be intuitive to most, if not all, cops. However, unless prompted to do so, it is my experience that officers don’t necessarily think of this essential step. In part, this comes from the fact that the stress of a lethal force encounter may initially dull or block the pain from being hit. “Partner, you OK?” accompanied by a quick visual assessment—looking into the face as well as scanning the body for any injuries—is a good start. I believe that this should be practiced on the range so it becomes a programmed reflex.
Next, officers must communicate with the station or, in the case of SWAT cops, get the word to their team leader, if not the command post. The idea here is that the message must be transmitted as clearly and concisely as possible. To me, that translates into taking a second for a couple of deep breaths before getting on the radio. This could make the difference between communicating under stress with a calm, controlled voice and being so pumped with adrenaline that dispatch can’t tell the difference between the officer and a teenage girl at a Hannah Montana concert.
Additionally, the words we use are often just as critical as how we say them. Example: It’s not uncommon in our drills to hear officers using the phrase “one down” or “man down.” For those who are on the receiving end of such a transmission, the assumption may be that an officer is down. It’s more accurate to say something like “Suspect down; officers OK.”
Our students should be encouraged to control their voices and think about what they want to say before they push the “talk” button. If you’ve ever been on the streets and heard the words “Shots fired!” come over the radio, you probably know what I mean. In fact, you may have an officer at your shop who became an instant locker room legend because they keyed the mic and spoke clearly in a moment of extreme tension. And regarding those words, “Shots fired!”—it’s important to get out accurate info as soon as possible after that initial transmission.
A final component of our lethal force communications consists of giving instructions to the suspect.
If the student is in a “range robot” mode—rather than tactically aware—the lack of awareness is usually obvious by the position of his or her weapon after they have fired their rounds. I respectfully suggest that it’s the duty of range instructors to address this as appropriate. Rather than keeping the firearm elevated towards the target, the officers should be trained to visualize and respond to possible suspect actions after shots have been fired. In other words, even though the paper target may still be standing, our students should be imagining that the suspect has dropped to the ground and have their firearms depressed in order to assess the bad buy’s condition and actions. We want the officers to play out in their minds that they’ve successfully used the lethal force and the suspect has now dropped to the ground wounded, perhaps even disarmed. With this scenario, the officers should have their guns depressed to allow a good view of the suspect.
In another obvious visualization scenario, the suspect is still vertical and a threat. For this, officers should be coached to maintain their readiness to use additional lethal force if reasonable. At this point, maybe even a “drug & body armor” drill would be appropriate.
I suggest that firearms instructors work with students to address follow-up possibilities like these, rather than allowing them to simply move on to the next course of fire or, worse yet, automatically holster. Officers on the line should be coached to maintain a readiness to press the trigger again if necessitated by the suspect’s action, while also communicating with them.
As we discussed earlier, the ability to give relatively clear, calm instructions is the mark of a seasoned, well-trained officer. I recognize that this verbal control will be difficult under such circumstances. It’s even more difficult when dealing with a person who just tried to end your life. Perhaps you’ve been there and know what I am talking about. That’s precisely why we should be running this as part of our range training—so our folks have a baseline in their memory banks to revert to under stress.
Short phrases such as, “Police, don’t move!” “Don’t reach for that weapon or you will be shot!” “Keep your hands where I can see them” and “Crawl to my voice” are examples of such instructions. It’s also important to teach officers the danger of multiple officers issuing conflicting instructions such as simultaneous “Don’t move!” and “Show me your hands!” commands.
Are You Talking to Me?
If multiple suspects (or even civilians) are present, then our tactical communications must be more precise. Just giving a command, such as “Move to the right,” could possibly cause confusion and potentially fatal errors when more than one person in the environment—rather than just the individual we’re focused on—respond to our instructions. Practicing something more precise, such as, “Suspect in the red flannel shirt, move to your right away from the gun,” allows your officers to effectively give orders and is more likely to ensure proper compliance.
An added aspect of tactical communications that we have to recognize is the fact that it may be more difficult for the suspect to comply if they’ve been wounded. Pain and the fear of death could cloud their ability to comprehend what we’re telling them to do. Officers may have to repeat commands a number of times to get the suspect to follow orders. Of course, another possibility is that the suspect is trying to “play” us, hoping that we’ll make a mistake. In either case, reinforcing the importance of proper communication with the suspect, by making our officers practice giving orders, is a good training protocol for after a lethal force encounter.
So we’ve talked about three levels of tactical communication that can be incorporated into your range training: with a partner, with dispatch and, finally, with the suspect. The question arises: “Which first?” Rather than rote progression, I suggest officers be trained to be aware of all three and taught to prioritize from there. I believe they’re tactically sound. They’re also legally defensible options when your firearms training comes under court scrutiny. There’s even a good chance that witnesses will testify to hearing officers giving clear orders to the suspect.
Finally, you should be aware that this will make the firing line more verbally chaotic just after shots have been fired. But that’s the point. The more we incorporate realistic elements into our lethal force training, the better prepared our officers will be for an armed suspect intent on harming them. Once again, it can be summed up with the firearms instructor’s mantra: “Bring the streets to the range, not the range to the street.