In this issue of Law Officer, the editorial focus includes coverage of the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Each year, approximately 150 officers are killed in the line of duty. All are tragic, but none more tragic than when an officer is killed by accident during a training session ultimately designed to keep them safer. In the closing chapter of my book Training at the Speed of Life, I list the names and faces of 33 officers killed during training simulations. (Any officer death is tragic, but I have not included incidents such as falls or heart attacks.) To the next printing of my book, I must regrettably add three more officers:
Jimmy Ray Carty Jr. had served with the Smith County (Texas) Sheriff's Office for seven years. He wanted to be a Texas Highway Patrol Trooper. In May 2005 during his academy training, Jimmy Ray participated in a boxing exercise. During this exercise he sustained a head injury and subsequently died. Research into the boxing program at the Highway Patrol Academy undertaken by the Dallas Morning News indicates there have been 121 concussions and other brain injuries since 1978. One such injury left a participant paralyzed. The drill was suspended pending the review of the drill that led to Carty's death.
Scott Neal had served with the Mexia Independent School District (Texas) Police Department for three years. Reports described the training exercise that took place in November 2005 in an abandoned building as a routine SWAT training exercise performed with unloaded weapons. Sadly, the weapon Neal was killed by was not unloaded. He was shot in the head and pronounced dead at the hospital.
Tara Drummond was 23 years old and in the fourth month of her police academy in Kennesaw, Ga. In September 2005, she was shot and killed by her academy instructor during a demonstration. According to reports, live ammunition was somehow mixed with inert training ammunition and was subsequently loaded into a firearm.
That these deaths are regrettable is without question. That they were preventable is also without question. That they are not the last is, sadly, again without question.
Reality-based training (RBT) remains in its infancy. As such, more and more agencies get into it each year. Entire industries are growing up around it. And most trainers haven't got a clue as to the complexities involved or the dangers waiting below the surface.
Simple, Not Easy
In the years since David Luxton and I founded SIMUNITION and popularized projectile-based force-on-force training using operational weapons within the law enforcement training community, at least 22 officers have been killed during realistic training simulations. One was too many. Yet we add approximately two more to the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial each year. Why does this keep happening?
One reason: Too many trainers believe RBT is easy. To the casual observer or untrained eye, well-orchestrated RBT looks very easy. Many participants therefore come away from well-run RBT highly motivated to jump into starting their own programs. Unfortunately, some embark upon this style of teaching with little or no education or training in the complexities necessary to make it effective and safe.
People confuse simple with easy. Simple implies a lack of complexity, whereas easy implies minimal effort. Ensuring safety during any high-risk training undertaking is as simple as eliminating the dangers, but it's not easy it requires a great deal of effort, a good amount of training for the trainers and constant vigilance throughout each and every training exercise.
Who Gets Hurt?
In any high-risk endeavor, there are three classes of people who usually end up getting hurt or hurting others:
This category includes those who simply attended an RBT program someone else put on and came away thinking, "That's cool, we need to start doing that. How hard can it be?" They are headed for trouble if they don't get some training on how to do it properly.
There's very little you can do if you or one of your trainees is unlucky. When it comes to bad luck, sometimes it's just your day. Call it fate, bad luck, your karma running over your dogma, whatever.
Sometimes even the unlucky can be saved from an otherwise horrific outcome with a comprehensive safety system run by competent people. Hopefully, through the organization of the training environment, experienced training staff and the safety rituals that are in place, the unlucky will survive your training and go be unlucky somewhere else.
The Highly Experienced
Experienced trainers often find themselves short of time or lacking money for proper safety equipment. Others are hampered by a belief system that includes allowing students to check themselves for safety violations, or choosing to utilize untrained resource personnel for safety inspections. Experienced people sometimes take shortcuts that, on the surface, seem harmless, but in the harsh light of a coroner's inquest were obviously hazardous. Remember: The longer you're in the RBT business, the more likely you are to experience an accident. Jimmy Ray Carty was participating in a boxing exercise designed by experienced training staff, and the exercise was allowed to continue unimpeded despite its history of serious injuries. Scott Neal was among a collection of SWAT operators officers who by the nature of their mission are typically highly experienced personnel who often receive a higher degree of training than a typical road officer. Tara Drummond's class was run by a highly experienced firearms instructor his peers have described him as extremely safety-minded. How, then, were such highly experienced people party to such tragedies?
The answer: The system is broken. And, it's unlikely to be repaired any time soon because it's not perceived as broken. These deaths are treated as isolated, tragic events. They are deemed accidents in which both the person firing the shot and the recipient of the fatal projectile are considered victims. Surely they both are, but at what point do we recognize that the system responsible for such predictable trauma is broken, and establish standards to ensure such trauma never happens again?
Certainly the national organizations have tried. IALEFI has published Guidelines for Simulation Training Safety. The NTOA has adopted a set of safety rules for simulation training. My book sets out a template for success and alerts readers to the level of complexity associated with RBT.
No matter. Too many trainers ignore publications or are lured by the siren song of RBT, believing tragedy will never befall them or theirs. They think simulation training is easy and that they don't need to do anything more than purchase some gear and jot down a basic scenario or two. Or, they rewarm the lame excuse that there just isn't enough time or money available to attend a class or read and adopt established guidelines, and that they can get by without either because they attended a simulation exercise someplace and it didn't look all that hard.
What will it take? How many people have to die? How many more would have joined the names and faces in the back of my book were it not for inches, seconds or blind luck saving them from a similar fate? The "unintentional discharge" that struck nothing important; the weapon malfunction that stopped someone from getting shot; the last-minute ad hoc safety inspection that turned up the live weapon; the live ammunition in the training weapon that, through divine intervention, was never fired. For every name and face of those who died, there are untold numbers of near accidents situations that could have gone terribly wrong.
And, as long as I'm getting angry about this, I might as well take the point a bit further. It isn't just the actual deaths during training that should concern us. Out of the number of officers killed each year in the line of duty, how many would be alive today if their training had given them a higher level of experience with lethal-force encounters? We can never know the answer to that question, but I know many officers would be lying on a slab if the situations presented to them during a simulation had occurred on the street. Fortunately, an effective simulation programmed more effective responses for future similar situations. Some have already returned from the battlefield crediting such training with their success.
Do It Right, or Not At All
In his book Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, Bruce Siddle admonishes those in law enforcement:
It is the only recognized profession which trains students to protect lives by taking another life at the same time. It is also one of the few professions in which the instructor's competence may be the difference between the life and death of the student or the general public ... the level of student proficiency is directly proportionate to the instructor's training psychology and system design. Subsequently, instructors have a moral and legal obligation to constantly research methods to enhance training and, ultimately, the survival of their students.
If trainers take it upon themselves to join the ranks of those following the path of RBT, they have a duty a sacred obligation to study the science of RBT rather than treat it as a footnote addition to a training program. There are far too many complexities and the consequences too dire for the enthusiastic amateur to be leading the way here.
RBT is hard. If you're not prepared for the hard work, don't do it. People can die. People have died. People will die. So, if you're in it for the glory or are the type of person who needs instant gratification, get out now. If you want adoration, buy a dog. But if you are ready to embark on the selfless journey toward ensuring your people return to their lives and their loved ones at the end of their shift, then welcome, my brothers and sisters. You are our salvation, and the key to our future.
Ken Murray is the cofounder of SIMUNITION. He teaches instructor schools on how to set up and conduct safe and effective simulation training, and is considered the leading expert on RBT. His new book, Training at the Speed of Life The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Reality Based Training, is praised as the bible for RBT. Murray frequently writes for PoliceOne.com and is the director of training for the Armiger Police Training Institute. Contact him through the institute's Web site (www.armiger.net).