Article 055 – Police use of force training is provably ineffective. We can fix it—but not by destroying the criminal justice system.
Protests stemming from the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Rayshard Brooks in Georgia, and now of Duante Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota (among others, of course) continue to rock our society—already stretched near its limits by the effects of a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.
The simple fact is that law enforcement is now facing a severe deficit of public trust. There are a variety of causes, no doubt exacerbated by a click-bait media cycle that has no incentive to inform or educate when generating outrage is an option. Yet, this is now simply a consistent terrain feature. It must be anticipated and acknowledged.
It is frankly beyond argument that this lack of trust also has roots in a series of high-profile deficits in police performance and/or judgment—some of them egregious. In the most recent (as of this writing) incident, the officer who shot Duante Wright appeared surprised that she, in fact, fired her weapon and apparently intended to access her taser rather than her firearm. Especially for anyone who has never worked in a similar profession, or who is personally unaware of the training and human performance dynamics involved, events such as this are doubtless mystifying—and enraging.
In any case, the results are now what has become a sustained barrage of often venomous charges of systemic racism. These are frequently accompanied by calls to severely restrict, defund, or even disband, law enforcement altogether in its current form. While these calls may, in some cases, be well-intentioned, the net effect is already proving primarily to be an alarming increase in murder and other violent crime, especially in major cities.
It is a simple fact that law enforcement fills a crucial role in society, including deterrence, prevention, and response to crime. What positive agenda is accomplished through a rising body count that numbers in the additional hundreds, if not thousands, per year?
Calls to defund, disband, or hamstring law enforcement also, frankly, miss the most significant contributing factor to substandard police use-of-force performance: ineffective training. Contrary to what police administrators and unions may proclaim, police training, in the aggregate, is provably ineffective.
Despite the gravity of today’s headlines, the fact is that law enforcement use-of-force, especially deadly force, is exceedingly rare. Most law enforcement officers will never fire a weapon in the line of duty. This rarity of occurrence, combined with what historically was a near monopoly on creating a credible narrative after any use-of-force event has, for decades, helped mask what is now becoming an unavoidable truth: the methods used to train and qualify police officers in firearms and other use-of-force skills do not work.
At a neurological level, developing skills that must be performed in stressful, chaotic settings can be compared to writing firmware for a new piece of technology—not embedded software, but actual integrated circuitry. This distinction is important. Once the neural circuitry has been built, it becomes very difficult to change.
After a hard-wired subroutine (for example, a skill sequence such as drawing and firing a weapon) has been initiated, it is very difficult, if not outright impossible to stop. This can be true even if the physical motions of skill performance have not yet begun, as visible to an observer.
Current training methods, and today’s existing training tools, are only capable of producing what is analogous to a production-level car without brakes. Adding the brakes must happen later (if it happens at all), after the car is already out on the road. Unfortunately, this can only be done at great expense—far exceeding the resources available to most law enforcement agencies.
As a factual matter, practically every law enforcement officer who is proficient in the “armed” part of his or her job gained that proficiency from a source outside the agency. Often this occurs on the officer’s own time, and at his or her own expense.
While disturbingly absent from today’s public discussion, these deficiencies in training are very real, systemic in nature, and highly impactful with respect to outcomes on the street. Training is the single greatest opportunity to alter operational performance. Irrespective of any other changes or reforms, systemic use-of-force performance will not improve until the systemic deficiencies in training method are corrected.
To systemically improve use-of-force performance three things must happen.
First, training delivery must shift away from the archaic, resource-based methods still in use. It must, instead, be aligned with human cognitive architecture. We must teach people in the same ways that they learn.
Second, today’s method of qualification via minimum aggregate scoring on meaningless tests must be replaced. Operationally relevant metrics must be developed and implemented through testing that both exercises and measures skills performance that is based on real-world requirements.
Finally, both training and testing must use the same neurological and physiological systems, to include those responsible for decision-making and de-escalation, that are required during performance on the street. Using the automobile analogy, we must produce cars that have the brakes already built in, then test the brakes before we take them out on the road.
Together, as a society, we can solve these problems.
Hatred and destruction will not take us anywhere we want to go. If you want to make a difference that matters, consider instead helping us to fix the fundamental training failures that prevent law enforcement agencies from developing and maintaining officers’ competency in use-of-force.