Assessing the Threat: Law Enforcement Training and Response

When you’re in the heat of a moment, it’s too late to wonder how you are going to respond to any given situation. This is why we prepare, plan, and train to respond quickly and effectively to any given scenario while on duty. Rarely do things go according to plan and oftentimes, adjustments need to be made on the fly. Having the right people making decisions in those situations is a big part of their success or failure, but even the “right person” can fail without proper preparation.

police charger
Police work is never “routine.” Many situations can be volatile and require delicate scene management and years of on-the-job training. (Photo: i.pinimg.com)

Training and Instinct

No one is born a master of strategy. People who are successful in any aspect of life are the ones who study and prepare the most. Granted, of those people, there are some that are inherently more instinctual than others when it comes to strategy, but no one can live by instinct alone.

In the academy, officers are taught basic tactics in a myriad of areas of law enforcement. Once officers learn a skill, it is the repetition that ingrains it into their brain and “muscle memory,” which is why we continually train, run scenarios, and evaluate factors that can really have an adverse effect on the plan.

law enforcement at crime scene
Consistent training and repetition don’t make our jobs easier, but they make us and everyone involved more safe. (Photo credit: Pexels)

The common phrase “Your training will take over” comes from this practice. If you repeat a tactic enough times (correctly), when the time comes to use it, you will be better prepared to react and work on a given scene or scenario. Muscle memory applies to so much of what everyone does in day-to-day life, and it is vitally important to police in our daily duties. Driving, fighting, shooting, and even interviewing and writing (the brain is a muscle too as you all know) are all strengthened by continued, repeated, practice and training.

Once you get the “muscle memory” locked in on a skill, that is when (in the moment) your mind and “instinct” can be used in decision-making. Many times, this decision-making comes in the form of adjusting the plan or deciding what action or force (if any) needs to be taken. If you do not have a mastery of the needed skill, your focus and attention need to be on the accuracy of the task, and cannot be split for making decisions on the fly. Many officers experience “lock-up” or “freeze” when faced with a need to adjust tactics. This can be a result of simply not knowing what to do, but it can be limited by being properly trained and prepared.

police officer
An important part of training is learning to respond, react, and adapt. Situations change in a matter of seconds, and knowing when and how to react is key to maintaining safety and order at the scene.

We all see those high-profile news stories about “accidental discharges” or “excessive force,” and even those stories of officers failing to respond quickly enough when arriving at a scene. I won’t address any specific situations, but I’m sure you all had some come to mind as soon as you read that. The media often wants to explain these by criticizing an officer’s character or painting them as lazy, aggressive, or cowardly. I pose to you this: What If they are just poorly prepared for whatever situation they find themselves in and instead of being driven by training and a focused instinct for the task at hand, they are instead driven purely by survival instinct?

Fight or Flight — the Human Reaction to Stress

Human beings are hard-wired with a “fight or flight” response when faced with stressful or threatening situations. Some people naturally lean more one way or the other, but officers are called to have a more balanced and logical reaction without being driven by that primal response. We teach our officers to listen to their “gut” or instinct and to take appropriate action, but sometimes, the appropriate action goes against our very nature as human beings. The only way to overcome that nature is through extensive repeated training.

Let’s, for example, look at an active shooter incident. Almost every person who finds themselves involved in or near an active shooter situation will have an innate flight response. Get out, get away, get safe. Officers generally are not there when it begins, and it is our job to get in there and remove the threat.

Bear with me, I know that last statement is obvious, and it is the very nature of emergency services to go in when others are trying to get out. 

The point I’m trying to make is, no one, and I mean no one knows how they will react to any given situation they have not experienced before. We can all sit around and talk about what we would do in any given situation, but the reality is, you can never know for sure until the time comes, and you find yourself there in the moment. That being the case, some officers might find themselves in a situation where they are expected to act, but their innate response to that situation may be that of “flight.” Proper training and preparation can help to overcome that nature and act in spite of it. 

Without being properly trained and prepared, mistakes happen. Officers can be frozen to inaction or delayed responses, or they may even lash out in an uncharacteristic and primal way, operating solely on a survival instinct. 

Police are better trained and equipped to deal with high-stress scenarios than most civilians are. Still, there are always significant risks to themselves and the community when responding to a call. (Photo: Shouse Law Group)

What, How, When, and How Much?

Determining when an action, and what action, is to be taken, is accomplished in the same way as becoming confident in your tactics and how to employ them. So, let’s beat the dead horse in the head one more time. Training, preparation, and (maybe most importantly) experience is the key to knowing when it’s right to act and how much force (if necessary) is needed. 

Here comes the point where we put the heat on those of us in charge. If possible, having an experienced supervisor on the scene can be the key to making these calls. Now, don’t get me wrong, the stripes are not magical, and they don’t imbue the wearer with superpowers of perception. But hopefully, their years of experience combined with their (here we go again) continued training and preparation make them qualified to make the right call.

It goes even above supervisors, to administration ensuring that policies and procedures are in place that give officers guidelines for how to operate in most circumstances. If these are in place, it makes it easier for officers to have a general idea of what is appropriate in any given situation. It is also important for the officers themselves to be familiar with the law and how courts have perceived officer actions in other cases.

No one is going to make the right decision every time (we’re all only human after all), but I always tell my troops, “Follow the law, follow policy, and be a good human being.” If they do that, no mistake will be something that cannot be learned from and in the end, help them to grow and be more prepared for the next time.

police cap
When putting on the uniform, we take an oath each day to protect and serve. But we can’t do it based on instinct alone. Consistent and accurate training is key to success in the law enforcement field.

It All Comes down to Those Three Words

Training, Preparation, and Experience

The more you do something, the better at it you will be. The more comfortable and “second nature” a skill is, the less you will have to think about doing it. And, the more prepared a department, or team is, the easier it can adapt to changing circumstances. And the longer you spend in the field, the more experience you can obtain. That experience can sharpen, to make the other two that much more effective. 

Never take your skills for granted. This applies to everything and not just law enforcement.  Most skills are “use it or lose it.”  Always be trained and always be prepared. If you do that, you will put yourself in the best position to have the best outcome.

Carl Staas is a former Police Sergeant from West Central Missouri. He spent 17 years in law enforcement, performing routine patrol, investigations, evidence management, and finished his career as a patrol Sergeant and field training officer. He's an FBI LEEDA Trilogy recipient and tactical driving instructor. He doesn't know everything about guns, but he's always trying to learn more!

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