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When To, Not How To

Written by Ed Sanow

In the past month, I had in-service training in both firearms and emergency driving. Both blocks of training were pretty good. The firearms day included the standard academy course of fire commonly used to “qualify.” Then the “training” included shooting at moving targets and steel plates, and brief re-enactments of some of the very long-range, pistol-versus-rifle shootings seen at the FBI-Miami 1986 and Norco Bank Robbery 1980 shootouts. A lot of good “how to” shooting tips were reiterated.

The Emergency Vehicle Operator Course (EVOC) was as good, featuring evasive maneuvers such as changing lanes then changing back, and accident avoidance such as changing lanes with and without braking and precision backing through a series of tight spots (most police sheet metal is bent while backing).

What was missing from these training sessions? There was not one word in either training session of “when to.” When to shoot? When to pursue? Garner v. Tennessee was mentioned in passing, but in the EVOC class, not the firearms class. (Is a PIT legally considered a seizure? Yes.) Not one word of Graham v. Connor in either training day devoted specifically to police use of force.

No one cares if I can qualify with a duty pistol as a Master if I don’t know precisely when—and when not—to use that force. No one cares if I can drive a cone course within 5% of the instructor if I don’t know when—and when not—to push the car that hard. In court, when the wrong “when to” decision has been made, the “how to” skill is meaningless, i.e., I did a great job at doing the wrong thing.

Is your department like that? Do you spend more time training “how to” than training “when to”? Yes, firearms and EVOC are perishable psychomotor skills. But that argument for continuous “how to” training is carrying less and less weight with me.

The point? In-service psychomotor training should be 90% “when to” and 10% “how to.” Virtually all this less-lethal, lethal force and EVOC training should be scenario-based, role player-oriented, case study-style decision-making, period. Yes, this is harder to conduct.

But I would argue that no psychomotor skill will actually be improved during a brief session at the range or on the track, while the same amount of time spent forcing the officer to make a decision based on Graham v. Connor will improve the use of what skill the officer already has during the use-of-force encounter.

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2010

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