Mental preparation is a crucial aspect of law enforcement sniping, yet it is sometimes neglected because of the vast array of skills that snipers must develop and maintain during a limited amount of training time. A lack of mental preparation poses a direct threat to the psychological wellbeing of snipers and to the safety of the public they protect. Here are some things individual snipers can do to mentally prepare that commanders should incorporate into training sessions as often as possible.
First, snipers should thoroughly familiarize themselves with their department’s deadly force and sniper operations policies and procedures. These policies should be thoroughly discussed with team commanders and agency heads to ensure they are all operating under the understanding. Specific scenarios should be discussed in great detail, and acceptable means of dealing with various threats should be completely understood by all commanders and snipers. This should be done long before the snipers are activated for duty, because a hostage scene is not the place for snipers or commanders to begin considering what is permissible and what is not.
Sniper commanders must then ensure their training habits reflect strict adherence to those guidelines. There should never be any doubts in the minds of snipers or commanders regarding the use of deadly force. Doubts lead to hesitation at exactly the wrong time.
If, due to religious beliefs or other personal reasons, aspiring snipers have doubts about their ability to take a life in the performance of their duties, they must resolve these issues before they even apply for the position. They should consult religious leaders, family, friends, or anyone they trust, and discuss the issues candidly. They need to completely resolve this possible concern, which left unresolved could cripple their ability to perform as required by the situation.
If, due to life changing experiences, newfound religious beliefs, or other issues, veteran snipers begin to doubt their ability to take a life in the performance of their duties, they must likewise immediately discuss these issues with their commander and remove themselves from activated status until—and if—such issues are resolved.
Stopping the Threat
With regard to using deadly force, some law enforcement snipers are taught to “shoot to stop the threat,” and there is usually some mention of the suspect possibly dying as a result of the gunshot wound. Due to the volatile nature of hostage rescue and the immediacy and certainty with which snipers are required to “stop the threat,” the suspect will invariably die—and quite suddenly—as a result of the gunshot wound.
Thus, trainers and commanders must be careful not to sacrifice the mental well-being of their snipers for the sake of political correctness. If they remove the “K” word from their training vocabulary, officers might never grow accustomed to the idea of having to kill a human being. It is true that snipers must train to stop the threat with certainty, but they must be fully aware that doing so will invariably result in the death of the suspect.
Some snipers are taught to depersonalize their suspects and view them as “targets” instead of people. While this type of training might effectively enable snipers to take the shot, it could have an adverse impact on their mental wellbeing in the aftermath of the shooting, when they finally realize their “target” is actually a human being.
To perform their duties to the best of their abilities and maintain their mental health, snipers must become comfortable with the idea of having to kill a human being in the performance of their duties. This does not mean they should relish the idea of having to take a life. Any sniper who displays an eagerness to take a life should be removed from the team immediately. Instead, what is necessary for mental survival is a somber and responsible acceptance of the fact that they might have to take a suspect’s life—as a last resort—to save a victim’s life.
Male snipers must also come to terms with the possibility of having to take the life of a female, while male and female snipers alike must come to terms with the possibility of having to take the life of a child. This may seem offensive and heartless, but it is an issue snipers must resolve long before they are called to a schoolyard where a child is firing shots at other children. If snipers were to find themselves in that unfortunate situation and they had never considered the possibility of having to take the life of a child, they could hesitate at a crucial moment and this could result in the loss of more innocent children.
Proper breathing is an important aspect of mental conditioning. It helps snipers relax during times of extreme stress. When snipers are relaxed, they are better able to make rational decisions. Additionally, proper breathing helps snipers control their heart rate when they are nervous or immediately after physical exertion, and this is crucial to making an accurate, life-saving shot.
Snipers must practice controlling their breathing on a regular basis, so that it becomes a natural part of their lives. They should especially practice the breathing exercises during regular training sessions, as it will condition their bodies to respond to this stimulus when it matters most.
Relaxation breathing is a four-step exercise. Step One: Inhale deeply and slowly through the nose for five seconds. View the lungs as empty bottles of water that are being filled from the bottom to the top. Imagine confidence is flowing into the body. Step Two: Hold the breath for five seconds. Step Three: Exhale slowly through the mouth for five seconds, while imagining fear, uncertainty and tension are leaving the body. Muscles will slowly begin to relax. Step Four: Hold the breath for five seconds. Snipers should repeat the exercise for a prescribed period, or until they feel adequately relaxed.
Mentally Taking the Shot
In conjunction with relaxation breathing, snipers can “take the shot” in their heads. They can mentally visualize every move they will make on a given situation, including the very moment they take a life-saving shot. They should visualize every minute detail of the scenario that is playing out in their head. For this exercise to adequately prepare snipers mentally, it must seem as real as possible in their minds.
They should strive to “feel” the hard ground beneath their body, the heat beating down on their back, the sweat dripping down their forehead, the firm smoothness of the trigger against their index finger. They should try to imagine every sound, smell and thought they will experience during the situation. They should “see” the face of the suspect clearly before, during and after they take the mental shot.
Snipers should employ this mental exercise on a regular basis and they should visualize a variety of situations, some where they are required to take a life-saving shot and some where the suspect surrenders without incident. In every scenario, they must imagine they are acting in strict accordance with departmental guidelines and state law.
When participating in marksmanship training and other drills, snipers should practice target diversity. Shaped targets, such as one-inch squares, provide a precise aiming point and are great for shooting three-round groups to practice marksmanship fundamentals and to determine an exact zero, but they are not adequate for mental preparation.
Nearly all snipers understand this and they regularly shoot human face targets to prepare themselves for the possibilities of having to take a life. However, most face targets utilized by sniper teams are images of male suspects photocopied in black and white print, and they lack the realism and diversity necessary to adequately prepare snipers for the prospect of having to take a human life.
By utilizing more realistic-looking targets, snipers can add a new dimension to their mental preparation. Fully featured manikin heads and three-dimensional targets are ideal, but can be costly for smaller teams. Snipers should utilize these types of realistic targets whenever possible, but there are practical and affordable alternatives for teams that do not have the budget to acquire such targets.
With the advent of digital photography and color printers, snipers can easily produce a wide array of realistic targets, including a variety of hostage targets, multiple suspect targets and “shoot/don’t shoot” targets. In addition to fully colored targets of male suspects, they should produce and engage targets of female suspects and child suspects.
If sniper commanders and trainers are already practicing target diversity, they should continue doing so. If they are not, they can perform a simple drill to determine whether or not their snipers are mentally prepared to engage child targets. First, they inform the snipers to remain several hundred yards away from the firing position. Next, they attach a fully-colored target of a child suspect with a firearm. Lastly, they instruct the snipers to sprint to the firing position and engage the target immediately.
Commanders should observe the snipers to see if any of them hesitate before taking the shot, as this frequently happens during the drill because many snipers have never considered the possibilities of having to shoot a child. This drill can prompt a healthy discussion regarding these real possibilities and the importance of mental preparation.
Additionally, snipers and commanders should discuss all possible situations they might encounter, such as the possibility of having to take the life of a law enforcement officer. While this is extremely rare, there have been at least three events in the past 15 years where rogue officers have taken hostages—in one incident the rogue officer was clad in full police uniform—and snipers must prepare mentally for handling these types of situations, as well as any other situation they might envision.
Operating Within a Shell
When snipers respond to callouts, they do not get to choose the weather conditions or the terrain in which they will operate. Whether operating in extreme heat, bitter cold or during a thunderstorm, snipers must block out their surroundings and concentrate fully on the task at hand. The same is true if they are operating in areas infested by mosquitoes, snakes, ants or other biting insects. At a crucial moment when lives are hanging in the balance, snipers do not have the luxury of breaking concentration to push an army of ants from their face. They must endure the pain and focus completely on the situation before them.
This level of indifference to their surroundings and personal discomfort can be attained by imagining they are operating in a shell that protects them from the elements and the chaos surrounding them. If they have been deployed during a snowstorm, snipers can imagine the heater is on in their shell and it is keeping them warm. The same can be done if they are operating in the heat, during a thunderstorm or while being eaten by mosquitoes.
To develop the mental toughness necessary to block out the elements, snipers should take every opportunity to train in inclement weather and under adverse conditions. Not only will this test and develop their mental fortitude, but it will also put their weapons system and tactics to the test. The more often snipers train under adverse conditions, the more confident they will become in their own abilities, as well as the reliability of their weapons system.
Sniper commanders can introduce other types of distractions during training to help prepare snipers to mentally block out the chaos of a real-world incident. Some of these distractions can include shots being fired nearby, sirens blaring, lights flashing, and so on.
Snipers must also prepare themselves mentally for what will happen after a shooting incident. If a sniper is called upon to take a life-saving shot, there will certainly be an investigation. The sniper’s rifle will be confiscated as evidence. The sniper will be interviewed and might be placed on administrative duty pending the conclusion of the investigation. There may be a Grand Jury hearing to determine if the shooting was justified.
There will be media coverage and the suspect’s family may come forward to claim that the suspect was a wonderful father, mother or child. Attention-seeking “experts” may publicly second-guess the sniper’s actions. The suspect’s family may file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Throughout it all, snipers must continually tell themselves they did what they had to do to save lives. If, prior to the shooting, they had properly prepared themselves mentally for any eventuality, it will be much easier for them to move past the incident and continue to grow as law enforcement snipers.
BJ Bourg is the chief investigator for the Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office. He has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and has served in various capacities, including patrol, investigations, training and special operations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.