Friday, 16 July 2004

Realistic Training vs. Magic Bullets

FBI Publications- Law Enforcement Bulletin - February 1997 issue - Realistic Training vs. Magic Bullets
A interesting FBI article that argues the same point as the realistic training article by opswarfare.
Controlling Subjects: Realistic Training vs. Magic Bullets
By Samuel D. Faulkner, M.A. and Larry P. Danaher

Mr. Faulkner is an instructor at the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy in Columbus, Ohio. Lieutenant Danaher serves with the Lafayette, Indiana, Police Department.

Police administrators should stress realistic training over "magic bullets" to control subjects. Researchers once monitored the behavior of a group of young school children. When placed in a large field with no boundaries, the children tended to huddle together and play in close proximity. When the researchers conducted similar sessions with the same type of children in a fenced-in area, the children played in a much more relaxed manner, using the entire area inside of the boundaries.

In some ways, the law en-forcement community behaves like the children in the open field. Society tasks the police with maintaining order and controlling resistive behavior without providing them the benefit of clear-cut parameters from which to operate. As a result, the police routinely engage in a search for direction and guidance. Unsure of where they should be, they group together around a common area of accepted practices. Nowhere is the search for boundaries more intense than in questions on the proper use of force.

However, a journey started in the wrong direction rarely ends in success. In its search for the perfect nonlethal means to control resistive subjects, the law enforcement community often finds itself embarking on the wrong course, looking for easy answers that do not exist. After nearly a quarter-century of concerted effort in this area, only one thing seems clear: No magic bullet exists that will control every subject in every situation.

Rather than wait in false hope for the next sure-fire solution, law enforcement administrators may consider approaching the problem from a different angle. Training should incorporate what many officers have already learned the hard way. No device or physical maneuver guarantees 100 percent success when confronting subjects. Therefore, training should provide officers with various methods to address combative subjects and surprise assaults. It then should prepare officers to be flexible in their responses to confrontations.


The earliest training efforts focused on teaching officers physical maneuvers that would allow them to control subjects. Over the years, physical response has evolved-in name at least-from hand-to-hand combat to unarmed self-defense to defensive tactics, and most recently, to subject control.

Martial artists taught the first defense classes. While proficient in their craft, these instructors possessed no clear concept of escalating force. This is understandable enough-offensive moves in the martial arts are performed for one of three reasons: to kill, maim, or cripple. In the majority of situations where officers confront resistive subjects, such a response is not acceptable. Departments that could not secure the services of a karate or judo instructor often hired former boxers or wrestlers to conduct physical encounter training. Like their counterparts in the martial arts, these instructors may have possessed a great deal of proficiency in their fields, but their training had little in common with the mission of the police.


Perhaps inevitably, the shortcomings of such physical training led to the development of a more advanced array of devices designed to assist officers in controlling subjects. In 1971, responding to the burgeoning growth in this market, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report entitled "Non-lethal Weapons for Law Enforcement: Research Needs and Priorities."1 Researchers examined all types of less-than-lethal weapons and found none that fully satisfied their criteria. The report went on to cite the development of electrical or chemical weapons as the greatest short-term priority to augment traditional police weapons.

However, the report cautioned that prior to the introduction of such devices into police arsenals, research should be conducted into the "potentially hazardous physiological effects they might have on human body systems and sensitive areas."2 The report also called for refining and improving the nightstick and developing sublethal ammunition for police shotguns. In short, the DOJ report provided suggestions for meeting the changing needs of the police but confirmed that nothing then on the market satisfied those needs. Twenty-five years later-despite many heralded advancements-no device has emerged that meets all of these needs all of the time.


Three years after publication of the DOJ report on nonlethal weapons, a text titled Patrol Administration featured a write-up on a new device available to law enforcement officers. The notice proclaimed mace as a breakthrough into "a new era in police weaponry."3 In the ensuing years, mace would be billed as a humane, yet effective, alternative to police weapons such as the nightstick and the service revolver. While some manufacturers claimed that mace reduced assaults on police officers by as much as 50 percent and lowered complaints of police brutality by 80 percent, time and experience proved these claims to be wildly exaggerated.

In 1988, a paper titled "Use-of-Force Tactics and Nonlethal Weapons" discussed the strengths and weaknesses of chemical agents, including mace.4 On the positive side, the paper cited these devices as being inexpensive and requiring little officer training or physical contact with subjects. At the same time, researchers identified the following shortcomings:

--Chemical agents might not be effective on mentally disturbed individuals or those under the influence of drugs or alcohol --Some individuals become more combative when sprayed --A potentially dangerous lag time exists between application and effect --Individuals with preexisting respiratory conditions may suffer serious medical problems --Sprays can seriously irritate the eyes --Subtle changes in wind direction may place officers in jeopardy --Sprays may cause discom-fort or harm to innocent bystanders.

These deficiencies led to several court cases initiated against departments by individuals who claimed serious or permanent harm after being sprayed with mace.5 The search for the perfect device to control subjects continued.


In many ways, electric tasers represented a sharp departure from tear gas, mace, and other chemical-based agents used by law enforcement-if for no other reason than that wind direction does not alter the effectiveness of the taser. A paper published in 1991 titled "Nonlethal Weapons vs. Conventional Police Tactics: The Los Angeles Police Department Experience" made a strong case for the taser, stating that field tests proved the device could "immediately incapacitate" even violent suspects under the influence of mind-altering drugs.6 The author asserted that speculation that the taser can induce a heart attack or cause burns is "based upon the human fear of electricity." Still, the author cited seven cases in which suspects died after being exposed to the taser.7

While medical authorities believe that the device contributed to only one of the deaths, the taser has fallen out of use in many departments for various reasons, including the potential for accidental death. Another reason departments cite for discontinuing use of tasers-or for not authorizing their use at all-is the close proximity required between officer and subject for the effective application of the weapon.

When applied, tasers often leave burn marks on subjects and are not, in fact, effective in many situations. The Rodney King incident represents perhaps the most widely witnessed failure of any tool used to control a single subject. King could not be subdued immediately, despite repeated taser applications and baton blows. Police officers across America could relate similar, but less publicized, incidents.

Nonlethal Projectiles

A tragic incident on August 28, 1992, shattered the myth of the nonlethal projectile. When deputies from the Prince George's County, Maryland, Sheriff's Department attempted to serve psychiatric evaluation papers to a 61-year-old woman, they were chased out by the woman who wielded a large butcher knife. The deputies obtained judicial authorization for a forced entry and returned to the woman's home an hour later. When the woman again came at the deputies with a knife, they fired one rubber, supposedly nonlethal, projectile. After being struck in the abdomen, the woman retreated to her living room and collapsed. Doctors pronounced her dead at a hospital a short time later.

By every indicator, the deputies responded to a very threatening situation with restraint and acted in accordance with their department's guidelines. Still, the incident ended in tragedy. In a statement released after the incident, the department seemed to confirm what a growing number of officers knew: "The perfect weapon does not exist." Non-lethal projectiles "...can be lethal under certain circumstances."8

Pepper Spray

During the past several years, aerosol agents made a strong return to the market. Unlike mace, the newest products on the block-most notably pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum)-are organically, rather than chemically, based. However, the claims coming from various sources had a familiar ring. These natural, organic products would control everyone but injure no one. Facing rising crime rates and reduced public funding, the law enforcement community quickly embraced pepper spray as a low-cost method to control subjects.

Many departments placed such belief in the product that they allowed officers to use the device at the first sign of resistance. In some jurisdic-tions, subjects did not have to indicate a threat of harm toward officers or others but could be sprayed if verbally uncooperative. Unfortunately, as the use of pepper spray increased, so, too, grew the list of injuries reported and the number of cases in which the aerosol agent failed to subdue offenders. On July 11, 1993, an officer from the Concord, North Carolina, Police Department sprayed a 24-year-old male charged with disorderly conduct. After being sprayed, the subject complained of respiratory difficulty and then collapsed. Officers drove the man to the police station where he was found to be unresponsive. He was pronounced dead a short time later. After the autopsy, the medical examiner issued the following statement: "In my opinion, the cause of death in this case is asphyxia due to bronchospasm precipitated by inhalation of pepper spray."9

Just 3 months later, a 34-year-old man died of cardiac arrest after officers subdued him with pepper spray. In January 1994, a 37-year-old man being committed for psychiatric care by his family became violent. When police officers arrived, they chose to use pepper spray to subdue the subject rather than using more aggressive control measures. The subject died a short time later at an area hospital.10

As a result of these incidents, many departments collected cans of pepper spray and banned use of the product that they had so optimistically distributed to their officers just a short time earlier. Such a reaction may cross the line into overreaction. There is nothing necessarily wrong with pepper spray; nor was its use in these three incidents necessarily inappropriate. The problem lies in the fact that departments bought the product under false assumptions and allowed it to be used under unrealistic expectations.


The "new and improved" approach is not limited to suppliers of law enforcement products. Training companies often get into the act, claiming that their techniques are better than those of their competitors. As with claims made by product manufacturers, police administrators should be prepared to separate fact from fiction in assessing the value of different training techniques.

Joint Locks

Joint locks have a long history in the martial arts but a somewhat less than sparkling track record in American law enforcement. As practiced in the martial arts, a joint lock is used to disable an opponent's limb.11

In many law enforcement training academies, experts in the martial arts teach cadets and experienced officers the various moves involving joint locks. The theory holds that by using the stimulus of pain in just the right amount, law enforcement officers can alter resistive behavior without causing injury to subjects. This principle gave birth to the "pain compliance" techniques practiced today by many law enforcement agencies.

Problems arise, however, when the original purpose of the joint lock maneuver is expanded beyond its limited capabilities. For instance, when a subject's resistance level and pain threshold are altered by drugs or alcohol or if an officer's commitment level is low, pain compliance techniques often do not produce the desired effect.

Officers who receive minimal training in these techniques in a highly controlled environment hit the streets and soon encounter adversaries who are larger, stronger, younger, and more aggressive than they are. As a result, these officers may be forced to use additional pressure when the moves that worked well in training fail to control subjects in street situations. Ironically, officers could end up in the courtroom when injuries occur despite their efforts to respond at a low force level.

Pressure Points

Like any device or physical maneuver, pressure points-the controlled application of pressure to a specific area of the head-should not be considered the final word on subject control. But pressure points have been used for thousands of years in the martial arts. They also have developed a very successful track record in many American law enforcement agencies.

Recently, however, the use of pressure points has come under attack.12 Most of the charges against pressure points focus on dubious claims concerning the potential for injury to the area of the jaw called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).13

While the possibility for such injury does exist, the likelihood is remote at best. Damage to the TMJ is usually caused by some type of injury to or malfunction of the joint itself, which is located in front of the ear.14 As pressure point maneuvers are taught in departments across the country,15 finger placement is well away from the TMJ. Moreover, pressure is applied in a direction away from the joint, which minimizes the risk of injury.

The issues surrounding pressure points and the recent criticisms leveled against them are not brought up to malign legitimate expressions of concern over the effectiveness of a specific technique. Rather, these issues are presented with a note of caution to law enforcement administrators.

Word of Caution

The police traditionally harbor a healthy sense of skepticism toward changes in accepted practices. This skepticism is generally beneficial and acts to shield law enforcement from ill-conceived or politically driven vacillations. However, administrators also should refrain from forsaking time-proven techniques simply because they hear or read something negative about them. Administrators always should consider the source and search for independent supporting documentation before making a decision.


Law enforcement administrators must learn from the past. An important lesson can be drawn from the search for the perfect means to control subjects. Realistic training that actually prepares officers for the types of encounters they will experience on the streets should be valued over the latest device or maneuver to hit the market.

Three Categories of Assault

In an article in Psychology of Science titled "Cerebral Self Defense," the author divides assaults into three psychological categories: the consent assault, the suspicion assault, and the surprise assault.16 While the training that law enforcement officers receive should prepare them primarily for the third category, the surprise assault, offi-cers should be aware of all three types. The consent assault is the easiest for the mind to process because the victim actually allows the assault to occur. Police officers see this type of assault routinely when responding to domestic disturbance calls. When a female abuse victim declines to press charges against the spouse or boyfriend who has just beaten her, she-for whatever reason-accepts, or consents to, the assault.

In the second type of assault, the suspicion assault, the brain has prior warning of impending danger. Therefore, while the individual may not know precisely what will happen, the brain actively prepares the body for some type of response. When an officer working crowd control learns that a person is carrying a firearm, the officer automatically prepares mentally and physically for a range of responses. If confrontation erupts, the officer will be in a better position to respond correctly.

The third type of confrontation, the surprise assault, is by far the most difficult to which officers respond. This form of assault shocks both the brain and the body. Because the victim has no time to prepare, the body's reactions are basically of a survival nature. Unfortunately, law enforcement officers encounter surprise assaults on a regular basis. Even worse, the training that most officers receive does not provide them with an adequate psychological-physical defense mechanism. This often leads to the failure of de-fensive techniques in actual encounters.

Preparing for Surprises

Of course, it is impossible to be totally prepared for a surprise assault, but proper training can condition officers to reduce stress levels during an assault so that they can respond from a position of control rather than from one of surprise. It is well understood within the law enforcement training community that fine motor skills diminish as stress levels increase.17

The loss of fine motor skills thereby reduces proficiency in defensive tactics that require grabbing, pivoting, completing a series of steps to a technique, or deciding proper amounts of pressure to apply. As adrenaline activates the body's survival mechanisms, an individual loses sensitivity in the hands and feet. Therefore, techniques that seem simple in a training environment may be nearly impossible to execute in a street encounter when officers experience heightened stress levels.

However, most training sessions seldom, if ever, address surprise assault encounters. Today's trainers should strive to teach techniques that better prepare officers to respond to such situations. Defensive maneuvers should be based on gross motor skills that use large muscle groups and follow natural patterns, so that the ability of the officer to execute the moves will not deteriorate as arousal levels increase. Because the first reaction of the body in a surprise assault is to get away from the threat, the best response to teach officers may be momentary disengagement followed by controlled reengagement. While this may violate some long-held training paradigms, such an approach may be more realistic than expecting a startled officer to immediately control a subject on initial contact.


Criminals will not adapt to the needs of law enforcement training; law enforcement training must adapt to the realities that officers face on the streets. The concept of controlling violent subjects without any risk of injury is not only unrealistic, but it has proven to be unsuccessful. However, while it may not be possible for law enforcement officers to eliminate risk, they can act to manage it.

The perfect tool for controlling subjects does not exist and probably will not be discovered in the foreseeable future. Until that day, officers should be trained to rely on their own abilities with the aid of equipment-rather than relying on the equipment itself-to control resistive subjects.

If police administrators rely on the testimonials of equipment and training companies to dictate which tools and techniques are appropriate, then the law enforcement profession faces a dark future. If, however, administrators promote reality-based training that corresponds to the types of situations officers encounter, agencies will enhance the safety of offi-cers and the communities they serve. Reshaping the paradigms within which law enforcement responds to resistive subjects is like placing a fence around the playground. It offers boundaries and guidelines that will benefit all.

No comments:

Post a Comment