‘Strong but Wrong’ Training

A Force Science lead instructor shares his thoughts on fatal mistakes common to police training

By Force Science  |   Apr 21, 2016

In a provocative, in-depth interview newly posted online, Insp. Chris Butler, one of North America’s leading use-of-force experts, minces no words in assessing present shortcomings of police training.

“Currently,” he asserts, “many agencies have training paradigms that are directly leading to deaths of officers in the line of duty. This is hard for trainers to swallow, but not all training is good training. And bad training will get officers killed just as fast as no training at all.”

Butler, a 26-year veteran of the Calgary (Canada) Police Service, is an instructor in the ForceScience Institute’s two-day Force Science Basics seminar on FS principles and is one of the few peace officers to earn special certification as an Advanced Force Science Analyst.

The hour-long interview was conducted by FS graduate Brian Willis, president of Winning Mind Training, and is posted in audio format on Willis’ new membership website for police trainers, The Excellence in Training Academy. In it, Butler offers insights into applying FS research to firearms and UOF programs to better prepare officers to overcome life-threatening challenges of the street.

Deadly Paradigms

“I have spoken to thousands of firearms and use-of-force trainers,” Butler says, “and I ask them, ‘What is your current firearms certification standard based on?’ I can count on one hand the number who have said, ‘We base training on the threats andcircumstances that officers are likely to encounter on the street.’

“Almost always the standards are designed to meet some sort of administrative risk-management requirement. Very little is finding its way from real-life combat situations into firearms training.”

For example, he notes, training in no- or low-light situations is commonly neglected, even though a significant percentage of OISs occur where visibility is impaired. And officers frequently are not taught the importance of moving immediately when faced with a threat—a proven means of disrupting offender hit rates—because trainers mistakenly accept that range design prohibits any movement that’s effective.

Vehicle Stop Tactics

Butler recounts valuable lessons learned from Force Science’s groundbreaking Traffic Stop study, which involved a motorist suddenly producing a gun and firing on officers during discussion of a driving infraction.

The initial reaction of 91 out of 94 officers was to “stand flat-footed, draw, and try to return fire,” says Butler, who helped conduct the study. That “strong but wrong” automatic response was “embedded in their brain” because that’s how “we have conditioned officers to respond to lethal threats presented at close range.” Yet in the 1.5 – 1.9 seconds that reaction requires, an officer could receive “a minimum of six rounds coming at them.”

Only three officers reacted initially to physically control the suspect’s weapon, immediately “reaching out and trying to get the muzzle off-line,” Butler says. “Not one of these officers was struck by initial gunfire,” because their reaction was a faster choice. “All three had a very strong background in martial arts,” which had programmed their brains differently.

Benefits of a passenger-side approach were also underscored by the Traffic Stop study, Butler points out. “There’s a lot of obstruction inside the car” that an attacking driver has to overcome: the front passenger seat, headrest, door pillar, glass. “He has a great deal of difficulty engaging an officer effectively on the passenger side,” Butler explains.

Officers who approached on the passenger side were able to reach a “mitigation zone” where they were relatively safe from the driver’s gun attack three-quarters to one second faster than officers approaching on the driver’s side, he says.

He emphasizes that he’s “not advocating teaching only a passenger-side approach.” Officers should be trained in both techniques so that “in the right context they can make the best decision possible.”


Force Science’s well-known Hit Probability study, which revealed the natural instinct of many offenders to shoot at an officer’s head from close range, also confirms the value of immediately moving as a threat response, Butler says.

“Officers see the threat coming and they tend to stand still while drawing their weapon to respond,” he says. “Drawing your weapon should be your second priority. Moving to get your body off-line is the single most important piece of mitigating action you can take.

“Shooting at a moving target, especially with a handgun, is a trained skill, particularly if the movement is lateral. Very few offenders have that skill. When you’re moving, offenders end up ‘shooting in the present but hitting in the past,’ ” and thus missing their intended target.

Butler challenges trainers who claim they can’t teach movement on the range because of safety considerations or facility limitations. “We can’t allow ourselves to fall into that fallacy of thinking,” he declares. “Every time you let an officer stand still and draw, you reinforce a habit that can get the officer killed.

“Trainers need to be creative. There are always solutions. Even taking a dramatic step to the right or left as you draw and fire can help. It may not be the optimal solution, but we can certainly start to implement small advances and do it now without waiting for the ‘big’ solution.”

Training Environment

Too few agencies “move beyond the classroom to teach [tactics] in a context of reality-based training,” Butler claims. Confining teaching only to the classroom typically “floods an officer’s forebrain with knowledge that never gets into the midbrain,” Butler says. “The only way to teach skills so an officer is competent to perform them is in the environment in which they are going to be needed.”

Trainers who don’t appreciate the “huge difference” have no understanding of “how the brain works under stress. We can’t think we are training officers to respond predictably and reliably in the crucible of life-threatening events until we have first seen them [use their skills] reliably and predictably in the context of a realistic training environment.”

He deplores the “silo-type” training of street skills that dominates many academy programs, citing particularly the “bifurcation between physical combat training and firearms training. Very few academies meld these together in a reality-based environment where officers can be taught to apply them in close-in encounters.”

Silo-type instruction leaves “gaps, with a failure to connect the dots,” Butler says. “That’s like teaching an athlete specific skill sets without teaching how to apply them in a game.

“There’s a huge responsibility on trainers to understand how to tie together cognition, perception, motor behavior, and tactical decision-making,” he says. “We have the most work to do in moving firearms training into a state that is supported by research.”


Trainers always say they need more time, Butler observes. “But the question is: How effectively and productively are you using the time you’ve got?”

Are you, for example, “spending far too much time taking officers to a high level of technical skill [with their firearm], rather than taking them to an acceptable, safe level of competence and as fast as possible moving them out of a static environment and start building complexity [into their training], so their basic skills are further enhanced within the context in which those skills are needed. It’s no different than the way coaches build high-level athletic performance.”

As an officer becomes “unconsciously competent” with his firearm–able to soundly “manipulate it without conscious thought”–he’s able in life-threatening situations to focus “the attentional resources of his brain [on] perception, judgment, risk assessment, decision-making, and good tactical choices,” Butler says.

Additionally …

In exchanges during the interview, Butler and Willis explore a variety of other topics, including:

How “rote behavior,” like automatically telling suspects to take their hands out of their pockets, can prove fatal

Three findings from FBI studies to keep in mind when building your survival training program

Two books that can enhance your training capabilities

Why trainers’ “huge egos” are dangerous for officers

What “eternal threat” is most deadly on traffic stops

How the average officer’s training in performance skills compares to that of the typical freshman wrestling student (Hint: Unfavorably!).


You can  CLICK HERE to watch the full discussion. As a courtesy, Willis offers Force Science News readers the first month FREE when they enroll as new members. Just click on the site’s “Join Now” button and enter the special code: fsimonthfree

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Force Science is the research and application of unbiased scientific principles and processes to determine the true nature of human behavior in high stress and deadly force encounters.