The Future of Defensive Tactics

Several studies & discussions point the way forward for physical techniques training in DT

By Richard Hough  |   Apr 26, 2017

In the last two months I’ve travelled to Baltimore to sit with fellow law enforcement trainers for the presentation of the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) recently developed Integrating Communications Assessment and Tactics (ICAT) program; from there on to St. Louis for the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Education and Training (ILEETA), where I presented seminars on the future of physical defensive tactics; and finally to Las Vegas for Americans’ for Effective Law Enforcement’s (AELE) use-of-force seminar to listen to and discuss with notables in the field about the state of use of force in criminal justice in the U.S.

That’s a lot of talk about force. I am once again reminded that while there’s little new under the sun, there’s much to discuss and contemplate—especially when it comes to this topic.

Use of Force Today

With more than 320 million people in the U.S. and well more than 60 million face-to-face contacts with law enforcement each year, there are estimated to be something over 880,000 uses of force. Most of these force usages are low level, and still only occur in approximately 1.4% of all of the above encounters.

This small percentage of force usage events is a surprise to many, not only in the public and in the media but within the law enforcement community itself. When you consider the shift in and shift out, day in and day out, month after month of responding to calls where people are in need, in crisis, and often in a contentious situation with others, objective observers would agree that the challenging work of law enforcement involves a statistically small number of force usage events.

And despite what some may claim, police work remains dangerous. The 2015 statistics from the FBI’s law enforcement officer killed and assaulted (LEOKA) summary reflected more than 50,000 reported assaults against officers during the performance of their duties. 79% of the officers assaulted were attacked with personal weapons. Of this number of assaults, approximately 28% sustained some type of injury from hands, fists, feet, and other personal weapons.

The LEOKA data is developed from agency responses representing approximately 75% of the nation’s population. Consider that many physical actions that could be reported as assaults on officers are not seen by the officer as sufficient to charge an individual, and hence go unreported. The numbers of physical acts with the potential to harm public safety professionals while small, is very real. What all officers and trainers know is that risk is always present, and we want officers to be as well-prepared as they can be in the wide variety of calls they face.

While a semantics debate and curriculum difference exists in recruit use-of-force training, most use-of-force training, according to PERF, uses a matrix continuum. This is either a circular model with subject and officer resistance and force linked, or an objective reasonableness-based model.

PERF in its recent ICAT training guide further states that defensive tactics training for recruit and in-service officers is substantial. The amount of hours actually devoted to non-gun physical skills, however, may not be entirely adequate for the trainers expected to impart the techniques specified by POST standards in each state.

This same 2016 study showed through a nationwide sample that perhaps as little as 50 hours is often spent in basic academy training on physical techniques aside from weapons. For in-service training in defensive tactics, 87% of agencies in the sample reported having some amount. The hours spent? A median of 5.5 hours.

A Florida Study

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees academy curriculum through the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, completed a survey in December, 2016, seeking information about which defensive tactics (DT) techniques law enforcement, corrections, and correctional probation officers currently use on the job. They looked at what officers think about the number of techniques taught in basic training and how frequently officers train in DT after basic training.

With close to 2,200 responses, the survey questioned law enforcement and correctional officers, as well as probation officers and defensive tactics instructors, on a range of curriculum related issues. Somewhere around 50% of respondents indicated that the training they received in the recruit Academy was adequate and further that they felt confident in using the techniques they had been taught.

As to the question of whether there were situations on the job when you wished you had better DT skills, instructors responded 43% of the time affirmatively. It may be notable that among the four groups surveyed that we would expect instructors of defensive tactics to have the most insight about this. The various officers who completed the survey might believe that their tactics were sound and effective, even without being faithful to the exact techniques they were taught.

Following are some of the other results of this survey.

Ground fighting: Asked which type tactic would have been most helpful, the greatest number of responses were in the category of ground fighting and grappling.

More realism: Significant numbers of all respondents noted that real-life simulation training could be improved. It’s important to emphasize that this is a recurring theme within the training community as well as by those being trained.

What works: All four groups surveyed agreed in various percentages that the top five tactics taught in basic were takedowns, ground fighting/grappling, strike/blocks, restraint devices, and weapon defense/retention/disarming. Escorts and transporters, pain compliance, including pressure points in joint manipulation, stance/movement, and verbal communication rounded out the rest of the list.

Too little training: The largest percentage of responses indicated that agency in-service training occurred on an annual basis, but the vast majority of respondents agreed that it was too little. Calibre Press in a sample survey a while back received responses that seem to support the Florida experience.

Takeaways: Some of the takeaways from the ongoing effort to examine the DT curriculum include the need to reevaluate tactics and delivery methods in basic recruit training; the usefulness of tactics in real-world settings; the need to focus on gross motor skills techniques; more time to teach defensive tactics; and the importance of conducting workshops with instructors and officers to gain insights and information. To the point about more time to teach DT, a practical response might be fewer techniques with more repetitions and scenarios.

Going Forward

This brief discussion is aimed at reminding everyone in the criminal justice community that while force usage is statistically infrequent, the potential for the use of force and injury to officers and arrestees is ever-present. Every state and each individual agency should examine the amount of time devoted to physical skills training as well as the selection of techniques and the practical focus of what officers are taught.

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Richard Hough

Richard Hough

Dr. Richard Hough is a career-long law enforcement and corrections practitioner, administrator, university professor and trainer, and he continues to consult in the areas of use-of-force, police and correctional practices, and policy. He has taught criminal justice and public administration courses at a number of colleges and universities since 1989 and he is a faculty member of the University of West Florida. He has taught defensive tactics and other topics at regional law enforcement and correctional academies for more than thirty years. Dr. Hough is the co-author of American Homicide and he is the author of the upcoming The Use of Force in Criminal Justice.
Richard Hough

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