Building the D.T. Toolbox

To improve defensive tactics training it's time we find a better metaphor

By Heath Jones  |   May 24, 2017
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I’m a cop who’s spent the last 12 years teaching defensive tactics (DT) to military and law enforcement personnel around the world. The goal of this article is not to promote or denounce any one defensive tactics system, but to simply offer suggestions on how to improve an agency’s current program based on my own experience.

Tools & Toolbox

I’ve trained cadre at various police academies around the nation and the primary philosophy that I encounter has been to give the recruits “tools for their toolbox.” I’m sure everyone reading this article—especially the DT instructors—has either heard or said it themselves. It’s a great metaphor. However, when dealing with recruits or even novice officers, let me propose this: It is not your job to give them tools for their toolbox. It is your job to give them the toolbox itself!

Picture this: I tell a recruit to hold out his/her arms and then I start loading him/her down with tools—literal tools: a knife, laptop, gun, screwdriver, binoculars, and so forth, on and on. Once the recruit is clutching this big pile of tools, I tell him/her good luck and send them out into the world. How many of those tools would they drop before exiting the building? How many would they drop by the time they reach the parking lot? How many tools would remain after six months on the street? Not many.

Now, what if I gave this recruit a toolbox? I would be inclined to speculate that at the end of six months the recruit would still have a majority of the tools he/she was given. What’s more our officer could organize and prioritize the tools as works for them, as wells as pick up new tools as they gain experience. The same holds true with defensive tactics. You have to give them the toolbox first. This is the recruit’s foundation.

Unfortunately, the majority of police academies in the U.S. don’t allocate very much time for DT. It’s been my experience that DT is the first program to get cut or have hours reduced and the last to get funding. Unlike civilian programs, we are working with a time crunch. There are many great DT programs out there. However, very few are applicable to the time constraints we are forced to work under.

So where do we start?

First, make a numbered list of every single technique that is in your current DT program. I mean it: Write them all down.

Now, imagine that at the end of 40 hours of DT training, your recruit is going to have to run through a prison yard. What’s more, the prisoners on this yard know that a new recruit is coming, and they want to see that recruit dead. Ask yourself this: How many of these techniques your recruit was taught over the 40 hours would they remember under this scenario? More importantly, how many of these techniques would they be able to retain and perform under this stress?

My experience tells me that maybe one-third of what is taught in DT training will be retained under stress. And so this is where you start. Begin to whittle away all the techniques that you know will not survive once they leave your academy.

Given the realities of most police training, we owe it to our recruits to keep it simple and effective. Most DT programs have way too many techniques. It’s not that the techniques aren’t valid or valuable skills to know, but that they may need more repetition to master. In order for repetition to anchor, one needs time—the kind of time most of us just don’t have.

It is a daunting task for any instructor. We all want to give each recruit the best tools and greatest chance for survival. However, we need to realize that in this realm, less is more. Less techniques and more repetition will build that foundation. Once they have their proverbial toolbox, it will be that much easier for them to start adding more tools in the future, whether through in-service training or through an outside source.

Divide your technique list into two categories: Gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are easier to retain and perform under stress, while fine motor skills take time and repetition. Gross motor skills should make up the majority of your program.

Once you have done your technique inventory and devised your new list, implement every single technique into a high-stress drill. By adding stress to the exercises, the intention is to demonstrate to your recruits that these skills can be retained and performed under high stress.

Pay attention to the drills: If the technique can’t be performed under stress by a majority of the recruits, you may need to get rid of it for the time being.

In Sum

There’s a difference between regurgitation of information and transferring knowledge. If the knowledge is never transferred to our recruits, it’s a waste of time. Remember, it is our job to give them the TOOLBOX. More tools can always be added later …

Thank you for what you do.