Training Scars

Toward a better way of training our newest members

By Peter Ebel  |   Jan 30, 2019

We in law enforcement wear our scars proudly. The ones on the exterior are reminders that this is the most noble profession known to man. We put ourselves in harm’s way for other people’s lives and property. And they make for some pretty good war stories. The internal scars do not always serve the same purpose. They are reminders of moments about which we might not be proud, of horrific things we have seen, when we have witnessed what has been referred to a “man’s inhumanity to man.”  Unfortunately those hidden scars sometimes manifest themselves in the form of confusion, depression, and PTSD. They can be a silent killer, a taker of life or career. 

There is another scar that can take our lives. These are far from apparent, yet they can be just as deadly. I call them training scars. You’ve all seen them—when a trainer creates bad habits in his or her students. They install something on our mental bookshelf that just won’t serve us well when we pull it down and use it on the street. 

Done Better

These mistakes have no evil intent. Most trainers I know are well intentioned professionals who sincerely want to help their brothers and sisters. But, sometimes, in their zeal to provide “street real,” dynamic, scenario-based training, the result is misguided and leaves the training scar.  

Example: During a training scenario intended to create a deadly force encounter, the officer trainee exits his patrol car on a call of a suspicious person in a pickup truck. The trainee approaches and is ambushed by the sole occupant, who was pretending to be asleep in the passenger side of the truck. The role-playing bad guy shoots at the trainee once, missing him. The officer retreats to cover while firing back, giving the suspect something else to think about beside shooting at the officer. After two missed shots by the trainee, one finds its target and the suspect falls to the ground but immediately gets back up and limps around his own car trying to re-engage the officer. 

The trainee, heart pounding, stands behind the car while covering down on the suspect. You can see his mental wheels turning. The kid has done a great job so far, given his low level of experience. 

Now, here comes the trainer, screaming, “Think! Think! What are you gonna do? The kid looks at him, probably thinking, What the hell are you doing here? I’m in the middle of a gun battle!

Get on the radio and tell dispatch ‘shots fired’ so they can get you some damned help,” the trainer screams. The trainee complies by saying, “Shots fired, we need an ambulance.” Backup is about a minute away. 

The trainee still has a living, armed threat downrange, although the suspect is hit well and has a visible disadvantage. The kid was competent with his handgun and, given another 30 seconds to work through the scenario,  would have probably neutralized the threat posed. It would have been a training “win” that would have boosted the kid’s confidence and contained numerous more teachable moments. 

First—and I recognize there will be varying opinions on this—I want the rookie to concentrate on the imminent threat. He needs to finish the fight—by convincing the suspect to comply or with gunfire. With either of those tasks completed, the officer can then get on the radio and ask for help, and worry about other issues, like checking for other threats, securing the suspect, calling for medical attention, etc.

Now, I am not one of those “never” and “always” trainers and reserve those words for rare instances, since street police work is not practiced in a perfect-world vacuum. And I won’t lay down a blanket rule in this situation either. There are, of course, exceptions: for example, f the officer is wounded, overwhelmed, out of ammo, or something catastrophic. But, in most cases, I recommend the threat be contained.

We don’t want to call our brothers and sisters into of a running gun battle, and we already know that the paramedics aren’t coming in until the scene and the suspect are secure.

The dynamics of the scenario can change if the trainer builds it that way: such as the officer is injured and he needs immediate medical attention and a lot of friends with guns.

I’ve seen other trainers, motivated by a desire to cover their behinds to immediately render aid, tell the trainee, “You’ve just shot a man! You have to give him medical attention as soon as possible.“ Although that’s true, we’re not required to call the paramedics into a scene that’s unsafe. We render aid only when it is reasonably safe to do so. 

Checking the “render aid” box is an important one during scenario-based training, but we shouldn’t be doing it if it places our personnel at deadly risk. Train them to make sure the suspect is secure, the scene is free from other threats, and we have proper personal protective gear donned. All of that means: when it’s safe

Bottom line: If you leave a trainee with a sense that he or she must rush in—at great peril to their own safety—to help a suspect that has just committed a felonious and life-threatening act against a law enforcement officer or the public, we are potentially driving up the victim body-count.

Also, not providing the trainees with some type of framework as to what we want when they are involved in a deadly force encounter is negligence in my opinion.  For example, the call of shots fired via the radio is only going to jack up everyone else’s adrenaline, cause reckless driving on the part of the rest of the shift, make a bad situation worse, and cause unreasonable danger to our people and the public.  

I want to hear just a few things from one of my officers when they are involved in a deadly force incident: “Shots fired.” Pick verbiage that fits your agency, either “outbound” or “by the police.”

  1. Whether the officer(s) is injured
  2. Whether the suspect is down and whether there are more suspects at large (and, if so, their description, direction and mode of travel).
  3. Approach options that will be safe for LE personnel and paramedics.

Other than that, I don’t want the cop blurting anything out.

Conclusion

My motivation for this rant are a number of videos that recently showed law enforcement officers engaged in a gunfight, with an active and attacking threat downrange, getting on the radio to scream out “Shots fired!” in the middle of the fight. I would venture to say this behavior is ingrained in officers by several means: videos/TV/media, and training. One we can change, the others we can’t. 

The last thing I want to do is to find a brother or sister law enforcement officer dead at a scene, gun in one hand, radio in the other. I ask my fellow trainers to build winners rather than survivors. Don’t create a scar that could kill the people we are sworn to make better. 

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Peter Ebel

Pete Ebel is in his 30th year as a law enforcement officer and is a lieutenant for a large South Florida Sheriff’s Office, where he serves as the supervisor of major cases in the Narcotics Division. He has served as the commander of the Homicide and Firearms Investigative Units, the executive officer for the Violent Crimes Division, the Tactical Unit, and Gang Unit in his 10 years with the agency. He began his career with the Lake Worth Police Department, which merged with the sheriff’s office in 2008. At LWPD, Pete served as a Road Patrol Officer, Tactical Unit/Street Crimes officer, Field Training Officer, Detective, Sergeant, Training Coordinator and Lieutenant. During his last five years at LWPD, he was the commander of the Special Operations Division, leading the Tactical / Street Crimes Unit, Narcotics Unit, K9 Unit and SWAT Team. Pete had previously served as an operator and team leader on the SWAT Team.  Pete has been an instructor for 21 years, and is a state-certified in firearms and general topics. He teaches academy and advanced classes, as well as nationwide and internationally for the Team One Network, a tactical training company. Pete specializes in use of force, excited delirium, tactics and safety. He has presented at three ILEETA Conferences, at the 2018 Illinois Tactical Officers Association conference and at the 2018 European Polizeitrainer in Deutschland Conference in Nuremberg, Germany. Pete was recently certified as a Force Science Institute analyst.

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