Fighting in the hole

     Statistically, an officer is most likely to have to make a lethal force decision at contact distance more than any other moment. The problem is, there is often a training disconnect when it comes to preparing officers for these incidents. "Fighting in the hole" refers to the use of force at extreme close quarters, within a circle no wider than an arm extension between the officer and the assailant. Inside the hole, the decision-making process is accelerated. The decisive combatant who delivers effective techniques, interrupts the assailant's OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) and quickly applies the best template will prevail.

     For insight on fighting in the hole, we contacted Wes Doss of Khyber Interactive Associates LLC. Doss also serves as the training director of Crimson Trace Corp. According to Doss, Dennis Tueller made some astute observations about reaction times within 21 feet between officer and assailant. He argues that the influence of this rule has driven many law enforcement training decisions.

     Tueller determined that the average assailant can cover 21 feet before the average officer can draw and deliver accurate, effective fire in his defense. Doss explains that these observations were never meant to be translated into a hard and fast rule.

     We owe Dennis Tueller for restructuring our original view of officer safety. His observations demonstrated a need for officers to heighten their sense of awareness when the 21-foot standoff distance is breached, which is just about any time an officer makes contact with any member of the public during the normal course of duty.

     Officers knock on doors, talk to people in doorways, run people for warrants and have normal conversations while they are just a few feet away. Based on what we know about violent encounters against law enforcement officers, most training programs designed to respond to assaults are distinct from actual reality.

     From 1996 to 2005 there were 468,409 reports of assaults on law enforcement officers. Of these assaults, 85 percent were personal weapons incidents; meaning hands, fists and feet were used as weapons against the officer. Only 2.2 percent involved cutting or stabbing instruments. The first thing that this data suggests is the fact that officers must learn how to respond to close physical assaults, not because of the percentage of weapons use, but because of the pure number of assaults on law enforcement officers annually.

     The second suggestion that this presents should be the most serious consideration training administrators employ, even though it cannot be inferred by hard data: A percentage of officer-involved shootings were preceded by a scuffle between officer and suspect. In other words, they were disengagements, meaning some officer-involved shootings were likely at a contact distance where that officer was at risk of being disarmed.

     Thus, there are three good reasons why static shooting, moving and shooting or "just standing there" shooting practice is all wrong:

  1. Officers generally do business at arm's length, not at 7 yards away.
  2. Statistically, the most common form of assault is with hands, fists and feet.
  3. Officer-involved shootings are most likely to occur "in the hole."

     Before we look at how we need to change the training paradigm, we must add to the equation. Although the number of officers assaulted with a firearm is statistically low, this number is offset by the fact that most officers killed over the last 10 years have been killed with a firearm.

     Shooting training must be merged with grappling and striking techniques. Based on legal and policy restrictions almost always placed on officers, the force continuum is not preemptive. Officers who successfully defend themselves in the hole will always be at a legal disadvantage, based on current training doctrine. That is, if they've survived a potentially lethal encounter, a crafty litigator might suggest they could not possibly have been reacting to the threat. They must have been the aggressor.

     If we look at fighting in the hole coupled with legal precedent and policies, it is evident that we have designed a system whose purpose is to cause officers to be injured or killed. Evidence confirms that relying on response time alone can be fatal — officers can and will be disarmed, based entirely on reactions.

     Agencies, then, have a due diligence responsibility to provide a steady stream of realistic training.

Firearms and defensive tactics trainings must be seamless

     For some reason, administrators are sometimes reluctant in firearms trainings to allow officers to touch the target. But we know that placing one's hand in front of where one is drawing a firearm raises the risk of shooting the reaction hand. If we don't trust officers enough to train them, they're probably in the wrong business.

     Officers must first be trained on delivering a devastating soft tissue strike or similar technique while simultaneously drawing their firearm. The soft tissue strike should be something that agrees with the agency's training system; it could be the web of the hand at the throat, a strike to the cartilage bridge of the nose or a spear hand in the solar plexus. Whatever it is, the motion should be seamless with the drawing of the firearm.

     The way to train for this is to begin with a Red Gun (ASP Red Gun), and a flesh-and-blood opponent wearing proper safety equipment. Practice striking and drawing. If the officer allows his gun to point at his own hand, correct the action. The officer and suspect should engage and dance a little.

     The second step is for officers to train with airsoft rifles, force-on-force. We asked Wes Doss to comment about using airsoft products and realistic training. The airsoft allows officers to make mistakes, intensifies training and provides a platform for "working through" any training deficiencies. Doss explained that using airsoft products that closely replicate the actual duty weapon adds to training intensity as well as allows officers to go through a technique hundreds of times, as plastic BB's are inexpensive.

     The third step is for officers to shoot live fire on targets at the range. This follows many sessions of dedicated training, dry runs and confidence in our officers.

A timely decisive strike will circumvent the OODA Loop

     If the officer is forced to be reactive to an assault, then the suspect is already inside the officer's OODA loop. If the officer's response is to create distance (by backing away), then the armed suspect has time to settle into a shooting platform or worse — bracket the officer with subsequent rounds.

     In military small unit tactics, the universal template for an ambush is to fight through the ambush, which is exactly what the officer should do. The individual officer version of this should include a decisive strike or charging the aggressive suspect, thus requiring the suspect to react to the officer's actions. This is getting inside the OODA loop, indeed.

Ensure training is realistic

     Create a range scenario that looks like the inside of the convenience store. Do not let officers see this scenario before conducting training. Do not tell them what to expect. Tell them, "This is a convenience store. Go in and respond to an unknown disturbance;" or "This is Gary's Cozy Shack. Go in and get your morning coffee ... "

     Let officers touch their targets. Make them drive up to the range floor, run a quarter-mile and wrestle a Red Man (officer in a Red Man suit), then shoot at targets they can touch. They should work force-on-force scenarios where they can experiment with striking, jamming the draw and upsetting the balance of the aggressor.

Get good hits

     When we asked Doss about the use of lasers, he told us about an exercise where students in a training session worked from a tight clinch with an aggressor. The object was to maneuver until the training gun could be fired from a tucked retention position. Even though the shooting was from extreme close quarters, the shots-to-hits ratio was surprisingly low. When they used lasers, students received an immediate visual confirmation and prevailed. Lasers allow an officer to quickly reference, even in unconventional shooting positions.

     It is surprising how accuracy suffers the moment trainers put two people in a cauldron, then stir things up. The only solution is to train repeatedly. We believe that lasers give the officer a viable advantage.

Be a bad target

     Getting inside the OODA process of an aggressor also includes making use of the local landscape as cover. However, contrary to usual training, breaking and running to cover from contact distance puts the runner at a disadvantage.

     Being a bad target means staying in motion to make one harder to hit. This is passive. The better way to be a bad target is to aggress the aggressor.

     Above all, officers should train to prevail, not merely survive.

     Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.