Training Shooters With Behavior Modification In Mind

What competitive shooters do bears only a slight resemblance to what law enforcement officers do. However, officers can learn a few things from the way competitive pistol shooters train.

Before beginning their shooting stages, competitive shooters must "enter the zone." They have to reach the peak of their concentration level and create a shooting cadence. They shoot for accuracy, increasing the cadence as they go.

Law enforcement officers do not have the luxury of being able to "enter the zone" before pulling the trigger, but can create a routine of calming techniques during practice.

Creating a comfort zone must be deliberate. For example, when practicing, an officer should wear his favorite pair of jeans and a full duty belt to create an association of play with work. For other occupations this association could be considered unhealthy. For police work, it works.

Perceptions are powerful. The interpretation of perceptions drive behavior. Training is a form of behavior modification. Altering some of the perceptions while training will improve an officer's response in high-risk situations. These improvements result in faster and more accurate shooting when officers really need it.

Shoot smaller targets
Most firearms training programs inadvertently create a mindset. If officers train to qualification, some officers will achieve the lowest standard of that level. If an agency requires officers to score 48 center mass hits on a B27 target, the skill level of the officers will plateau. The best shooters in the agency will still be measured against their ability to shoot center mass hits on a B27 target. If the standard stays the same but the means to achieve that standard is harder, the agency competency will improve. The logic behind using smaller targets is simple: make training harder so qualification is easier.

Take standard Milpark targets, or any torso shaped cardboard target, and reduce the size by 25 percent. For a Milpark target, cut 2.5 inches from each side and 2 inches from the forehead. Use this 75-percent Milpark at shooting distances greater then 7 yards. For distances within 7 yards, use standard M-16A1 25 meter sighter targets, which are about 3 inches by 1.5 inches.

What does one do with the smaller targets? First, begin with the agency's standard qualification. Most states have a 30- to 48-round requirement with a minimum number of hits and a minimum score. Begin with the 75-percent Milpark targets and fire a qualification. Move to the smaller targets and fire another qualification. After, lay the targets prone. Last, blade the targets at a 45-degree angle.

Even if an officer realizes and vocalizes that the purpose of the smaller targets is to "mess with the mind," the paradigm destruction is complete. When the officer returns to the full-size targets, they appear (and are) huge.

Reduce perceived friction
On the range, most shooters will find it is easier to shoot metal targets with 6-inch plates then targets with 6-inch cutouts, although the impact zone has the same dimensions. This is not because of any optical illusion. This is from the perceived friction of nearby non-targets.

Traffic engineers study the concept of traffic friction. The outcome of speed friction, where a single traffic lane is slowed by an event, is the traffic wave or pinch phenomenon. Traffic "pinches" at a certain point, causing a "wave" of pinching that radiates from that point, within the traffic lane. The incident or traffic accident could be nonexistent or cleared long before the wave subsides.

If a wave is created in one lane, this slow traffic creates a "friction" that intimidates the traffic speeds of other lanes. After all, few drivers are willing to travel 70 mph next to a line of occupied vehicles that are stopped. This friction can be transmitted to lanes traveling in an opposite direction, depending on the engineering of the center divider. On a three-lane highway, if one lane slows down, all other lanes slow down.

Drivers also have a perception of the width of the roadway and how close objects are to their lane. If tall grass is close to the edge of the roadway, traffic will move slower than highways bordered by cropped vegetation.

Firearms instructors already create shooter friction by placing "no shoot" targets on the range. Constantly shooting at partially obscured targets or targets that require a threat assessment will train shooters to fire through without interruption. The best way to reduce shooter friction is to continually introduce new situations, then increase competency in those situations.

Ignore perceived friction
Officers should learn to ignore or take advantage of perceived friction. The way to ignore perceived friction is to respond to visual cues about cover and concealment. The way to take advantage of perceived friction is to recognize that aggressors will do the same thing.

Rangemasters should use polyethylene orange fencing. Place sections of this fencing perpendicular to the line of fire, covering all or part of a target. This is the same stuff some shooting organizations use for lane control, simulating walls and range obstacles.

Because of the way this fencing is usually employed, many shooters will ask "Is this fencing supposed to simulate cover or concealment?" Rangemasters should respond. "It is not simulating anything, it's just fencing." Officers who clearly identify threats behind the fencing (and determine there aren't any "no shoots") and fail to shoot through the fencing should be corrected. This model should be repeated using clearly identified threats behind glass and empty garbage cans. Range masters should create range scenarios which cause officers to shoot through small openings and semi-transparent items such as shower curtains.

Exploit perceived friction
It is a natural perception to believe opaque materials are cover. Anyone who has put a bullet through an interior wall knows this is not true. However, for a brief moment, it may work. Getting behind an opaque material will buy an officer time to seek cover. The threat may believe the officer is behind a sheetrock wall. However, the astute officer has already moved.

Change the cadence
When learning Morse code, radio enthusiasts use the Farnsworth method, a time compression of actual code speed. Instead of listening to individual dots and dashes, letters are sent at a fast rate causing the student to hear the group, not the components. The intervals between the letters decreases as the skill level increases. If a student is learning code at five words- per-minute, individual letters are sent at 21. Students learn to hear the combinations quickly, almost ignoring the interval. They already are familiar with the cadence, only the interval has changed.

Changing the cadence on the range is a similar concept. First, officers must learn to fire rapid accurate shot strings, while the interval between these shot strings decreases.

Officers should begin at the 3-yard line with three 75-percent Milpark targets, shoulder width apart. From the holster, officers must draw and fire two shots on each target within 3 seconds, reholstering every time. When officers have established accurate first and second shots with consistent cadence, the drill changes to six shots from the holster in 4 seconds without reholstering in between.

This particular drill accomplishes two objectives. First, officers hear the rapidity of the shots and mimic this speed. Second, rapid-fire shooting causes a "feel" for the trigger. Shooters tend to maintain better trigger contact if they have to fire faster. This type of drill should be preceded by sear reset training.

Reduce administrative friction
Agency administrators need to do their best to remove the perceptions that would detract from an officer doing his job. If an officer believes that the infrastructure of the agency is designed to scrutinize every decision he makes, he may subconsciously fail to deliver the correct amount of force in a given situation. Statistically, failing to deliver the correct amount of force at the correct time is one of the most consistent factors in law enforcement officers being assaulted.

No one, including officers and administrators who were not present at the scene, exits a critical incident unchanged. For this reason, teamwork training for stress inoculation should be practiced agency-wide before a critical incident.

Administrators should tell their officers: "During a critical incident I will give my officers the benefit of the doubt before any press release or investigation," and mean it. In the police administration business, reputation is everything.

Critical incident training should include the following:

  • Administrators should be trained that officers will need to de-escalate after a critical incident.

    Anyone involved is still being guided by the primitive brain which precludes creative or complex thought patterns. What comes from their mouths while under the fight or flight veil should be closely guarded by the department.

    De-escalation could take a few minutes or a few days, depending on the officer.

  • It should be a department policy to quickly get the officer out of public view.

    This policy needs to be written and briefed, so the officer does not share any perception that he is being treated as "different."

  • Supervisors must quickly isolate involved officers from the media, including persons who are adept at only capturing a single biased aspect of a complex situation on their cell phone.
  • Supervisors must repeat the mantras "pending a full investigation" and "it's too early to tell," to everyone, not just the press.

An officer whose subconscious recognizes he is up to the challenge of shooting smaller, obscured targets at a fast cadence can overcome any friction. That officer who recognizes his agency will treat him fairly after a critical incident is an equipped peak performer.

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