When police decide to shoot there are lives on the line. How they make that decision comes down to training.
No training is more intense that “use of force” with live training ammo. Using paint marking rounds means mistakes have a pain penalty.
Lon Bartel is a former police officer who now runs a training academy called Verstand Tactical. He believes the only way to really prepare for a violent confrontation is to truly feel the stress and fear of being shot at.
“Law enforcement, I don't care who you are, you don't rise to the occasion. You default to your lowest level of training under these types of situations. That's the reality,” said Bartel.
Bartel puts officers in a training scenario with role players acting as bad guys. Think of it as cops and robbers on steroids.
Sometimes the bad guys have a gun and the scenario is a shootout. Sometimes the suspect is actually a victim and the officer has to decide whether there’s a threat in real time. Bartel believes it’s the only way to mimic the kind of rapidly evolving, high stress situation that police find themselves in every day.
“Sitting at a range and putting holes in a piece of paper is not the same as a lethal confrontation,” he said.
Members of the media constantly report on police use of force in the real world. To better understand those pressures, I volunteered for a crash course in officer use of force with Bartel.
Bartel ran me through four scenarios.
The first was a simple turn and shoot drill – just like a duel at the O.K. Corral.
I was shot in the rib. The pain of the training round was intense and immediate. I held my rib until Bartel called an end to the training scenario.
“The nature of the stinging is what provides the stress,” said Bartel. “Because it's immediate, I don't want to get shot again.”
Jittery from being shot, I entered the second scenario with an itchy trigger finger and little patience.
I was supposed to simply get identification from the roll player. Instead, I asked for his I.D. and pulled my gun when he went for his wallet. In the real world – I’m probably fired.
“So you asked him to provide his wallet. So you asked him to engage in the behavior that he then engaged him …” said Bartel.
“And then I tried to shoot him,” I replied.
“Really difficult, isn't it?”
The training scenarios only get harder with progressively more emphasis on officer decision making
Scenario three, I managed to stop a “suspect” from stabbing her “neighbor” without any rounds fired.
In scenario four I focused on the person I thought was the suspect when his “girlfriend” pulled a gun. I got shot in the arm as back peddled and wildly returned fire, possibly shooting an “innocent.”
“Does it matter [if I hit a bystander] if I'm being shot at?” I asked Bartel.
“It sure it does! You are not justified in killing an innocent third party just because you're trying to save your own skin. That's not the way it works in Arizona,” said Bartel.
Bartel believes if officers had more of this training there would be fewer controversial police shootings – and fewer cops shot as well.