Effective Firearms Training
One Agency’s Approach
By Keith Cain
Events across the nation continue to highlight the need for law enforcement officers to develop and sustain the firearms skills needed to survive a lethal force encounter. However, officer-involved shootings remain relatively rare in this country. Consequently, assigning the right priority to firearms training never is easy, and many small and medium-sized agencies face the challenge of finding the resources necessary to implement more than a minimal periodic firearms requalification program. Further, the current economic downturn has made the task harder as declining budgets have resulted in staffing shortages, overtime curtailments, and difficulty in purchasing training ammunition.
The Daviess County, Kentucky, Sheriff’s Office continues to experience each of those challenges. Yet, agency leaders felt obligated to officers and citizens to address those obstacles, rather than just defer firearms training until better times. This entailed gaining buy in among employees at all levels while developing creative solutions for the lack of resources—in short, crafting an effective program that the agency could execute within the available means. Leaders also decided that the training requirements would apply equally to all sworn personnel—supervisors, patrol officers, court security officers, criminal investigators, school resource officers, and special deputies—even though this presented additional challenges. Ultimately, the department implemented a program with two major components: a limited-scale range firing every month and an annual 2-day event.
Because the agency does not have its own firing range, it conducts the monthly event at the Owensboro Police Department’s outdoor range over the course of two days. Every officer participates for two hours, while on duty if possible. The agency encourages all sworn personnel to attend monthly but requires them to participate at least bimonthly for record qualification. Scheduled exercises sustain basic firearms skills, periodically introduce new ones, and feature a mix of both dry and live fire. Although each exercise includes firing at least some rounds, the department has found that certain tasks—for example, reloading with the weak hand only—can be taught effectively without requiring officers to fire.
The agency conducts the yearly event about 40 miles from department headquarters at the Kentucky National Guard (KYNG) training facility in Greenville, which features ranges and other facilities that rank among the finest in the country. While military training takes first priority, KYNG graciously shares its facilities when available; otherwise, this event would not take place. Further, one of the nation’s premier firearms instructors, a full-time civilian contract employee of KYNG, provides most of the instruction.
Sheriff Cain heads the Daviess County, Kentucky, Sheriff’s Office, is a board member of the Kentucky and National Sheriff’s Associations, and chairs the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council.
In 2006, the training began with two 2-day iterations, each involving half of the participants. The coordination involved in allowing so many officers to train for two full days proved challenging and relied upon the generous assistance of both the Owensboro Police Department and the Kentucky State Police. Personnel provided overwhelmingly positive feedback about the training. Many officers said that this was the first time since graduating from the academy—in some instances, decades before—that they had in-depth, structured, formal firearms instruction, rather than just periodically demonstrating basic proficiency on a qualification range.
Beginning in 2008, a successful program took a significant leap forward when KYNG opened its newly constructed shoot house to the Daviess County Sheriff’s Office. The shoot house is Kentucky’s only three-dimensional, full live-fire training facility, and its use of service ammunition makes it both realistic and affordable. Its 11 rooms permit an almost limitless array of scenarios.
The agency chose an active-shooter scenario as the basic vehicle for instruction. This decision reflects a growing awareness among the law enforcement community that officers arriving at the scene of an ongoing shooting, an event usually over in minutes, cannot wait for the arrival of a SWAT or special response team. Department leaders decided that officers should receive some level of training to improve their prospects of succeeding in such encounters and reducing personal risk.
Rather than focusing on complex maneuvers that officers would find difficult to remember without constant practice or pairing with the same deputy while on duty, the agency decided to concentrate on a few very basic tactical skills. Leaders especially wanted the training to benefit all sworn personnel, regardless of age, physical condition, or normal duty assignment, because nationwide experience suggests that any officer could respond first to an active-shooter scene. The department found it important to limit class sizes to 6 to 8 officers for each 2-day iteration as this not only facilitates scheduling but also allows instructors to devote more attention to each student and introduce skills more easily and safely than would be possible with a larger group.
The first day focuses on individual officers placed into a situation involving a choice between waiting for backup while the active shooter continues or entering the building alone to try to locate and stop the killer. Officers begin the day with a classroom presentation followed by a half day on the outdoor range to participate in a basic firearms skills refresher emphasizing speed and accuracy, ammunition management, malfunction clearance, and shooting on the move. When every participant has demonstrated an acceptable level of skill and, thus, fulfilled the prerequisite for the next phase, the class moves to the shoot house for the rest of the day for live-fire training.
The following segment begins with a walk-through discussion and demonstration of basic techniques, such as “slicing the pie,” balancing security with speed, and engaging from the greatest practical distance. Much of the time focuses on dealing with doorways and minimizing officer exposure. Next, every officer participates in one or more instances of dry fire under the close supervision of an instructor. When every officer is ready, the house is reconfigured for a series of individual live-fire exercises.
One of the shoot house’s distinctive features provides the opportunity for officers to engage targets in any direction, something linear outdoor ranges do not normally offer. Many officers find the need to search for and encounter targets in a 360-degree setting new. To further complicate the process, the training involves targets held up by an internal balloon that shooters must break for the targets to fall; this requires multiple accurate hits to end the threat. And, to reinforce appropriate decision-making skills, the sessions normally employ more no-shoot targets than threats.
At the conclusion of each run, officers go through a reenactment with the instructors and discuss how they handled each situation. The training staff tries to ensure that participants feel comfortable speaking candidly.
The second day simulates officers’ arrival at the scene. On a standard outdoor range, instructors begin introducing them to the concept of moving around each other safely with drawn weapons—a subject rarely covered in academy-like settings where the training emphasizes a straight firing line of officers facing similarly situated targets, a situation rarely encountered on the street. Next, more complex exercises involve coordinating ammunition management while moving and engaging targets so that two officers do not reload at the same time.
This range portion concludes with a tightly coordinated “snake drill” in which participants experience another officer firing a weapon past them to engage a target in a nonlinear environment. They also must move around and past each other in close quarters with weapons drawn. Officers can do this safely only if they have developed and maintained rigid muzzle awareness and control, as well as the discipline to keep their fingers off the trigger until they have their sights on the target. During this exercise, officers take turns standing forward of the firing line while another engages targets on each side of them. While this sounds—and potentially is—dangerous, instructors rigidly control it, and officers must master it in dry fire before progressing to live fire.
Officers with serious reservations do not have to take part in this exercise, but it is a prerequisite for anyone wanting to participate in a two-man live-fire entry into the shoot house. In addition to being a critically important safety gate, this activity also proves valuable because, as veteran law enforcement officers know, such situations are common on the street, but not often addressed in training.
“...many small and medium-sized agencies face the challenge of finding the resources necessary to implement more than a minimal periodic firearms requalification program.”
When the instructors decide that all students have demonstrated their ability to safely move and engage targets with fellow officers in close proximity, the training moves back to the shoot house. This portion begins with a group walk-through that includes demonstrations and explanations of various entry and movement techniques. Instructors emphasize the fundamentals: developing a quick plan, getting through doorways quickly and nearly simultaneously, going toward opposite corners to disrupt the shooter’s decision-making loop, focusing by officers on their own area of responsibility so fellow officers can do the same, and effectively communicating with each other.
Next, two-officer dry-fire runs commence, the phase during which most of the learning occurs. Although a dry-fire exercise, most officers experience increased heart rates, respiration, and blood pressure.
As with the solo-officer entries the day before, when all students have successfully completed dry-fire training, the house is reconfigured for live fire. The crawl-walk-run approach helps manage risk, and two certified shoot house instructors who also must be currently certified range safety officers tailor the scenarios and target placement according to the demonstrated skill level of each officer. Instructors strive to challenge officers beyond their comfort zone, but task them within their capabilities.
During both of the dry-fire and live-fire exercises, one instructor accompanies the team, and another monitors the runs on a video system. Both instructors provide detailed performance reviews.
As of May 2009, everyone in the department authorized to carry a firearm completed this training. The agency views this not as a one-time event but an ongoing program and is beginning the second cycle, which will reinforce the previously learned skills while introducing new ones. For example, at some point, the entire course will take place at dark and require flashlights. Other plans include configuring the training for patrol rifles and shotguns. And, already, the department has equipped a once largely empty building with furniture, which makes searching and clearing much more complex and dangerous and significantly increases the demand on officers.
Beyond introducing the skills and techniques needed to respond to an active shooter, the department has learned that this training offers benefits that extend far beyond that specific scenario to other lethal-force encounters. Agency leaders realized that these basic skills may prove critical to survival in any situation, particularly one involving more than one officer in a weapons-drawn encounter.
First, the training requires an officer to move and engage a threat with one or more other officers in close proximity who also are moving and firing. As common—and potentially tragic—as this situation is, few departments can properly train their officers on the skills required or even expose them to what is involved.
Second, and closely related, the emotional and physiological changes induced by the shoothouse scenarios come as close as possible in a training environment to exposing officers to stresses similar to those in an actual shooting situation. The difference between even the most challenging linear range setup and what officers must deal with in the shoot house is stark; while no one ever would argue that any training situation can duplicate a real life-or-death confrontation, the department believes that the shoot house comes closer than a traditional police qualification range.
The Daviess County Sheriff’s Office found that while conducting this training takes a lot of work on the part of all concerned, officer feedback has shown its worth. Somewhat surprisingly, several senior deputies—the ones who, according to tradition, may sometimes be less enthusiastic about new training concepts—have been among its biggest supporters. Throughout, the agency strives to conduct a safe training event while equipping officers with potentially lifesaving skills. It tries to calibrate the training so that all officers gain newfound confidence in their ability to successfully handle very difficult situations.
The inherent challenges and risks in this kind of training caused the department to take seriously the decision to provide it for officers. In the end, agency leaders based their choice on knowing that department personnel face certain hazards every day as part of the nature of their chosen profession. Because they chose to become police officers, the agency feels that it owes them to do everything possible to prepare them to do their jobs well and return home safe at the end of each day.
“...while conducting this training takes a lot of work on the part of all concerned, officer feedback has shown its worth.”
A veteran Daviess County Sheriff’s deputy who completed the firearms training program approximately 90 days earlier responded to a suspicious person call in a residential neighborhood one morning and became involved in a shooting confrontation with an armed subject. Unknown to the officer, the individual recently had been released from prison, carried a handgun, and faced many years of backup time. The encounter took place at close range, and both parties fired multiple rounds. The subject sustained an incapacitating wound that terminated the encounter; the officer was uninjured.
This event demonstrates two things. One, the officer obviously went to work that day with the skills necessary to survive and prevail; he stayed in the fight and ultimately took a violent criminal into custody. Further, he later went home safe. The officer credits the valuable training he received for saving his life that day. This incident serves as an example of why the Daviess County Sheriff’s Office feels so strongly about the program.