Focus on Training

Human Performance-Based Recommendations

By James Nightingale, M.S.

A stock image of police vehicles at a crime scene.

Many law enforcement training programs and techniques are not adequately suited for the job. They just “check a box.” Patrol officers often arrive first on scene and perform flawlessly with rapidly evolving situations that require them to make split-second decisions. This decision-making may be related to what officers learned in the academy and at their departments. To that end, leaders must view training with the fundamentals of human performance in mind and understand how these factors affect officer performance.

Human Performance

Human factors describe “how human beings function within various work environments as they interact with equipment in the performance of various roles and tasks.” Human performance is when those behaviors are executed to accomplish specific results.1

Traditionally, exercise physiologists and trainers who work with elite Olympic or professional athletes discuss human performance. However, many argue that police officers are no different than professional athletes. After sitting in a patrol car for hours, officers are expected to chase a suspect 30 to 100 yards while carrying 25 to 35 pounds of gear. They may have to tussle with the suspect, apply handcuffs, and communicate to dispatch their location and what happened. These expectations require officers to always maintain their physicality, breathing, strength, and fine motor and communication skills.

Elite athletes are afforded training time with special coaches during the week leading up to their event and in the offseason. On the other hand, officers are in the arena every day they work, always primed and ready to go without any physical or mental recovery time. Therefore, human performance-based training should be implemented at every police department, and the elements must relate precisely to the required job.


Research proves that 80% of human errors result from organizational failures.2 New officers are influenced by academy instructors, field training officers, sergeants, and their partners. They acquire good and bad habits, some of which may be training scars from old, antiquated training ingrained in officers because it is “how it has always been done.” Trainers should assess and understand what officers’ true, needed performance is and be able to measure it or have articulatable, performance-based results.

Law enforcement training, much like that of professional athletes, must be human performance-based and meet the needs of the task expected. For example, golfers do not dedicate much time to strengthening their upper body; they focus on lower body and core exercises because that is where the true strength for their swing lies.

Likewise, planned or scenario-based training tasks officers with situations realistic to the job.3 It induces stress through time limits and involves decision-making, providing them with the tools needed to deal with unpredictable service calls. Further, the training load and stressors should be balanced.4 A program that does not equal the level of stress officers experience while on the job is just “check the box” training with no real benefit to the officer. In effect, such training does not result in optimal readiness to perform.

Modern Approach

Human performance-based training is an innovative approach that fits the growing needs seen in police departments nationwide.

Firearm Training

Traditional firearm training requires the shooter to stand still and aim at a paper target. The distance between the shooter and target ranges from 3 to 50 yards, and a score is determined after shooting a prescribed number of rounds. Sometimes, there is a time limit, and the passing score and target size may vary.

Agencies require officers to qualify at least twice a year, but some do as often as four times. Qualifying means “to fit by training, skill, or ability for a special purpose.”5 Does firing at a target at the prescribed percentage adequately train officers for a deadly force encounter? It may only train them to draw their handgun from its holster and shoot a target. This standard is subpar at best and only sets officers up for failure and, potentially, loss of life.

“[H]uman performance-based training should be implemented at every police department, and the elements must relate precisely to the required job.”

Hebb’s Law

According to Hebb’s Law, one of the most well-researched and accepted concepts in psychology and human performance, the brain’s motor pathways do not form in isolation. This means the context and conditions in which the pathways are created (e.g., training) matter.6

For example, the standard handgun draw stroke consists of multiple discrete motor movements that occur in rapid succession: gripping the gun, undoing the holster’s retention features, removing the weapon from its holster, aiming, and placing the finger on the trigger. Every time an officer draws their gun, their brain’s motor cortex builds stronger motor neural pathways.7

Applying Hebb’s Law, if an armed suspect confronts an officer at close range, the officer’s brain will recognize the threat as a cue to execute the learned automatic response of drawing a gun. If the officer’s training involved hundreds or thousands of repetitions at the firing range without moving their head or feet, they will likely do the same thing during a real attack. This concept could explain how stationary firearms training is creating paired responses that cause officers to do the wrong thing when confronted with real-world, rapidly unfolding firearm threats.8


A 2018 study conducted on shooting accuracy found disturbing results. Researchers analyzed 149 officer-involved shootings recorded over a 15-year period in a large metropolitan police department. In nearly half of those incidents, officers missed the suspect entirely.9 This cannot be the accepted way to train officers responsible for safeguarding their communities. Those missed rounds may have hit innocent citizens or caused damage to private property.

The study highlights the importance of increasing marksmanship proficiency. Firearm training must replicate a realistic environment by having a moving component (either the target or the officer) instead of shooting at paper targets or images projected onto a screen. Additionally, police administrators should mandate the training take place in mock buildings or towns to test officers’ shooting judgment and accuracy.10

Taser Training

Another area that may not currently align with human performance concepts is Taser training. “Weapon confusion” has been a subject of debate, and trainers need to spend time understanding cognitive errors that can occur when using a weapon that is designed, feels, and functions like a gun. “A ‘capture error’ can occur when an infrequent action like drawing a Taser is non-consciously substituted by a similar, more familiar and more practiced action — like drawing a firearm.”11

Several recommendations can help lower the risk of capture error and better prepare officers for using Tasers.

  • Separate holsters or different carry positions from the gun
  • Taser simulation suits
  • Moving targets that allow the user to make split-second decisions
  • Practice drawing a Taser with the nondominant hand

“Firearm training must replicate a realistic environment by having a moving component (either the target or the officer) instead of shooting at paper targets or images projected onto a screen.”

During critical incidents, humans are involuntarily attracted to the most conspicuous stimulus — often, the person, object, or action perceived to pose the greatest threat — and do not pay attention to factors that would be noticed under calmer circumstances. As such, it is expected that when an officer is overfocused on the perceived threat, they will not notice the weight, shape, and color of a Taser as compared with a full-size firearm, resulting in the wrong weapon drawn.12


Law enforcement leaders and trainers must understand that the job they do may have long-lasting ramifications. Check the box training is close-looped, involves a stationary stance and targets, does not account for realistic conditions or stressors, and involves no decision-making. Officers who undergo this type of training learn to make critical decisions with environmental cues rather than work their brain’s cortex motor pathway.

Law enforcement training that involves weapons and de-escalation techniques must be part of annual use-of-force recertifications. However, agencies should know that training involves more than simply teaching defensive tactics, firearms, de-escalation, driving, and handcuffing. Such job-related tasks are specific, and training should mimic them closely while keeping the fundamentals of human performance in mind.

Training in real-life scenarios and making decisions with rapidly changing and evolving circumstances will improve officers’ trained responses, increase officer and suspect survivability, and lower agency liability.

“Training in real-life scenarios and making decisions with rapidly changing and evolving circumstances will improve officers’ trained responses, increase officer and suspect survivability, and lower agency liability.”

Captain Nightingale serves with the Camillus, New York, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 279. He can be reached at


1 David McPeak, “Frontline Fundamentals: Human Performance; What Is It and Why Should We Study It?” Incident Prevention, December 15, 2017,
2 Simone Robinson, “What is Human Performance…and Being Mindful of What Causes Potential Errors?” Oakridge Centre, February 2, 2019,
3 For more information on reality-based training, see James Nightingale, “Focus on Training: A Budget-Friendly, Reality-Based Solution,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 11, 2021,
4 Munjeet Singh, Irik Johnson, and Andreia Rauta, Human Performance: A New Training Paradigm (McLean, VA: Booz Allen Hamilton, 2021), 6,
5 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “qualify,” accessed December 27, 2022,
6 Chris Butler, “Firearms Training for Real-World Assaults,” Force Science News, February 24, 2022,
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Chuck Remsberg, “New Study on Shooting Accuracy. How Does Your Agency Stack Up?” Force Science News, November 28, 2018,
10 Ibid.
11 “Unintended: A Theory of Taser/Weapon Confusion,” Force Science News, April 14, 2021,
12 Ibid.