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Cops Are Far From Perfect
By Marc Ruskey
Upon entering the law enforcement profession, you signed a fine-print contract delightfully agreeing to have all of your actions and decisions dissected under a microscope, in hindsight, from the comfort of a safe and secure, cozy office. Your superiors, the public at-large, and the media anticipate nothing less than perfection from you. Don’t sweat it, if you fall short, they’ll certainly cut you some slack, understanding you are human…and if you believe that, I have some beautiful ocean-front property available for sale in Ohio, just give me a shout!
If perfection seems to be the goal, we need to ask two critical questions: How do we measure perfection? And is perfection even achievable in policing?
STRIVING FOR PERFECTION
Surely, you’ve heard some of the classic phrases such as, “Practice makes perfect!” “Perfect practice makes perfect!” “10,000 hours to mastery!” “1,000 repetitions!” “You get good at what you practice!” There are no shortages of concepts and ideas to guide you toward mastery. If you follow these ideas, you’ll attain ‘expert’ level someday, right? Well, if you repeat something often enough, you’ll likely get really good at it, but perhaps only as good as what you practice, inside the parameters of your practice environment. For that reason, we need to be extremely careful of what we practice because we may, indeed, get very good at it! Wait, what is that supposed to mean? What is being cautioned is referred to as Hebb’s Law; neurons that fire together, wire together! Everything that you are doing in practice is being trained in concert, meaning some habits that you wouldn’t expect to stick may surprise you when you least expect them. Equally important, when we practice skills out of context, they often fail to transfer to real-world encounters.
We often gain expectations of “perfection” via videos demonstrating a skill and making it look “textbook.” However, find a video of a practitioner who can repeatedly pull off a perfect arm bar, wrist lock, throw, etc., and what you likely have is a video that is choreographed, or attacks and techniques that have been pre-determined for that demonstration. These videos are a dime a dozen on YouTube and social media, most often for marketing purposes (I won’t rant in this article about the harm these videos do). By pre-setting certain variables, the decision-making phase is being removed. If you’re an OODA Loop fan, this means during the training or the demonstration the O O and D are being predetermined; no time is spent observing, orienting, or deciding, and in real-life, when critical events occur in fractions of a second, the O O and D take up valuable time. If you have removed these steps from your training, you will be blind-sided in real-life when you encounter a rapidly unfolding event that suddenly requires you to make decisions you have never trained for. Removing decision-making phases produces unrealistic demonstrations, outcomes, expectations, and results in training that falls short on the street. As it turns out, just like teaching any skill, decision making needs to be trained!
One example of the decision-making process being removed is commonly seen in video demonstrations of edged weapon defenses. A video will start out with an attacker deploying a slash or stab against the defender, and the defender starts advancing and presenting a defense technique based upon the slightest movement cue from the attacker. In a great deal of edged weapon attacks, victims did not know they were initially cut, and often report not even seeing the knife right away. Science and data can explain this. Many edged weapon assaults can occur in well under 0.20 seconds, one study showing a knife thrust in 0.14 seconds. In a simple environment, when told what to expect, it takes around 0.25 seconds to make an observation. In complex environments, such as an assault or ambush, that time grows to 0.46 to 0.70 seconds and higher; again, to make an observation and start a response, not finish. At arm’s length you won’t be able to visually identify what you are being attacked with if you missed pre-attack cues and the weapon was concealed, prior to deciding if it is safe to advance forward. For this very reason, our immediate defenses to a close-quarter ambush style assault must be relatively universal whether the attack is a punch, knife, or blunt object, as we will only be able to detect and respond to the movement before we can know what specifically is coming at us.
UNDERSTANDING TRAINING CONCEPTS
Before we jump into the idea of developing skills to perfection, let’s review some of the components of skills and how they are acquired. Skills are classified in several ways and often these classifications fall into a spectrum, rather than being assigned as falling into one category or another. These classifications, explained below, include open, closed, discrete, serial, and continuous skills.
Open skills are those in which the environment is variable & unpredictable. For open skills, think of a suspect ambushing an officer; there are unpredictable, unknown variables. A few other examples would include football, basketball, or hockey games. Obviously, some of these have less variables than others, but all fall into the Open Skill category quite well.
Closed skills, being the opposite, are those in which the environment is stable and predictable. For closed skills, think of an officer applying handcuffs to a fellow trainee on the mats, during the academy; a controlled, stable environment. A few other examples would include static target practice on the range, striking a punching bag, or putting a golf ball.
As mentioned, there is a range for open and closed skills, a continuum. Here is an illustration to assist your understanding. (This is NOT suggesting two items are comparably stressful or life-threatening, but merely comparing the factors of stability and predictability)
OPEN & CLOSED CONTINUUM
(DARTS) (BATON STRIKE ON BAG) (WALKING A HALLWAY) (NFL FOOTBALL GAME) (AMBUSH)
Shooting a basket alone in your driveway, with no interference, would be a closed skill; very stable and predictable. Playing a basketball game in the NBA with a court full of players and stadium full of fans is an open skill; lots of variables and unpredictable.
Now onto discrete, serial and continuous skills. Discrete skills are short movement times, with a clear start and end. In the police academy, think of taking a baton and striking a heavy bag. For the martial artist reading this, this would be a wheel kick, or roundhouse on a heavy bag. Or back to basketball, this would be you making that solo shot in your driveway.
Next, serial skills are those that are essentially several discrete skills strung together. If you were doing an obstacle course, individually the obstacles have beginnings and ends, but as a whole, there are multiple skills that need to be completed in order. In law enforcement, serial skills could be taking a suspect to the ground, performing a shoulder lock, into prone cuffing, and applying handcuffs.
Finally, we look at continuous skills which have no clear beginning or end, such as jogging, swimming, kayaking, and the like. As you can see, these also fall on a spectrum, and can be interleaved. For example, if we look at a cop being attacked, his series of defenses and techniques would fall into serial skills, and continuous, as the overall encounter has no clear beginning or end.
(TASER DEPLOYMENT) (FIGHTING WITH SUSPECT) (PURSUIT DRIVING)
(SHOOTING A BASKET) (DRIBBLING DOWN COURT AND SHOOTING) (RUNNING)
You may be wondering how in the world does understanding these types of motor skill classifications relate to this article? Great question! If we are working toward the idea of perfection, we need to understand what that really entails. As you hopefully can see from these examples law enforcement historically has focused on training discrete skills (baton strikes on a bag; shooting a paper target) in closed environments, or as closed skills (on mats; against a stationary target). By doing so, we have been able to measure how ‘good’ someone is or isn’t. Consequently, by teaching in a way that we can cleanly measure results, we are far removed from reality; minimal stress, stationary or minimal movement, limited or no variables arising, etc.
Looking at it from a sports perspective, it would be the same as taking an inexperienced athlete, throwing a ball back and forth practicing catching and throwing, and then throwing him into an NFL game for the first time and expecting an all-star performance. More often than not, cops who are ambushed or who are met with a serious fight for the first time, experience an event at a speed, arousal level, and with variables they have never before come close to in their training environment.
Comparing how police officers are often being trained (X) to how police officers need to be trained, and our level of expectations for them (X), would look something like this:
DISCRETE——– X ————————————SERIAL————————X———————CONTINUOUS
* As you can see, there is quite a gap in where our training is and where it needs to be. *
BRIDGING THE GAP
Having identified what is expected of police (perfection), the results that many common training methods are producing, and what police training needs to be accomplishing, let’s look at a way of bridging the gap. For years, many of us have been taught and have viewed learning in a linear fashion. Baby steps, if you will, building skills starting with fundamentals and working the learning line up. We arrive at the point in this article, like in the movie The Matrix, where you can choose to take the red pill, enduring some cognitive dissonance around training, or take the blue pill and stop reading.
Enter the world of motor skill learning called Ecological Dynamics and the Constraints-Led Approach (CLA). A focus on the performer, environment, and task. CLA is a style in which coaches provide learning environments that permit the performers to explore and find solutions, opposed to telling them step-by-step how to build a skill. Instead of showing THE correct way, we coach A correct way, and allow the student freedom to acquire a variety of correct ways to achieve the same goal. No experts move the same, yet we often conclude there is ONE specific, correct way to conduct a motor skill. CLA encourages learning through variable practice – repetition by variation, not by mere repetition. If they mess up, that’s okay, we amplify the error by making it louder to their perceptions, allowing the performer to self-correct and self-organize. We engage a teaching method that is supported by more seeing/watching/performing, and far less telling (manipulating constraints vs. corrective feedback). It would be a disservice to attempt to summarize this promising approach any further, so let’s direct you to a wonderful starting point if you haven’t already read it; How We Learn To Move. The great news is, if this is new to you, you don’t have to start over. Learning is, in fact, non-linear!
A quick example of applying CLA to defensive tactics could look as follows. For trainees who retreat backwards from physical threats and/or during sparring type activity, we often try to fix this with verbal coaching – “stop moving backwards!” Instead, we can manipulate the environment by shrinking the training space (reducing mat size or work in smaller spaces) and by safely adding in some obstacles (tables/chairs/furniture) that impede or won’t allow that type of movement. Perhaps a change in lighting and a few other modifications, and with minimal verbal coaching, we have made the training environment better match reality while simultaneously forcing the trainee to abandon their habit; we have destabilized their movement solution.
Another relatively common finding in defensive tactics is students struggling to move their feet. When sparring or in a scenario, students will try to increase their hand speed to block or strike, failing to recognize the importance of good footwork and movement. You can tell those people to move until you are blue in the face, with little success. Instead, restricting the use of one arm by telling the student to use only one hand, or literally tie an arm to their side so they only have one hand in the game. Students will be forced to abandon relying on hand speed alone and will begin moving their feet more. This constraint is quite impactful at uncovering the importance of good footwork and movement, and often reveals to the student that a great amount of perceived hand speed is in-fact derived from whole body movement. As many of you may have already recognized, this can serve dual purposes; it can simulate an officer’s arm being disabled from a GSW, or blunt or edged weapon attack, or officers having their weapon in one hand, only permitting them to fight with their one free hand.
GOAL POSTS & BASKETBALL HOOPS DON’T MOVE OR FIGHT!
How can we possibly aim for perfection when, as you can see above, we are falling short in providing quality training? The reality is, there is no measurement for ‘perfect’ in law enforcement skills on the street; be it defensive tactics, or firearms proficiency. We love to use comparisons to sports when talking about training in law enforcement, but we also need to be aware of some strong differences. A football player can kick a perfect field goal. A basketball player can make a perfect, nothing-but-net, shot. Cops strive to be perfect on the range, with tight shot patterns center mass; on the mat, they try for the perfect arm bar, into a take down, into cuffing. However, on the streets, does a bad guy stand still, facing you with his head and torso aligned while shooting at you, so you can make the ‘perfect’ shot? Or is he running, with his upper body contorted, gun arm twisted behind him firing so you have limited shot angles? While sports are loaded with dynamics and variables that require open skills, they also have conditions and environments that are well regulated with stable objectives to pursue. Yes, they have obstacles, but their targets (end zones, goal posts, basketball hoops, goal nets) are fixed and set and these games are controlled by referees.
Just as the title says – Cops are far from perfect! Thankfully, rather, they are often quite exceptional in the environment afforded to them. Perfection is an illusion incapable of being reached by police; our environments are too unpredictable and unstable. Instead, as officers and trainers, we need to re-align towards excellence. Excellence is attainable, and we can start moving in that direction through understanding what skills are needed and how those skills are acquired. If we wish to develop talented, problem-solving officers, we need to equip them with a toolbox full of heuristics to pull from to adapt and overcome any event they may encounter. To build that toolbox, we need officers to engage in contextually rich, principle centered, scenario-based training, loaded with variables, conducted in training environments similar to that in which cops will face on the street.
So, “perfect practice makes perfect,” is a fallacy in policing. Rather, varied, spaced, interleaved, dynamic practice makes one prepared and adaptable. Not quite a catchy saying that rolls off your tongue.
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About The Author
Marc Ruskey has served in public safety since 2005 working both in EMS and law enforcement, with roles as an FTO, patrol sergeant, and chief. As an instructor in various topics, Marc’s passion is defensive tactics, with over 20 years in martial arts, which has contributed to his development of edged weapon courses and defensive tactics specifically to the law enforcement profession. Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org