Westerville: Limited Technique AAR

This is a very limited, informal, and hopefully “new user” friendly AAR (After Action Review) focusing only on the fundamental gun-handling techniques exercised by officers under the duress of a high-stress lethal force event.

I am keeping it informal and giving a bit of a narrative with some Boydian concepts and high-stress performance discussions, etc, thrown in to drive some important points home at the end of the article.

While informal and limited, it’s the same type of detailed review of events any serious department, agency, and training organization undertakes after any training or real-life event where lessons can (and should) be learned.

The review of actions observed during contact allows concerned units and teams to learn collective lessons about the effectiveness of their training program and make appropriate adjustments in their policies, procedures, and training standards in order to address any shortfalls and close any gaps in performance.

To be clear at the outset, we are NOT criticizing or judging the officers for their performance or lack thereof. Having personally worked in the security field for most of my adult life and with some of the finest warriors, operators, LEOs, and agencies on the planet (and because my teammates and co-workers can all say the same – if not more), I am comfortable speaking for them when I state that: any failure in the field by the operator is a failure of his recruiting, training, vetting, and retention standards, policies, and procedures.

This responsibility falls squarely on Command’s shoulders.

Techniques, tactics, and the policies and procedures that surround them and moderate them are the department’s responsibility, specifically: their leadership’s willingness to support a realistic and robust training program. A program where problems can be immediately identified and worked out before they become systemic and either citizens or officers pay the price by being hurt or killed due to inappropriate actions on their officers’ behalf.

Not only that, but to also ensure the politicians understand EXACTLY what the FULL PRICE of their policies will likely mean to their fellow citizens (you know, the people that vote them in, keep the lights on at city hall and in the station, the ones that keep the fuel in your cruisers, pay the paychecks and the pensions, serve us, and put food on the table for all of us) – and even wave them off when necessary.

It’s a simple symbiotic triad (the people, whom we get our police and politicians from), but this is oftentimes easier said than done due to weak ethics, political circumstances, and poor leadership. And because it’s a symbiotic relationship – if one suffers everyone does.

Unfortunately, you can see the consequences of this failure in too many cities today.

Disclaimer: While the quality of the video isn’t bad, it’s not good either. Due to the format available not allowing a frame-by-frame advance with accompanying fractions of a second listed, it’s tough to make things out precisely.

Add to this that I suspect the audio may be desynced (see below), which makes it difficult to tell for certain what is going on in the video at specific points. So you will read a lot of “around (time hack)”, “seems/to”s, and “appears/to be”s in here. If a better video is released, a lot of the details could change.

Having said the above; regardless of what details may be fleshed out in the future, our team can say with a great deal of certainty that the department needs to update its training program and training methodologies. And the state may want to take a look at both what it is teaching and what its requirements for recertification are.

Finally, and most importantly, please keep in mind that PRIOR to the observations mentioned below the officers had been struggling with the suspect in a high-stress event for approximately 30-seconds. If you have ever been in a struggle for your life and/or the lives of others you know how utterly exhausting and mind-bending a grappling match can be when it’s “for real” and someone could die. Most fit people are lucky if they can maintain 100% effort for 10 seconds, and 30-seconds is an eternity as your muscles quickly fatigue and the adrenaline burns through your system in a natural reaction known as the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) Response which is geared towards survival, NOT cognitive thought and fine motor skills.

To be clear, we see this as a training failure, NOT necessarily the officers’ fault (looking at all the footage and seeing many of the other officers’ reactions and actions, I suspect that this is a systemic recruiting, training, and especially now – retention problem within the department and the city).

Okay, so on with it.

Timeline w/observations:

Around 1:08 in the struggle, the officer’s firing side hand is seen empty on the suspect when the suspect’s gun “goes off in his pocket” the officer pushes off and (offscreen) is drawing his handgun (around 1:09-:10).

After the officer’s gun has been pulled from the holster and as he is presenting/drawing (after the audio of the “second shot”) but before he fully establishes his support hand grip (around 1:10) – you can see his support side hand racing to catch up to his firing side hand.

Photo 1: Support hand “racing” to catch up with the firing side hand.

To be fair and interject a little reality here, you need to understand that this draw has happened AFTER a PROTRACTED and STRENUOUS high-stress ground-fight that has turned into a GUNfight, and the officers SNS Response is in full force here. Understanding the SNS Response is key to understanding why you are seeing what you are seeing in the video. They are the typical universal responses demonstrated by those with little or no training that focuses on training under the duress of a lethal force encounter.

At this point, both officers break contact and gain distance (and therefore – potentially – time). The officer wearing the camera gains the time and distance and is able to get his gun into the fight.

God only knows what he was dealing with getting back on his feet to regain balance. And keep in mind that due to their previous strenuous exertions and the aforementioned SNS Response, neither officer has FINE motor skills to work with at this time, so no one should look for or expect perfect performance under this particular set of circumstances where training is at fault.

As the officer attempts to establish a firing grip he seems to overshoot with his support hand, and as he corrects back to establish a grip, it appears that his support side thumb is setting up high – potentially over the top of the slide – his firing side thumb looks to be low on the grip, and the gun appears to be IN battery (the slide is all the way forward, locked and sealing the chamber – as it should be when it’s loaded and ready to go).

Photo 2.a: Support thumb up high, firing side thumb low, slide IN battery?

This observation seems to be confirmed in the following frames (around 1:11) where it looks like the officer’s thumb may have been over the back of the slide potentially interfering with its operation.

Taking the sequence in totality, it looks like as his support hand was racing to catch up with his firing side hand, he overshot his grip, and then in an effort to establish grip control, he brings his hand back to the grip and his support side thumb came up and over the back of the slide and he may even be covering his sights with his thumb.

Photo 2.b: Thumb over slide & rear sights?

Because there is no audible gunshot (desynced?), I am not certain what happens next, but it looks like the slide is cycling in the next frame.

Photo 2.c: Slid functioning with support thumb blocking slide operation?

In the video, it looks like the officer feels the slide “bite” as it reciprocates to the rear because it looks like he quickly breaks his grip and rearranges his grip well back of the firing side hand. Also at this point, you can see that the slide appears to be out of battery.

2.d: Thumb behind slide and slide OUT of battery

This is important because it could explain the malfunction we now see in the frames immediately following where you can clearly see the slide OUT of battery. It appears that the slide bite (or feeling the slide out of battery) woke him up to the fact he now has a malfunction.

Photo 3: Slide clearly out of battery

Again, it’s not a great video, but what it looks and sounds like is that the suspect shot two shots, the officers draws his handgun that is apparently in battery one second, and the next, it’s out of battery.

Perhaps the audio and video are somewhat desynced. If they are not, I can’t explain how the officer’s gun is apparently IN battery one second and clearly OUT of battery – without a shot being fired – the next.

It could be that the handgun was already out of battery in Photo 2.a (around 1:10) and we just can’t make it out clearly, or and he has a bad limpwristed grip in Photo 2.b. But I don’t think so, I am pretty sure I see the slide forward and in position above the tang in photo 2.a.

I can’t say for sure, the video isn’t clear enough.

What I do know is that what happens next is that while all this is unfolding this officer’s world has come unglued as he is “folding in on himself” (again, all very Boydian).

I won’t belabor the last five seconds of the officer struggling to clear his malfunction. He is clearly confused about what type of malfunction he has and how to clear it, so after 5 seconds of struggle, the view fades into one where the gun is fixed and back in battery at some point later on.

In the video, it’s clear the officer is confused, and rightly so, because due to the SNS Response – he is no longer capable of the cognitive thought required to solve a problem, even a simple one like a malfunction clearance.

The reason for this is because he doesn’t already have the simple technique ingrained to a level where it’s reflexive (where he doesn’t have to think about the problem, he just fixes it). Because it’s not engrained at the level and he can’t intuitively fix it, he has to think about what to do to solve the problem. And because the SNS Respons limits his higher cognitive functions, he has no hope of fixing the malfunction until the SNS Response is under more control and he can “think” about it again.

Or as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman put it “When people become angry, or frightened [SNS Response], they stop thinking with their forebrain (the mind of a human being) and start thinking with their midbrain (which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal). They are literally ‘scared out of their wits.’ The only thing that has any hope of influencing the midbrain is also the only thing that influences a dog: classical and operant conditioning. That is what is used when training firefighters and airline pilots to react to emergency situations: precise replication of the stimulus that they will face (in a flame house or a flight simulator) and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. In the crisis, when these individuals are scared out of their wits, they react properly and they save lives.” – Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society – (Brackets mine)

It’s worth noting that this “precise replication of the stimulus that they will face… and then extensive shaping of the desired response to that stimulus. Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response…” has proven to be so effective that the higher functioning units in the military, law enforcement, and training organizations have been using this same technology for decades and decades to train their operators with quality Reality Based Training programs.

For over 50 years the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (TOPGUN) has provided safe, structured, and realistic high-stress scenarios for America’s fighter pilots who have gone on to prove themselves the best in the world. Similarly, great gun fighting academies across the US do the same through quality Reality Based Training scenarios for their clients. RBT is TOPGUN for the operator.

So why all the focus on the SNS Response and proper training through RBT?

Proper tactics/techniques end fights quickly if when they can’t outright avoid them, and a quality RBT program (to include empty-handed techniques) that condition the trainee to perform under high-stress conditions is the cornerstone of a training program that can provide the types of skills needed by the end user in order to cope with the normally debilitating duress of a life or death struggle.

This is because a quality RBT program provides you what a lifetime of “square range” shooting and drills can’t: the opportunity to gain invaluable orientation training to what real violence looks and feels like, and thereby the opportunity to build what Kenneth Murray calls “stress inoculation” (the ability to learn to function under high stress) into yourself and your team.

This works because as your skills grow through that stimulus/response curve, you learn that you can rely on not just your skills but your team’s skills (especially under duress) to pull you through the encounter. This in turn gives the IOs the confidence they need to train harder and develop the external focus needed to competently operate in a high-stress event, even if the SNS is active at lower levels.

It’s clear that the department’s officers don’t have this, and they, like everyone else, need this type of training.

While this seems like a monumental hurdle, it’s not. The solutions can be implemented almost immediately, the holdup will come from the entrenched officials who have no clue as to what they are doing, or why their policies are failing. And as usual, the police will continue to get a bad name until it’s straightened out.

Boyd is in the details and proper training is everything in a fight for life.


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