Cutting Edge Training

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Changing from Technique-Based to Integrated Combatives Problem-Solving

by George on February 17, 2014 16:05

How does an instructor, much less an agency or even an industry change from teaching ineffective, prescriptive, and technique-based defensive tactics training to one that comports with the recent research into human factors and the need for principle-based training?  It first begins with growing as a person and an instructor, and changing the concept of what an instructor is in relation to the students.  However, this change from technique-based training where the instructor is the go-to authority and transitioning into principle-based and student-centric problem-solving is fraught with huge obstacles for the individual seeking to change, much less changing an industry's orientation to DT.

The Journey (please bear with me on this part because there is a point—and it is not about me): 

I began by teaching cops a martial arts-based DT program. Shockingly, I soon found veteran cops looked no different than white belts and progressed at the same rate of expertise requiring years of dedicated training they didn’t have. I'd been experimenting with foundational principles asking myself if was there a commonality between the conceptual foundation within the essence of techniques? So I began a trial and error process with rudimentary understanding of principles. A refinement process of the program took place over years that wholly challenged my entire orientation to what I was doing.  It required me to step completely outside of the comfort and personal egotism of being THE authority and TEACHING THE ANSWER. The truth is, I knew down deep it wasn't THE answer because they--hell, I couldn't--apply the technique in real life against a real person who wanted to hurt me.

The first big breakthrough came when I attempted to defend against a subject who was under the influence of PCP into custody. NOTHING worked (all of you who have had this experience just smiled knowingly).  He left in an ambulance with six broken bones and a knee and elbow that needed surgical repair that he didn't notice.  This fight took minutes and left five of us bent over breathing hard with rubbery muscles. That was my come-to-Jesus moment about techniques and fighting.

In that fight I was just like every weak, out of shape, non-hacking cop who hated DT training (more on that later) that I'd ever taught. I felt like a failure because all of my training and abilities developed over a decade was worthless. I punched him, kicked him, wrenched joints out of sockets, felt bones give way and still he kept coming until the cavalry arrived--and no, the carotid restraint didn't work and what was a TASER in those days?  I resolved to never teach again because I couldn't live with the fact that I was a fraud.  Sure I could fight with other “trained” fighters, but in the “real world,” what I knew didn’t work.

I woke up a day or two later, sore, realizing that every technique I tried, and the other guys later attempted, failed because this guy didn't give us the chance to have the technique unfold. That rather than what I had been taught and was teaching that fighting was a logical progression of application of technique to handcuffs or victory, that fight and every fight that lasted more than one or two punches was, instead, prosecuted through problem-solving process!!! And that I had actually gotten through that fight until we had enough bodies to overwhelm him through a primal application of some of the principles I'd been teaching my cops. It was then things began moving fast in developing a principle-based, problem-solving, non-technical DT concept/program. The program was completely overhauled.

I later took a job at a state training facility where I had 60 veteran officers from all over the state, country, and foreign countries for a week of training.  I eventually had them for 8 hours of DT, 12 hours of firearms, 4 hours of building search, 8 hours of scenario training out of the 40 hours (which is where the concept of integrating all training under principle-based concepts and tactics took hold for me).  With this population as my lab rats, I was able to get feedback from veteran officers about what was relevant and (a lot) about what sucked (they weren't shy).  Refinement led to refinement. I then took a job as a civilian trainer at a PD where I had my own captive lab rats.  Even more refinement took place. 

After a few years, my wife and I decided to go into the private sector.  I was busy running around thinking I was teaching ONLY principle-based DT with NO techniques until Thomas Benge came on to our staff.  Big Tom, after a couple of years of my mentoring, asked me, "Do you realize you are teaching techniques?" I didn’t say it, but inside I thought, “WTF?” I wanted to be offended, probably because of the truth of that statement sucked the air out of me. As he explained his concerns, I realized at that moment that while I was preaching principles and problem-solving, there was a large portion of program that was being advertised as principle-based but was actually being taught through the vehicle of techniques.

I was embarrassed and very troubled. Tom and I went back to the drawing board and I realized what he said was true.  So we became radical in our non-technical instruction. At this level of my understanding (which may not represent the “Truth” with a capital “T”), we have no techniques at all in our system: principle-based problem-solving employing simple, uncomplicated, primally blueprinted, hardwired, human-based solutions that officers find through their own efforts on the floor.

The Point?

Go back to the first paragraph about huge obstacles in changing individual and industry paradigms.  It took me almost 20 years of development and thinking that I was teaching principles only to find that I was still teaching from a prescriptive perspective via "techniques" made up to look like principles and problem-solving.  Why?  Because the technique handed down by the instructor who is the all-knowing-authority-with-the-answers was so deeply embedded in my understanding of instruction that I couldn't see my cognitive dissonance.  Without Tom's insight and courage to challenge and confront me, I would likely still be spouting off the techniques as principles.

I mean no disrespect to anyone because I have been there and done that on this journey.  With that said (and it is heartfelt), I have been on training floors, or I've seen videos, of individuals who are incredibly well-versed and grounded in human factors concepts--even to the point of being able to speak to Ph.D researchers nearly as peers--who still are hup-hup-hupping techniques on their training floors or firing ranges. In fact, I know and completely respect a researcher who also fits this description of knowing human factors inside and out and still advocating techniques in training.

Why is there such a cognitive disconnect between what we know to be true (human factors, the ineffectiveness of techniques/prescriptive training, how humans actually fight, etc.) and what we actually do on the training floor and the range and in officer safety and for SWAT and...everything ("OK...Fit Flap A into Slot B.  Now grab projection C and twist that around the B flap, causing his body to turn 90 degrees.  Now step with your left foot 132 degrees to the left and 18 inches back.  Reverse the polarity of your hands while bending slightly at the waist, pull with the left hand while holding your right rigidly and he goes down in perfect cuffing position. Simple, right?  Works like a charm every time if you are as good as I am--except if YOU do it wrong.")?  This huge dichotomy between what these advanced students of human factors know and what they do is not their fault because they cannot see the gap.  I know I couldn’t see it until someone I implicitly trusted smacked in the face with my dual operating system that was in complete conflict.

The mindset of the "solution as prescribed technique" and "instructor-as-authority" embed into our schemas is so deeply held that we, as humans and instructors, fall back to what is familiar and comfortable. We may even be on that floor speaking like a Ph.D in human factors and immediately teach something as a technique that directly conflicts with what we just said.  It’s not hypocrisy.  It’s not being able to step outside of ourselves long enough to see the problem—an intrinsic weakness of being human.

It’s not hypocrisy.  It’s not being able to step outside of ourselves long enough to see the problem—an intrinsic weakness of being human.

It is scary to step on to the floor filled with officers whose schemas were similarly programmed, have them go through drills designed to help them discover the Universal Rules and Principles of Combatives©, take them to the verge of a DT problem, and then say, "How are YOU going to solve this problem? I don't know. I know how I'd solve the problem, but you can't fight like me, same as I can't fight like you. Work out your own solution that is reasonable and defensible to your Admin and in court." And then just stand there as they fail and flounder and get to a level of frustration without rushing in and saving them by providing an answer. Ah, the instructor saves the day because he/she knows all…

Some have projected this to be just letting everyone do whatever they want and run willy-nilly around the floor doing nothing...IT'S CHAOS!  THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH!  EVERYONE DOING WHATEVER THEY WANT WHENEVER THEY WANT!  ARE YOU MAD??? FLEE, FLEE FOR YOUR LIVES FROM THIS MADNESS!

Frustration is part of learning and it takes experience to ensure that frustration does not build into defeat and turn into defiance.  Instruction through guidance often consists of pointing out how some officers in the class have discovered pieces of the solution using the principles.  The example of a peer finding a piece of the solution helps to guide them to the solution they need. The instructor becomes guide rather than authority.

That is one of the toughest parts of training instructors to give up techniques and to guide our people to their own solutions. How do I give up being the authority? That's the question we all have to answer if we want to abandon ineffective and wasteful technique-training and adopt a human factors-based training system where you present and offer ZERO TECHNIQUES (that the officers won't be able to perform under threat or pressure and requires suspect cooperation). 

It’s a radical concept that forces us to be radical in our approach to training so our students can be successful in an unforgiving environment.


“Looking for a Fight.” A mindset for service and survival

by George on February 6, 2012 11:29

“Since the dawn of time, men have taken up the sword in combat.  Some among them were so capable that they were considered to be in a class of their own—the mighty warrior class.  These men were revered as brave, heroic, and essential to life, for they were the guardians of their people.”   Ben Boos, “Swords”

We are undergoing a curious experiment in North American law enforcement, the effectiveness of which will not likely be known for century, perhaps even more.  The military and the police are our society’s warrior class.  The police (and increasingly the military) are being tasked with performing seemingly conflicting functions, that of being both warrior as well as servant.  Since the beginning of humans gathering into settlements and villages, there have always been people—historically men, and presently both genders—who have taken upon themselves the heavy burden of responsibility as society’s peacemakers, protectors, and guardians.

Until recently (historically), and especially prior to the 1970s, these individuals acting in the name of the law have been fairly unrestrained in their violence.  Law breakers, especially violent criminals could expect “frontier justice,” and, later, “street justice,” as a result of their behavior.  It was “understood” by both parties that if you were arrested, there was oftentimes a beating due before you went to jail.  When I was a child, I grew up in a county where the jail would not accept a prisoner who was not bleeding.

Thankfully, times have changed.  In our maturing society, officers are now expected to be “peace officers.”  This experiment continues to unfold into a combination of roles, that of “public servant” and “officer” (keeper of the peace, or warrior).  These roles sometimes appear to be at odds especially in the brutal laboratory of the street where policing actually takes place.  As public servants under the US Constitution, officers are first tasked with preserving the civil rights of the individuals with whom they come into official contact, and then to assist those in need. 

This has evolved into even greater demands for professional courtesy when interacting with the public.  As the responsibilities of policing expand well beyond simply enforcing the law, there are greater expectations by at least some segments of society for officers to “help” individuals—even those who are violent and may harm the officers. 

This evolving role is mirrored in the character of those individuals wearing the badge:  officers generally become cops because they want to be of service, and this quality is indispensable in the mindset of a police officer.  In recent years, however, this message of “service” has become misunderstood by many officers to be their primary mission.  When these officers arrive “on-scene,” their first instinct is “to help” rather than to ensure their safety and the safety of all through enforcement efforts first, and service when all are safe.

If you are this officer, this primary attitude of being "helpful" can get youand others—murdered.


“Looking for a Fight”

These competing roles can be resolved through a mindset reflecting the reality of current policing requirements:  “always look for a fight.”

The phrase, “looking for a fight” can be construed many ways.  Warriors in past ages constantly sought every opportunity for combat as a means to prove their valor and skill.  Those warriors without a commitment to higher ideals of service and integrity were dangerous to anyone on whom they focused as a threat or challenger, creating the need for a competing class of warriors who sought to protect.  Today, in the civilian world, the phrase can mean that a particular person wants to engage in violence and is simply looking for any excuse, often creating the opportunity where none existed.  However, neither of these interpretations are the context for modern day law enforcement.  

Properly understood, the officer today would embody the following phrase and underlying mindset in his or her awareness of suspect behavior and signaled intentions:

“I always look for a fight.  Don’t get me wrong.  While I’m willing, I don’t want to get into a fight.  But I’m always looking for signs that someone on-scene wants to fight.  It’s the only way I can be ready to respond when the fight comes while still doing my job of helping people.”

This modern concept of “looking for a fight” is key to not only every officer’s safety on the street, but also to protecting the citizens the officer serves.  It does NOT conflict with the function of the police as both protector and servant, rather it enhances the service function and safety of all.  “Relaxing” may mean letting one’s guard down and is not useful.  “Looking for a fight,” however, permits the officer to act “in service” with professionalism and appropriate courtesy until a subject’s behavior or the circumstances necessitate enforcement, defensive, or protective responses. 

Officers properly should “look for a fight” so that they can be ready to respond to sudden assault or flight.  “Looking for a fight” simply means that from minutes prior to arrival on-scene to the moment after you have cleared the call, you are consciously looking for those behaviors and clues signaling impending attack or flight.  Like it or not, officer injury and murder statistics demonstrate that officers have a real need to capably respond with lawful violence to any level of assault.  Understanding your proper role as an officer, looking for a fight is the difference between being:

  • Ready to respond early with effective and reasonable force, or 
  • Being surprised and being forced to “come from behind”—or even forced to “go primitive” to save your life.

 When consciously looking for a fight, an officer is not heavy-handed, rude, or badge heavy.  This proper mindset is not a predator’s world-view—it is that of a public servant who has a warrior’s mindset.  It is based in a thorough understanding of law and agency policy, and the understanding that violence is a process rather than a simple, contained event.

Your job as a cop carries with it the inherent and lawful threat of violence.  For your safety (and that of the citizens you serve), you must embrace this warrior function.  Developing your skills with weapons (less-lethal and deadly) and with empty hands is only part of the equation.  Looking for a fight means recognizing the process of violence as it cycles up to an attack (or attempt to flee) early enough to prevent injury.


Violence is a Process

Violence does not just happen.  All violence is a process.  It moves from the beginning of an idea through to its final execution up to the conclusion of the violent act(s).  Aside from planned ambushes where officers have no inkling of prior threat (which still involved the suspect initiating a process of decision-making, implementation, and initiation), there are generally many indicators of a growing likelihood of assault or an attempt to flee.  Any officer who says the suspect “just attacked me without any warning” probably missed a cascading number of indicators that the offender made a decision, initiated preparations (either subtle or gross), and then executed his plan.  

The decision to assault may have taken place prior to the police contact (a “prepared offender”), or it may be a spur of the moment decision based on panic (an “opportunistic offender”).  In the case of the prepared offender, the threat indicators as he maneuvers into his assault preparatory position are likely to be more subtle than the opportunistic offender’s desperate spur of the moment realization that he needs to attack the officer or he’ll go to jail.  Subtle or not, there are indicators exhibited that, if recognized early enough, will provide the officer with a justifiable basis for a pre-emptive force response.  The early recognition, early enough to make a difference is a direct benefit of the mindset of “looking for a fight.”

Because violence doesn’t just happen, officer safety is dramatically enhanced through vigilance and the early recognition of threat indicators; this is what it means to be "looking for a fight."  This includes the totality of the facts before arriving in the area, as well as those observed upon arrival, and individual or group signals of impending threat.


Totality of the Facts:  Before Arriving On-Scene

Upon any dispatch to an incident, begin “looking for a fight.”

Violence in the initial dispatched report, or the presence of weapons may very well indicate there will be a “fight.”  The same can be said in any contact involving a subject who is a member of a gang, or a history of violence, especially against the police.  Certain types of behavior indicating out of control mental illness or being under the influence of drugs such as methamphetamine or PCP may indicate unpredictable violence.

The initial call for service initiates the “best-worst game.”  The “best-worst game” assists you in keeping an open mind, permitting the appropriate function (warrior or public servant) to present as needed and as reasonable for the circumstances.  Ask yourself while en-route, “What’s the best thing that can happen, and what’s the worst?”  Play the game each time you are dispatched or are backing an officer to get your head in the game well before you near the scene.

Make up your own scenarios.  Do you know the players in this call?  Whatever the scenario, develop a “when-then” response.  “When ‘this’ happens, I’ll respond by…”  Notice it is not “if,” but “when.”  Feel the difference in your mind and body between the two following phrases:

  • “If the suspect has a gun, I’ll…”
  • “When the suspect has a gun, I’ll”

For most people, “when” makes it more real, more likely to occur, and provides a better “go-switch” should some assault take place.  “If” seems more remote, and feels much less likely to occur.  “When” tells us it is going to happen at some point; “If” is the lottery that will probably pass us by.  “When” is inevitable; “If” will likely never happen.

Taking into account your knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the location, the reported participants, and the “known” circumstances (accounting for the fact that what is reported to Dispatch may or may not resemble what actually occurred), begin looking for a fight.  What is the safest way to respond to this location given the threat (and what can go wrong before I get there)? 

Determine the safest method of approach to the location to achieve “invisible deployment” and surprise.  Coordinating with other responding officers to arrive simultaneously from different directions, or meeting at a rally point and moving together are options that can be applied for safer responses.  It is during these beginning stages of responding to a call for service that “looking for a fight” begins.


Totality of the Facts:  Arriving On-Scene

As you approach the location, look for a fight.  Is there anything out of the ordinary?  Is the street deserted where it is normally busy?  Is there an angry crowd milling about, or is there fear showing in individuals’ physical or emotional behavior?  Are people urgently attempting to get your attention, pointing at an individual or to a location?  Is a person or group of persons exhibiting guilty, threatening, defiant, under-the-influence or mentally ill behavior focusing your attention on them?

Whether it is appropriate to employ stealth or not in your approach is situation-dependent; looking for a fight is not.  What is the entire scene telling you?  Even if there is an obvious victim, your first instinct should be to look for a fight—you have no idea who harmed the victim, where that subject is, and what the victim’s intention is toward the police.  

LOCK DOWN THE SCENE as quickly as possible to ensure the safety of all.  Rushing up to “help” the victim may put you into proximity with an opportunistic offender who may use this lapse in officer safety practices to harm you to ensure his escape, or put you directly into a kill zone.  The best way to “help” this victim is to ensure that no one else, and especially you and other officers, are harmed in the attempt.  

Individual Contacts

When contacting any individual, suspect, witness, uninvolved party, or victim, look for a fight.  You know what cooperative behavior looks like, having seen it constantly since you were first in uniform, knowing what people who comply act like.  You also know how evasive or uncooperative behavior looks.  While evasiveness or a lack of cooperation does not equal assault, it IS an indicator that should not be dismissed and is almost always a component in any forensic analysis of an assault on an officer.  It is part of looking for a fight, narrowing down your focus to the evasive or non-cooperative individual, identifying someone who may want to harm you.

Threat indicators are generally based on behavior that has in the past been observed prior to assault.  These are divided into four main groups:  Motor Activity, Attitude Patterns, Posture, and Speech, or M.A.P.S.  An extremely limited examination of components within the various threat indicators of the M.A.P.S. model are:

Motor Activity:

  • Clenching jaw and fists, flexing arm, chest, and shoulder muscles repeatedly.
  • Striking objects in the officer’s presence.
  • Rapid, out-of-control breathing.

 Attitude Pattern:

  • Extreme distrust.
  • Controlled anger.
  • Repeatedly failing to comply with simple instructions.


  • Excessive eye-contact or "mad-dogging."
  • Maneuvering into a bladed stance or overt “fighting stance.”
  • Maneuvering to “protect” his dominant side from the officer. 


Speech Patterns:

  • Quiet but “pushed” speech, or talking through his clenched teeth. 
  • Answering questions with questions, or repeating back the officer’s words.
  • Statements of “losing control” or past violence.

An almost universal signal the suspect has elected to engage in violence is what is described as a look of “disgust” immediately prior to the assault.  Injuring or murdering another who the individual perceives as a fellow “human being” is difficult.  He therefore enters into a process of “othering” the officer, making that person other than human in his mind, as if that person is simply an object to be used.  Disgust exhibited at this time in this confrontation is a physical manifestation of his being disgusted, offended, and concluding an internal mental process of dehumanizing the officer.  It is at that moment the suspect has decided to initiate the now imminent attack.

While one of these behaviors may mean nothing in and of itself (the look of disgust is the exception), it is generally a cluster of M.A.P.S. threat indicators combined with the totality of the events that should signal a tactical or force response.  Looking at your own experience with resistive or assaultive behavior, list mentally the four M.A.P.S. threat indicator categories exhibited by the last five suspects who forced you to respond with force.  While the concept of “threat indicators” may not be new to you, utilizing the MAPS model and breaking each observed behavior into its category not only makes you more likely to notice the behavior on the street, but better enables your articulation during any justification following a force response. 


Looking for Predatory Behavior

Predatory behavior in humans matches anything seen by lions, tigers, and bears on the Animal Planet channel.  These are easy to see if you are looking for a fight:

  • One or more people intercepting your path. 
  • Two or more people intentionally spreading out in a flanking move, widening the angle between them.
  • Knowing glances or subtle agreement between two or more people that seems to initiate movement or some action. 
  • “Flooding” by multiple suspects seeking to suddenly surround you.  This is seen when a car full of subjects suddenly exits as if upon agreement, seemingly a swarm of bodies, or like a flood that will overwhelm you.

Whether or not you were looking for a fight, any single factor or a combination of these predatory behaviors means you just found one. 


Non-Compliance to Simple Orders

Any non-compliance by any suspect is threat indicator.  An indicator that an individual is near to completing the decision process to physically engage (or flee) is the direct refusal to comply with simple directions to “Step over here to me;” “Keep your hands where I can see them;” “Sit down on the curb,” or any order directly related to your safety.

Asking yourself, “Why isn’t he complying?” is a waste of limited attentional focus.  Why he isn’t cooperating is secondary to what he is doing while he is not complying.  Wondering "why?" rather than "what?" can get you murdered.  Is he:

  • Seemingly looking for escape routes?
  • Subconsciously guarding his dominant side, touching the outside of his pocket(s) or waistband? 
  • Glancing repeatedly at your holstered handgun or other weapon(s) rather than cooperate?
  • Seeming to be attempting to maneuver to gain some type of positional advantage despite orders to the contrary?
  • Subtly blading his body or transferring his body weight to the balls of his feet (which can appear as if he’s crouching a bit)?
  • Rocking his body weight to his back foot so he can step forward with his other to initiate the assault (punch, tackle, takedown, etc.)?
  • A subject who will not comply with police orders is engaged in a risk-benefit evaluation process:  “Is it worth the risk to me to fight or run from the cop versus the dope/weapon/ warrant/crime I just committed he’ll find if I cooperate with him?” 

Be Safe:  Look for a Fight

Far from being an abusive mindset and a recipe for excessive force, constantly “looking for a fight” permits an officer to safely do his (or her) job while being of service to those who need the police.  Approaching any call with a social worker’s mentality is unsafe for everyone on-scene.  Yes, officers are there to assist, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and to act as a shield against those who criminally harm others.  Part of that function is intrinsically violent because some criminals just won’t listen to reason and will respond only to threats of or actual violence.

When and how that force is employed, as a reasonable response to suspect behavior, will be determinant of your ability to protect yourself and others.  Officers who are suddenly overwhelmed by sudden, unexpected violence have little chance to defend themselves from harm or murder.  The mindset begins at the first moment of being notified of a call for service.  The “looking for a fight” mentality is carried through early orientation to suspect threat cues, predatory behavior, and non-compliance to simple, direct orders to prevent you from being assaulted.

As the civil guardian of our society, the police officer has sworn an oath, picked up the sword, and has become essential to our society.   We expect more of our officers than ever before, more than the "rough men who stand ready in the night willing to do violence to those who would do us harm" of George Orwell, more than we expected of the officers in our father's generation.  Within the course of your business day, you will encounter few who are actually willing to harm you--they may not like the job you do, but they are not willing to do the deed.  Among everyone you meet on your shift, you may recognize those few, the one or two on that particular call who are willing to engage in the Process of Violence.  That recognition early enough, gives you the opportunity to foul their plans, and hopefully to bypass the violence through your own tactical movement and early intervention.   If you are among those who are most capable at their profession, your mindset is to simply, consistently, and constantly “look for a fight” as you protect the public and yourself from injury or murder. 

Why ‘Force Continuums’ Should be Abandoned

by George on October 27, 2010 08:33

As a law enforcement officer, you have a complex and very demanding profession.  The job of enforcing the law grows in depth and breadth every year, requiring more of officers in their knowledge, reasoning, and judgment.  Courts, legislatures, and changing public expectations create new challenges, new learning curves, and new obstacles for officers to adapt to and develop strategies to effectively meet these changes.

There are few areas of an officer’s duties that require more discernment and restraint than in responding with force during an arrest.  The ability to read a situation, understand the broad range of human conflict from the subtle nuances of suspect pre-attack indicators to the unmistakable and extremely dire situation of a close-range gunfight, and then react quickly enough to make a difference is a product of training and experience.  It is also a result of understanding the law and policy clearly enough to be free to use those guidelines effortlessly and without doubt. 

“Force continuums” were adopted as an attempt to quickly bridge the knowledge gap between the new civilian recruit and the functioning police academy graduate.  They were seen as a training shortcut, and easy method of training officers how to effectively select the force reasonable to the situation.  Terms like “escalation of force” and “de-escalation” became commonly employed in explaining how and why an officer might respond to a suspect’s threat.

Plaintiffs and their police experts soon found the continuums to be of great value to their arguments that the officer either failed to meet standards, or failed to employ proper conduct because the officer failed to de-escalate early enough.  They often point to the suspect’s behavior at the moment prior to the officer’s force response, fitting it into a category of “suspect actions” requiring a “lower force option,” while disregarding the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time, and upon which the officer based his or her actions.  This confuses jurors, who look at this mechanical, very rigid appearing matrix, and can clearly see that the force employed for “that” suspect behavior was “not permitted.”  Problematically, it also confuses officers, sometimes creating stammering explanations that “the continuum doesn’t really mean what it says.”

The trouble is, a force continuum, in every version and variation, does not deliver for law enforcement—or the public—as advertised.  Every continuum often fails officers in their articulation of the circumstances in which they responded with force.  And for each time an officer’s actions were justified through the matrix of the continuum, there is another where the evaluation of the reasonable response by an officer was subjectively or mistakenly found to have failed the force continuum’s "requirements." 

Force continuums, in policy and in training, should be abandoned.  A continuum is simply an attempt to place a mechanical explanation on a situation that defies stultified, rigid application in typically dynamic, fluid situations.  Additionally, officers require a different type of problem-solving strategy to survive and meet the challenges of the street, something that enhances and develops their ability to quickly reason through and articulate their choices based upon the law.  A static matrix where simplified suspect behaviors are stair-stepped into categories of force fails officers in a tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving incident, and underestimates their ability to discern an emerging situation, recognize the force reasonable to overcome the resistance, respond reasonably, and then to articulate the basis of their force response.


Unique in all of human history, individual officers are responsible for not only documenting the circumstances surrounding any police force response, but also in being required to specifically articulate those actions based on an “objective reasonableness standard.”  This standard was codified by the US Supreme Court stated in Graham v. Connor (1989).  The Graham court understood that an officer’s force response is not capable of mechanical definition, but must be articulated based on the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time. It was reiterated by the Supreme Court in Scott v. Harris (2007). Various non-specific guidelines have been suggested by the court, including, but not limited to, the severity of the crime committed by the suspect at issue (not necessarily the crime for which the offender is being arrested, but the crime to which the officer is immediately responding), the immediate threat of the suspect to the officer and others (the suspect is bigger, stronger, armed, apparently trained, and/or the officer’s fatigue and injury status was a factor), and the active resistance of the offender to resist arrest or attempt to flee (this is the level of intensity and how desperately the suspect was fighting with the officer).

All of this is mixed together to arrive at a “reasonable officer standard.”  This standard is generally defined as, “Would another officer, with like or similar training and experience, given the same circumstances, respond with the same force or use similar judgment.”  It requires the officer to justify his or her actions based on their training, based on their experience, and to a standard to which another officer would recognize and react.  It does not require the “best” solution to the problem facing the officer.  Instead; it simply requires the officer meet a wide range of objectively reasonable conduct.

Every force response is based only upon the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time, without the clarity of 20/20 hindsight.  The evaluation must take into account considerations for split-second decisions made in tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving circumstances.  Therefore, an officer may be mistaken about the facts of a case, but still be an objectively reasonable officer.

The Force Continuum is a mechanical model for the application of police force that was specifically rejected by the Scott and Graham courts and subsequent federal circuit court rulings.  Force Continuums were developed pre-Graham as a method to explain to officers how and when to respond with force to a suspect’s threat.  It seemed simple at the time, and was apparently easier to apply than the old Glick standard.  The trouble is, times have passed it by, but like computer SPAM, we just can’t seem to get rid of it.


Essentially, every force continuum contains three components:  Force levels or options, labels of suspect resistance, and “escalation/de-escalation” requirements.  Only one of these components really has any validity in the real world where an officer’s force response is measured against Graham’s standards of evaluation.

Force levels or options:  Force levels are simply those actions by officers that physically affect a subject’s ability and/or willingness to resist or flee.  Each force option, at a given duration and effort, will result in an expected level of injury or pain.  For example, OC, or pepper spray generally causes acute pain, temporary blinding, and breathing difficulty for a limited period of time, but is without the likelihood of lasting or permanent injury.  A wrist hold or limb restraint is generally a “pain compliance” effort, relying upon pain to gain cooperation, yet it also can cause long-term or even permanent injury to the wrist, elbow, or arm—usually resulting from the intensity of a suspect’s resistance.  A Taser will safely create compliance through disruption of the skeletal musculature’s electrical messages.  It is non-lethal, although secondary injuries from falling are common enough.  An impact weapon, or baton, properly delivered, is expected to cause injury, ranging from a contusion to a bone fracture.  Deadly force, of course, is force likely to cause death or serious physical injury. 

Problems with “force options.”  A significant problem with the Force Continuum is that areas of police conduct are included under the label of “force.”  “Officer Presence” and “Oral Commands” are listed as “the lowest levels of force.”  Some continuums are now improperly including the pointing a firearm at an offender by the officer within the force options.  What’s the problem?  An officer showing up on the scene, speaking to or yelling at a subject, and even pointing a firearm at a subject is not force.  Force is an intentional action by an officer that physically affects the well-being or movement of a person.  The officer who commands a subject to stop, turn around, take his hands out of his pockets, and to step to the patrol car has created a “seizure” under the 4th Amendment the moment the subject complied with the commands—but has not employed “force.”

But if there is no force employed in these acts, why, Plaintiffs ask, are they included on a “force continuum?”  This confusion creates problems for both officers and jurors.  For example, most continuums list “Officer Presence” and “Voice Commands” as part of their “force options.”  I have routinely asked in a training event, “Is officer presence a force option?”  Officers regularly--and mistakenly--answer, “Yes.”  When asked what permitted that officer to “use force” absent any suspect resistance or failure to obey the officer’s commands, these officers often respond with blank stares.  Some astute officer will sometimes come to the officer’s rescue, saying, “There was no use of force.  Presence is not a ‘use of force.’”  This misunderstanding of what is and is not “force” allows the Plaintiff’s attorney and his/her expert to state that it is the agency’s policy or training doctrine listing “officer presence” as a force option in the continuum, and to ask the officer, his or her police witnesses, and his experts, “Why now, when this officer is now in ‘trouble,’ is the policy's force continuum’s ‘force options’ not really force?”

Lawyer games?  You bet.  Slimy?  Well, that is a matter of opinion--the Plaintiffs' lawyers would say it is not, and that it is law enforcement's adoption of this model that creates the opening for them.  In any case, it is permitted in court.  But legal games are another unpleasant part of the job you signed up for.  But when some jurors believe that officers routinely lie under oath because of deliberate distortion and indoctrination by Hollywood, television, and the media, it doesn’t take much imagination on the juror’s part to look at the “force continuum,” read the heading, “force options,” and conclude the officer or police defending these actions are spinning it to their own ends.  While it isn’t true and the officers testifying are simply telling the truth, Force Continuums present this opportunity for skilled attorneys to create the appearance of impropriety or convenient definitions that are fluid according to the needs of the defendant officer(s).

Suspect resistance:  Rather than take the excellent and ultimately practical formulas in Scott and Graham and apply them to the question of when and how to respond with force, the force continuum wrongly attempts to “simplify” the concept of suspect resistance into distinct, definable categories.  For example, a suspect who is presently simply pulling his hands away from the arresting officer, and is not presently attempting to harm the officer is exhibiting “Defensive Resistance,” and therefore may be subject to the corresponding force option on the chart.  However, a suspect who is presently physically assaulting the officer is exhibiting “Active Aggression,” permitting the corresponding “higher level of force” to be employed.

Problems with “Suspect resistance” labels:  The problem is that neither of these “categories of resistance” provide a clue as to the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time.  This labeling excludes many factors that must be considered by the officer and any post-incident evaluation of the officer’s force response.  Distinct, sterile labels cannot describe the officer’s state-of-mind—something which is crucial to any objective and comprehensive evaluation.  That is why the Supreme Court required officers to describe the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time, as well as what the suspect was doing at the time of the force response.  Both are vital in the officer’s articulation of a force response.  Labels as offered by a force continuum are not inclusive of the facts and circumstances, and are often grossly misleading.

More accurate labels might be “violent,” “resisting,” “eggressive resistance,” and “combative.”  None of these labels would permit or call for a specific force response without an explanation by the officer of all of the facts known to the officer at the time of the force response.  When the officer describes the actual behavior of the suspect combined with all of the facts known at the time, it now becomes clearly reasonable that the officer responded with empty hand limb restraints, OC, Conducted Energy Weapons, impact weapons, and/or deadly force.  It is only through such articulation that reasonableness may be determined.

Escalation and de-escalation requirements:  Escalation of force theory simply requires that officers begin with the “lowest-levels” of force (non- or least injurious) and work their way up to something that effectively restrains or overcomes the suspect’s actions or resistance (more injurious).  This requires officers to “experiment” with force.  In one instance, a city’s expert witness, arguing for the termination of the officer during an arbitration hearing, testified that even if the suspect is capable of causing serious bodily injury or death, the officer is still required to use less-lethal force if she can.  There must be an escalation of force, “reacting to what is unsuccessful.  If this level of force is not successful, move to the next one.”

Problems with “escalation/de-escalation”:  This is a gross misunderstanding and clearly not called for in law. It is a clear misrepresentation of what is required of officers struggling to take a suspect into custody.  In the middle of a fight with an extremely motivated, unsearched individual, an armed police officer cannot afford (or be expected) to experiment with force as called for by a continuum.  This would amount to playing a dangerous game with the suspect—the officer attempting to use the lowest level possible while the offender is resorting to whatever means he intends to employ in order to escape.  Instead, Scott permits officers to respond with objectively reasonable force (force option plus duration) to overcome the reasonably perceived threat or resistance of the suspect (from the officer’s reasonable perception based on the totality of the facts and circumstances she knew at the time).

Of the three components making up the Force Continuum, only force options are meaningful in the real world  recognized by the courts.


Many police trainers react with despair when the subject of abandoning the Force Continuum is broached.  “How in the world can I teach officers to respond with force?” is often their question.

The use of the Force Continuum, a mechanical standard, is a lazy way of teaching officers when to respond with force.  It attempts to simply take a response off the shelf and plug it into a category of assault or resistance.  All very neat and tidy, but the threatening safety problems officers are forced to respond to in the real world are not.  Instead, officers must be given permission to evaluate the situation and then reasonably respond.

This is done by first teaching them the law and their policy, and then holding them accountable for justifying their actions while in training.  Then they are taught about force options and the specific expected injuries as a result of duration and intensity of that force response.  After giving examples and possible solutions to common force problems, students or recruits are then put into various problems during defensive tactics and officer safety training.  They are then permitted to find their own force solutions, and then must justify the force they employed.  By using the law (Scott, Graham, Garner, and state law) and agency policy as the basis of justifying their force response, the officer learns the bounds of force conduct vis-à-vis suspect resistance and assault.

Is it more difficult?  Yes--that's why the continuums were adopted in the first place.  It requires the trainer to be conversant (rather than just “knowledgeable”) with the laws of force.  It requires the trainer to articulate the standard of evaluation as required by the reasonable officer standard per Scott.  It requires the trainer to be able to discern the totality of the circumstances as a basis of that force response, and not just the present circumstances apparent to the officer at the time.  It also starts the process of requiring the officer to begin justifying his or her actions per the law, within the law. 

As a result of this greater effort, officers are able to discern the complexity of their force responses.  The capability for nuance is created, and better articulation of their decision-making is possible.  There are no downsides to this change in creating an officer who has deeper knowledge and understanding of the permissions and the limits to the force response.


The force continuum, as stated earlier, is exactly the type of mechanistic application and evaluation of force  rejected by Scott and Graham.  Essentially it calls for the officer to label what the suspect is doing at this moment, and experiment with matching the lowest level of force to that labeled suspect behavior.  If that force option is not successful, the officer is to escalate or progress to the next force option, experimenting with it until the officer finally progresses to a force level that is successful.  This is unsafe in the real world, and the US Supreme Court was wise enough to repeatedly recognize that experimenting with force is foolhardy when facing the real-world threats officers are sworn to respond to. 

The force continuum is a misleading representation that is not valid for any aspect of law enforcement.  Adopted in the early 1980s by plaintiffs experts, law enforcement naively adopted it as a means of attempting to explain, and then train their officers in the reasonable force response.  Since the early 90's, it is slowly but steadily being recognized, and as advocated by leading police policy authorities, trainers, and expert witnesses, that the force continuum has no value in teaching, policy, or explanation of an officer’s actions.  It only serves to mislead a jury and the public in what the officer “should have done” according some expert who claims authority in such matters, without taking the officer’s state of mind into account.

An appreciation for the realistic effects and likely outcomes of various methods of restraint and force must be apprehended by any evaluator for a fair evaluation of any officer’s efforts.  Responding with force, articulating force, and evaluating the police force response is best served through the law as it is written and interpreted by the courts.  There is a reason that after all these years, the force continuum has not been accepted by the courts and written into law.  It does not meet the standards by which officers are judged.  The sooner law enforcement recognizes this, and removes this failed experiment from training and policy, the better officers, their agencies, and the public they serve will be.


Police Civil Liability: Words Matter

by George on June 4, 2009 07:41

You're a conscientious cop who takes real pride in doing your job right.  Because this is the case, you might want to change how you talk about force after doing a good job on the street. 

All of your career, you have heard, been taught, and said the phrase, “use of force.”  You’ve read it in case law in the language of the courts.  Use of force is so synonymous with policing that no one thinks about the phrase—until you are the defendant in federal civil court wondering why in the world, after you did the job the way you were trained, are you being accused of misconduct?

Yes, you injured the suspect after responding to his behavior, but you responded to his resistance according to your training.  And you know your actions in overcoming his assault and attempts to flee were reasonable and well within the bounds of your agency policy.  Yet you are facing a trial in civil court as a defendant…what went wrong?

Actually, nothing really went “wrong.”  It’s the system.  The US Constitution requires the police, as government agents, to defend their actions against any person (citizen or not).  To meet this challenge, you must adequately address the "second half" of your enforcement activities.  This involves describing your actions accurately and in sufficient detail so that others who are not the police and who weren’t on-scene during the arrest can understand why you took the action you did.

The words you use matter.  A lot.  No kidding.

Let’s talk about the foundation of how you think about describing your job in a force incident.  Let’s consider two phrases:

1.    “The officer used force on the suspect.”

2.    “The officer responded with force to the suspect’s actions and behavior.” 

Is there a difference in the meaning between the two?  Is there one phrase that implies responsibility for the event and any outcome (injury to a suspect) to you as the arresting officer?

PHRASE ONE.  In the first phrase, the officer is the “actor using force.”  The officer is making the decision to hurt or shoot the suspect.  This phrasing reveals nothing about the suspect’s actions.  It plays into the media’s and Hollywood’s wildly inaccurate portrayal of the police (ever see a cop TV show or movie that looked anything like your real life job?).  This language puts the responsibility for the force employment solely on your shoulders.  The question is, where is the suspect and his/her behavior in this?

PHRASE TWO.  The second phrase is clearly demonstrating that the suspect is the “actor.”  If the suspect had not done “something,” there could be no need to “respond.”  The suspect is the cause of the event, not the officer.  While your response to his resistance resulted in his being injured, it was the suspect's behavior and actions creating the reasonable need for those injuries.

Even a casual understanding of constitutional and case law shows that officers may not simply “use force” on a suspect:

  • In Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. 1769 (2007), the balancing test in any force evaluation of the police is “the likelihood of injury or death to the suspect balanced with the apparent threat of the suspect to the officer or others” as reasonably perceived by the officer.  
  • In Graham v. Connor, 109 S.Ct. 1865 (1989), officers are required to base their force decisions on “the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time.”  Just three factors cited by the court are “the severity of the crime at issue” (the crime you are responding to with force—generally resistance or assault—not necessarily the crime for which he’s being arrested), “the threat of the suspect,” and “the active resistance or attempts to flee.”  

The majority decisions in each of these cases extensively discusses the need for describing the suspect's behavior and threatening actions.  In each of these major, controlling US force cases, the focus is not on the officer, but on the suspect’s actions forcing the officer to respond. 

It’s time to change your language to protect yourself and your agency.  By describing the event as a “force response,” you use accurate phrasing to describe what you do.  It sets up the next step for your articulation and justification of your force response.  Consequently, your reporting of the force event will be more accurate in describing the offender's actions and behavior (both subtle and overt) that led you to reasonably perceive the suspect's resistance, threat, and/or attempts to flee.  This simple change--"responding with force"--benefits you, your partners and agency, your community, and the jury members who simply want to understand what happened during the incident.  By describing your specific response to each threatening or resistive action taken by the suspect, you are more likely to be rewarded with a fair judgment of your actions. 

If you follow this suggestion, your language will probably begin sounding like:

  • “I responded to his (actions and behavior) by...”
  • “I was involved in a force response incident created by the Defendant/Plaintiff's behavior, when I observed him...”
  • “I responded to his resistance by (which ever reasonable response options you employed to overcome his resistance or attempts to flee).”

Be safe.  Wear your vest every day, every shift.  In your reports, tell us why you responded to the suspect’s behavior and actions.