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Police Skills Matter

Inadequate skills result in tragic outcomes. Officers need tools and techniques that work, training that produces competence, and effective accountability structures that work before things go wrong on the street.

Policing is back in the news again. The actions of a group of Memphis officers in the death of Tyre Nichols have drawn universal condemnation and are being swiftly addressed by local authorities using the criminal justice system.

As we watched one of the videos posted on national news outlets for the first time, we couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that most of the event, both before and, fatefully, after the foot pursuit seems to be characterized by unsuccessful attempts (by up to five officers) to place Nichols in handcuffs.

The primary author of this article is not, and has never been, a law enforcement officer, so we cannot (nor will we attempt to) provide any commentary, critique, or analysis regarding specific policing techniques and tactics here. What seems obvious, however, is that perhaps excepting extraordinary discrepancies in size and strength, five trained men armed with firearms, batons, tasers, and handcuffs should be able to physically restrain one unarmed, untrained man whether he is compliant or not.

Our domain is training methods and systems not techniques and tactics. Therefore, looking purely through this lens, we see that there are at least three critical issues to consider. Please note that these issues impact ALL armed workforces, not just law enforcement.

The first is that organizations need to provide armed professionals with tactics, techniques, policies, procedures, and tools that actually work.

It is a perhaps unfortunate but nevertheless very real fact of life that police officers (and other armed professionals, though with less frequency) often deal with subjects who are hostile, aggressive, and non-compliant. These behaviors place both officers and the public at risk. They are also frequently the result of substance abuse or mental illness—meaning that the person is neither behaving rationally, nor capable of rational interactions when police officers encounter them.

Unlike the rest of us, who can simply turn around and run the other way during these situations, law enforcement is specifically tasked with engaging and, often, subduing and transporting these individuals. Cops must have effective means to physically restrain people who do not want to be restrained.

Given the full scope of the event in Memphis our first thought was that it seems reasonable to ask whether the approved techniques and tactics being taught to and used by the Memphis Police Department are, in fact, adequate for the task. 

Many law enforcement agencies in recent years have made significant changes to use of force policies and authorized techniques. Depending on the agency and locality, several standard physical restraints and holds—even some commonly used within competitive pugilistic sports such as wrestling, judo, and jiu-jitsu—have been banned, or severely restricted from use. In some places efforts have been made to make their use illegal.

We cannot determine whether any specific technique or tactic is appropriate or tactically sound. That task is up to individual agencies and their leadership and oversight structures. We can, however, say with certainty— based on extensive experience within armed workforces—that people who are assigned a life-threatening task, then handed tools or techniques that don’t work will either fail to perform the task (and likely stop trying immediately) or will simply go their own way on how to get the job done.

We can’t say whether this applies in Memphis or not, as we simply don’t know.  We can say that people who occupy leadership positions in any armed workforce should avoid issuing impossible mandates and standards, then closing their eyes and pretending all is well as the sausage making necessary to actually get the job done happens behind the scenes. If you do this, your organization is living on borrowed time.

No one can do a job very well without the right tools. We wouldn’t expect much out of a car wash without water, or from a mechanic with no access to wrenches. We can’t expect any different from law enforcement.

In many cases a police officer’s entire day is made up of repeatedly showing up to the worst day in the life of everyone else who is involved. In practice this means that cops frequently need to do a lot of things that are unpleasant so they can try to solve terrible problems created by other people. If we don’t provide them the tools necessary to solve these problems, we shouldn’t expect good results.

The second, closely related, issue is that training in job skills (especially for use of force) must be effective. Developing the best techniques, tactics, procedures and tools in the world does very little good if cops cannot apply them in real-world conditions.

Developing operational proficiency in tactical skills within armed workforces is our bread and butter. We and our related organizations work with law enforcement agencies and others to improve training design and provide resources to help agencies implement effective reforms. For example, we recently helped New York State re-write its state-wide recruit firearms training curriculum for law enforcement and provided some ground-breaking training technology to the Syracuse New York Police Department–enabling them to integrate de-escalation into 100% of their firearms training.

We have also written volumes of material on the subject—to include several other articles on this website. To avoid being overly repetitive, we will not get into great detail here.

For the purposes of this article, we will just make two broad statements. First, most law enforcement training is structurally incapable of developing a skilled officer. This means that police who learn and practice their “hard skills” (such as defensive tactics, mechanics of arrest, and firearms) solely through their academy experience and agency provided training are almost certainly not very good at these skills.

This is not because there is necessarily anything wrong with what is being taught (although there may be, please see the first point above). It is because the traditional methods and structure of skills training cannot produce long-term retention. It is scientifically impossible.

Given the massive industry focus in recent years on training technologies, it is also worth pointing out the limitations of simulation tools here. Simulations (such as Virtual Reality and Video Screen Projections) can bring value to training. However, these tools also often preclude the actual physical performance of skills such as movement, striking, shooting live rounds, grappling etc.

There can certainly be training benefits from using these technologies. However, if using the training system does not (and more to the point cannot) involve physical performance of the skills that are required to solve the real-world problem being simulated—then the overall value of the technology both as a training solution and as an evaluative tool should be seriously questioned.

If we want people to be competent, to do what we teach them, and to follow established policy on the street, then we MUST fundamentally change how we train—to align it with how people learn. There simply is no other path forward.

The second point is that armed workforces (and not just law enforcement) need improved methods of accountability.

It is, frankly, easy for an organization to hold someone accountable after they have committed multiple violent felonies on video tape (for example). Doing so is important. It can also have deterrent value to future policy and law violations by other workers; however, it is also a bit like putting on a seatbelt after a car crash. 

Performance problems in armed workforces must be not simply identified, but also addressed effectively. It is greatly preferrable that this happens before, not after, these issues manifest on the street. Translation? Accountability must happen both through and as a byproduct of the training process, both with recruit and in-service training programs.

If we were to “fairy dust” a perfect implementation of training and training-based accountability based on our current understanding of training systems, would it prevent every negative outcome on the street? No, it would not. However, it is also true that a lot of things that go wrong in the field can be (and, frankly, often are, though without any avenue for accountability or recourse) identified during training.

Identification of issues is important, but ultimately meaningless without real mechanisms for accountability being included as a part of the training and evaluation system.

While even the most competent person can make a mistake, the reality is that most of the things that go horribly wrong due to lack of competence or reckless action are not really a surprise to anybody “in the know.”  We could give some examples, but this is not unique to armed workforces. It’s true in every organization that “everyone knows” some folks are living on borrowed time. Most workplaces just don’t have discretionary, intentional use of force against civilians, up to and including the taking of human life, on their list of required core competencies.

Law enforcement does and that makes it unique. Systems and processes that are adequate for other vocations may not meet needs of armed workforces—police in particular—where workers may have to kill people on purpose as part of their job.

If we really want to make significant improvements in performance and operational outcomes, then methods, tools, and processes for training that not only develop proficiency but that also provide continuous workforce surveillance with respect to real-world readiness and operational performance are required. So too are mechanisms that mandate either retraining and the achievement of proficiency or movement to another role that does not require use of those skills.

It is important to note that this issue is not just related to training alone, but often also to human resources, bureaucratic, and administrative processes that can hamper an organization’s ability to proactively correct performance deficiencies.

In summary, it is simply a cold, hard fact that present methods and structures for armed workforce management mostly provide for intervention “right of bang,” after things have already gone wrong.  If we want the frequency and severity of “things going wrong” with police performance to significantly decrease without pulling back police engagement and further decreasing public safety, then we can’t keep doing things they way they have always been done.

That would be, by definition, insanity.

A version of this article was also published at

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Please see below for a summary of the work that we or our related organizations are involved in.

Recent and Ongoing Projects

State of New York – Department of Criminal Justice Police Academy Curriculum Development Project:

Helping to insert thinking, decision-making, and de-escalation as integral components of academy level police firearms training in New York State.

See an article about our impact on Page 42 of the recent Chief’s Chronicle here:

See the public presentation from New York’s Department of Criminal Justice Services on the academy firearms program development starting at minute 49 in the video posted here.

State of New York – Department of Criminal Justice Instructor Development Workshop:

Presenting on the application of brain science to adult learning, and providing an overview and the basis of design for the new academy-level firearms training program that is currently in development.

Cities of Syracuse and Ithaca, New York – Training and Equipment Provision:

With funding from Saving Lives USA, Syracuse and Ithaca New York Police Departments will be receiving training and equipment during an upcoming event this November to put their officers on the leading edge of decision making and de-escalation capability.  More information to follow.


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