Runnin'-n-Gunnin': Thoughts on Police Firearms Qualifications

Earlier this week, the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Police Department released body-worn video of the May 10th officer-involved shooting along expressway I-44. The abbreviated video can be seen here:

These sorts of videos spark lots of commentary by police officers and firearms trainers. I was tagged into some of that commentary, including:

At first blush, I agree with @GunOfBavaria that this is some excellent work by this officer. 

I do not know "Patrick" or his police department or his police department's training or policy. Yes, I do assume he is a Michigan police officer as he describes in his twitter bio. The metro Detroit area has a fairly decent reputation in the police patrol rifle/carbine community - that I'll attribute to available training there. (Note: I've done carbine training with & competed against officers in that area in carbine competitions.) As such, it does not surprise me that his agency (whichever it is) uses a 100-yard sprint in its patrol carbine qualification. 

But these sorts of inclusions of running/sprinting in qualifications makes me want to ask a list of questions. 

First off, I am a twenty (20)-year police firearms instructor...and a skeptic of qualification and certification. Qualification/certification does serve a purpose with which I can support. In certain contexts. We should start by defining or describing the process, mindset, or application. 

What is qualification

Qualification is a process of passing an objective performance proficiency test. Basically, a course of fire outlines:
  • distances from shooter to target
  • timeframes available to shoot each string of bullets
  • scoring areas on the target
Very typical police carbine "qual" courses demand shooters can hit human target zones from ten (10) yard head shots while standing out to 75-yard body shots while laying prone. Some courses require officers to reload under time constraints.  Qual courses of fire are standardized - designed so that every officer in a police agency undergoes the same demands, scoring, and conditions. To be "qualified" is to be deemed proficient enough. 

But proficient enough at what? 

The designers of qual courses attempt to match up the demands of the course with the predicted demands of real life. The course is meant to be a predictor that those who Pass are good enough, and those who Fail are not. These are highly subjective standards imposed by the designers; I'm not convinced that any course can truly be validated in the mathematical or statistical sense. 

The unique nature and infrequency of real-life police shootings is such that only rough patterns exist. These patterns are used to determine reasonable expectations in officer performance with a patrol carbine (or for that matter...any tool, weapon, or firearm). In my opinion, it's reasonable to expect officers be able to make accurate head shots at ten (10) yards inside short timeframes. It's also reasonable to expect accurate body shots at 25 yards inside short timeframes. Think:
  • Ten (10) yards is from across the school classroom.
  • 25 yards is from across the street to your front porch.
There is debate in the police firearms training community about what those time constraints should be. Or how big/small the scoring/hit zones are on the target. Can we agree that a shooter who hits tiny target zones very quickly is a better shooter than s/he who struggles to hit larger zones in relaxed time constraints? 

I use this Time vs Accuracy visual in many different applications and contexts. Firearms training is among them. 

The point I'm getting to is that firearms trainers cannot agree on qualification course standards of passing. We argue when asked, "What is good enough?" It's a tough question because we all want better performance. We all want quicker, more accurate shooters. 

I've written about this "good enough" debate before. Qualification, at least by my definition, is not about ensuring the best shooters; it's about ensuring good enough shooters. Without the ability to scientifically validate firearms qualification courses, we are relegated to using our subjective benchmarks for what is acceptable. 

Can qualifications be gamed

My position is that most any standardized testing can be gamed in some way. Test-takers can not only play to the test, but in a naturally-adaptive sense...they are incentivized to do such (even arguably subconsciously). 

There was a particular pistol qual course that members on my tactical unit had to pass -- for both selection and retention to the team. It was a challenging course that washed out applicants...and remained challenging to many of the team veterans. It was not uncommon for candidates to "practice to the test." (The equivalent of a school teacher teaching to the standardized test.)  

Gaming, while often holding a negative connotation, is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to incentivize appropriately. (There's a hidden conversation on human factors here. I think.) Candidates or members who practiced the skills being tested in the qual course, under similar/identical conditions, often experienced increased skill...demonstrated by increased scoring on the qual course. But in order for this gaming to be a positive thing, it requires the qual course reasonably mimic demands of real life deadly force situations. And that an increase in score equates to an increase in street performance. 

What about the incentives of firearms competitions?

I've participated in a number of different style firearms competitions, including: IDPA, National Patrol Rifle Competition, ITOA FTXs, a half-dozen different SWAT team competitions, and more made-up-on-the-spot challenges between friends on the range than I can count. 

Each of these events and organizations score the participants in different ways. Some penalize misses; some reward accuracy. Time factors into most every one (1) of them in some way. The severity of penalties (and more broadly: the scoring algorithm) determines how a shooter manages his/her risk-reward. (Funny side story: I once shot under sponsorship, where my sponsor told me "I'm not sponsoring you to lay up. Go big or go home." That made my strategic thinking quite simple! haha)   

As a member of these competition teams, I often found myself questioning the approaches we took during events. We staged gear in advantageous (but unrealistic) positions on our vests/belts. We paced/slowed our running so that our heart rates did not get out of control. At other times, we sprinted through areas that would otherwise reduce our situational awareness. The scoring incentivized us to behave in ways that I'm convinced were bad for (imagined) real life situations. 

But there were other competitions that I believe incentivized us to behave in ways that matched up well with reality. Those events used realistically-sized hit zones and ranked shooters according to fastest times, based on unique situations. Then again, this is merely my subjective opinion on these demands, and my opinion that reasonable, appropriate incentives were instituted. 

How then to design qualification courses of fire?

Qualifications should be designed in ways that rightly incentivize appropriate behavior.  Real life is not void of incentives. Incentives in real life are complex and filled with tension. So should qual courses. Allowances in qual courses should balance accuracy and speed, as depicted in the visualization above. Standards/expectations should be clear, rigid, and consistent. Greg Glassman of CrossFit might refer this as: Observable, Measurable, and Repeatable (link to article). 

Qualification is NOT training. However it might be considered practice. (For a distinction, I hope you'll consider reading Bastardizing Training.) The goal or purpose of qualification is not to create better performance, but rather to test performance against an established standard of (subjective) acceptable performance. Qualifications become more defensible against criticism when they are validated for not only job-relatedness, but when the chosen pass/fail benchmark is consistent with what has been researched to match that required in real life. 

US law enforcement maintains (some) statistics on officer-involved shootings. Of particular interest to me is that of physical distance between officer and assailant. It makes sense to me that qual courses should replicate those distances in terms of weight/volume of testing. The bulk of our pistol qualification process should be placed at short "bad-breath" distances, to match statistics (a sense of validation). Likewise, little emphasis should be put at distances greater than fifteen (15) feet. 

So what remains? Target size and time constraints. There's a big difference between two (2) seconds and six (seconds). A philosophical tension is at play. You get the picture.

So back to the original point about running/sprinting during carbine qualification...

  • Is the running/sprinting done for time? 
    • Is there a time limit for the 100-yard run?
    • Is the clock running for the entire qual?
    • What is a job-related / validated time limit for 100 yards? 
  • How might runners be incentivized?
    • Does the course incentivize all-out sprinting?
    • Does the course incentivize pacing / "laying up"? 
    • Does a faster runner, irregardless of actual shooting performance, fare any better? 
    • Is the target zone sized in a manner that keeps shooters from realistically exerting themselves on the run?
    • Could a maximally-exerted runner/shooter expect to perform well? 
    • Can a paced runner make up for lost foot-speed with accurate shots? 
  • Are shooter heart rates captured during the course?
    • Is there a target heart rate?
    • Is there a minimum HR to "prove" exertion or stress? 
    • Must a shooter reach a certain HR to begin the qual course? 
    • Would a really physically fit shooter be penalized for not reaching min HR?
    • Would an out-of-shape shooter still have to run if walking produced min HR? 
    • Could a shooter wear a HR monitor so s/he didn't unnecessarily exert him/herself? 
These questions really only address the running portion of the course, ignoring the rest of the qual course design. Some of the questions are repetitive and get to similar answers. The heart rate questions are posed in half-jest, but take another (satirical) swing at incentives and gamesmanship. 

I completely understand why a police agency would decide on incorporating physical exertion into a firearms program. I can also argue why they'd include it into their qual process. However, I can equally argue why NOT to include it into a qual process. Regardless, I have zero (0) doubt that agencies that use physical exertion in qualifications do so with the best of and purest of intentions. 

Let me offer this, knowing little else: If the 100-yard sprint is not done on-the-clock (whether timed...or within a time limit), it's bullshit. As a qualification process, it offers no incentive for me to do it for speed.  Why do I qualify this statement with "as a qualification process?" Because there are other factors that might serve as incentives...chief among them: Ego. Shooters will run just to prove something (manliness?) to their peers. 

The course needs to establish pure standards and incentives on its own. Without a running clock, it loses measurability, observability, and repeatability. It relies on a far greater degree of subjectivity...and almost no sense of defensibility of validation.  Qualifications are subjective enough without these added complications. 

Again, qualification is NOT training; it is testing. Tests incentivize behavior, through gaming the standards. Running and sprinting is arguably something better left to firearms drills and exercises. Physical stressors like calisthenics, body drags, hill climbs, sprinting, or obstacle courses are a vital component to practical tactical firearms skill development.

Some of this boils down to philosophical differences in learning design - specifically whether we rely on organic/experiential/self-discovered learning...or whether we promote engineered/industrialized/efficiency-based training methods. Both of these polar extremes have places on the firearms range; the recipe and match-up is highly debated and better left to another blog.

In summary...

If running must be incorporated into a qual course, be sure to incentivize appropriately...and that the gaming makes them better at something that carries over into the real world. 

What are your thoughts on the sensitive topic of police firearms qualifications? Or qualifications and certifications in general? 


Related reading:


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model


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