Printer Friendly

Improving deadly force decision making.

As one of the most liability-prone activities in law enforcement, deadly force decision making tops the list of training priorities for many agencies. An improper shooting decision carries the potential for costly civil damage awards, criminal prosecution, strained community relations, and ruined professional and personal lives.

Improving the decisions officers make in deadly force situations bolsters an agency's employee development process and can enhance its position against claims of negligent or inadequate training. Agencies can help officers make better decisions by employing three strategies: improving deadly force policies, training officers in survival physiology, and using dynamic training. These strategies can produce marked improvements by providing effective policy guidance to officers, enhancing their tactical skills, and increasing their confidence levels.


Before embarking on any effort to improve decision making, an agency needs an effective and practical deadly force policy. Officers need to know the parameters of their authority. Since the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner,(1) most law enforcement agencies have adopted restrictive policies that rely on "defense of life" as the rationale for using deadly force. The Garner decision mandated policy improvements by forbidding the use of deadly force against fleeing felons not threatening death or serious injury to an officer or others. Defense of life is widely interpreted as the use of force by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties to protect themselves or another innocent person from death or serious injury.

However, ambiguities often exist when officers attempt to apply policy in the dynamic, unforgiving environment of the street. A decision-making model can help to clarify policy and provide guidance for effective and legal deadly force decisions.

Decision Model: The Deadly Force Triangle

The deadly force triangle is a decision model designed to enhance an officer's ability to respond to a deadly force encounter while remaining within legal and policy parameters.(2) The three sides of an equilateral triangle represent three factors - ability, opportunity, and jeopardy. All three factors must be present to justify deadly force.

In this model, ability means the suspect's physical capacity to harm an officer or another innocent person. This is widely interpreted as a suspect's being armed with a weapon capable of inflicting death or serious injury, such as a firearm, knife, or club. Ability also includes personal physical capability, such as that possessed by a martial arts practitioner, a powerfully built man, or an agitated suspect on drugs.

Opportunity describes the suspects' potential to use their ability to kill or seriously injure. An unarmed but very large and powerfully built suspect might have the ability to injure seriously or kill a smaller, less well-conditioned officer. However, opportunity does not exist if the suspect is 50 yards away. Similarly, a suspect armed with a knife has the ability to kill or seriously injure an officer but might lack opportunity if the officer has taken cover.

Jeopardy exists when suspects take advantage of their ability and opportunity to place an officer or another innocent person in imminent physical danger. For example, a situation in which an armed robbery suspect refuses to drop a weapon when cornered after a foot pursuit would constitute jeopardy.

Trainers use decision models to help clarify deadly force policy. In training sessions, officers examine a variety of scenarios, which often draw from actual incidents, and apply the principles of the model and the agency's policy. The officers must determine if and when justification for deadly force exists. Trainers must be careful to include scenarios that both do and do not culminate in a justification for deadly force. In this way, officers learn the limitations on their use of force and make appropriate decisions.

The Necessity Criterion

Some deadly force situations are not defined clearly. Is it appropriate to use deadly force against a suspect who, for example, has the potential to inflict death or serious injury but does not pose an immediate threat? How do officers interpret policy when confronted by armed robbery suspects who respond to verbal commands to halt and remain turned away but refuse to drop weapons, to kneel or prone out, or to show their hands?

Some policies fail to address these issues. In fact, some policies assume that jeopardy does not exist until a threat is immediate. This dangerous notion forces officers to wait until a suspect overtly moves a weapon toward an officer or other innocent person before attempting to neutralize the threat.

Practical and effective policy takes into account the time lapse between recognizing a threat and responding to it. Dynamic training exercises have demonstrated that a suspect in a deadly force confrontation can bring a weapon to bear and fire it before the officer can respond by squeezing the trigger of a weapon already drawn and aimed at the suspect/Quite simply, action is faster than reaction. Furthermore, police handgun rounds do not reliably incapacitate suspects immediately,(4) and officers encounter many situations with inadequate or unavailable cover. Therefore, policies requiring officers to wait for overt movement of a weapon before taking action can place both innocent bystanders and officers in needless danger.

The concept of jeopardy must be expanded to embrace necessity as a criterion determining when deadly force can be used. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revised its deadly force policy, defining necessity as consisting of two components - imminent danger and the absence of safe alternatives.(5)

Imminent is defined as a pending action; it does not mean immediate or instant. Under DOJ policy, necessity means that a subject can pose an imminent danger, "even if, at that precise moment, [the subject] is not pointing a weapon at an [officer]."(6) Federal agents are not required to use or consider alternatives to deadly force in the absence of safe alternatives.

Factors affecting the ability to use safe alternatives include a suspect's response to commands, availability of cover, time constraints imposed by the action/reaction gap, and the lack of a reliable way to stop a threatening action instantly.(7)

Enhancing deadly force policy by including a necessity criterion provides officers with an additional decision tool. It helps them make effective decisions while maintaining the necessary balance between officer safety and the constitutional requirement of reasonableness.

Despite the best policies, however, officers still might not handle incidents involving deadly force in the best possible way. A significant cause of this problem can be traced to the physiological effects of stress in survival situations.


For many years, law enforcement trainers struggled to explain why, despite comprehensive training, officers often performed ineffectively in survival situations. They continuously revised their instruction in attempts to bridge the gap between officers' performance on the gun range or in the classroom and their performance on the street.

Incorrect Assumptions

Unfortunately, instructors often recognized the symptoms of survival stress but commonly failed to grasp the causes. Unaware of the physiological reasons for visual narrowing, auditory exclusion, decreased fine motor skills, and other symptoms that affect officers in life-threatening situations, trainers guessed at what methods and strategies would counter the effects of these symptoms.

Some of these guesses led to ineffective approaches. For example, the majority of law enforcement training was, and in many cases still is, conducted in the static, nonthreatening, low-stress environment of the gun range, gymnasium, or classroom, using what psychologists call closed motor skill training.(8) Such training exercises are predictable, planned, static, and low stress. A common example is traditional firearms qualification on the gun range in which officers fire only on command at identical paper targets that do not return fire. Techniques that look or feel effective in this type of environment often have little or no application in a stressful, dynamic, real-world environment.

The most prominent example involves the transition from the instinctive shooting style of the single-handed point, or "FBI crouch," and modified isosceles shooting stances to the Weaver stance decades ago. Generations of law enforcement officers learned the Weaver stance - essentially a field interrogation stance in which the officer assumes a three-quarter side stance, gun side and groin bladed away from the target with the strong arm and gun hand fully extended and almost locked, stabilized and supported by the weak arm. Firearms instructors extolled the virtues of the Weaver stance as an improved shooting platform. Unfortunately, research has shown that it is extremely difficult to assume the Weaver stance when confronted by a sudden, close threat.(9)

Why? Humans are binocular animals that process 90 percent of sensory input visually when they experience survival stress.(10) During a deadly force encounter, officers instinctively and uncontrollably crouch and square off facing the threat to maximize visual input to the brain. This instinctive stance was first documented in the 1920s based on observations of soldiers in combat.(11) Because most deadly force encounters are sudden and close, teaching officers to use the Weaver stance made them rely on a technique ineffective for the deadly force situations they encountered.

Survival Stress Management

Trainers must understand survival physiology and survival stress management techniques to help officers improve their decision-making skills in deadly force situations. According to the research, when faced with a survival situation, the human body experiences involuntary physiological reactions that affect performance of motor skills. Many of these reactions have a negative impact on officers' ability to defend themselves in life-or-death struggles.

Motor skills combine cognitive processes and physical actions to enable a person to perform physical tasks, such as firing a weapon. There are three types of motor skills - gross, fine, and complex.

Gross motor skills involve the action of large muscle groups, such as those found in the thighs, chest, back, and arms. These skills depend on strength and improve under high-stress conditions due to the body's release of adrenaline and other hormones. Survival stress has little or no negative effect on these skills.(12)

Fine motor skills use small muscle groups, such as the hands and fingers. These skills frequently involve hand-eye coordination, such as shooting a firearm. They require low or nonexistent levels of stress for optimum performance. Fine motor skills rapidly deteriorate under survival stress conditions.(13)

Complex motor skills incorporate multiple components, often involving hand-eye coordination, timing, tracking a moving target, and balance. The Weaver shooting stance and such intricate defensive tactics as a takedown or baton come-along exemplify complex motor skills. To achieve optimal performance of these skills, stress levels must be low. Therefore, the high stress encountered in a survival situation reduces an officer's ability to perform complex motor skills.(14)

During a deadly force encounter, unprepared or poorly trained officers experience a chain reaction of escalating stress that increases their heart rates. As the heart rate rises, fine and complex motor skills deteriorate rapidly, resulting in an inability to handle a weapon or assume a Weaver shooting stance, for example. The rising heart rate also triggers the body's sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system that controls breathing and other involuntary life functions. The sympathetic system secretes powerful hormones, such as adrenaline, epinephrine, and similar substances that increase heart rate and blood pressure and regulate body metabolism under life-threatening stress. The body redirects blood away from the fingers, hands, and extremities to major muscles, such as the chest, thighs, and arms. Hand dexterity and coordination drastically decline as blood vessels constrict.(15)

Eyesight also is affected by increased stress. The contour of the lenses of the eyes changes, making visual tracking or focusing on nearby objects, such as the front sight of a weapon, difficult or even impossible. Perceptual narrowing occurs and affects depth perception, often causing officers to fire shots low.(16) Peripheral vision nearly vanishes as the field of view reduces to 12 to 18 inches. Because most threats are processed through a person's visual sense, the tremendous reduction in visual input severely restricts the brain's ability to receive and process vital information. Research has shown that when peripheral vision decreases 70 percent, it takes a person up to 440 percent more time to react.(17)

If an officer's rising heart rate remains unchecked, a survival stress response called "hypervigilance" occurs. With hypervigilance, the officer freezes in place or engages in inappropriate or irrational actions in a panic or near-panic condition.(18) This condition is characterized by an indiscriminate attention to inappropriate threat cues as an officer frantically searches for a way to escape the danger. Not uncommonly, officers experiencing hypervigilance might repeatedly pull the trigger of an empty weapon, misidentify innocuous items as weapons, or not see or hear innocent bystanders in the line of fire.

One of the keys to managing survival stress is controlling heart rate.(19) Research has proven that a slight increase in heart rate in response to stress stimuli improves performance. However, additional stress and increased heart rate causes rapid deterioration of performance. Cognitive skills begin to deteriorate at heart rates above 155 beats per minute (BPM), and perceptual narrowing, hypervigilance, and irrational behavior begin at 175 BPM. Officers experience full-blown hypervigilance at heart rates between 200 and 225 BPM. The optimal heart rate for combat performance is between 115 and 145 BPM.(20) Teaching officers stress management techniques that enable them to keep their heart rates in or near this range will help them control survival stress.


Practice through realistic simulation offers one of the best ways to prepare officers to handle deadly force decisions. This training strategy integrates classroom instruction on policies and decision-making models with open motor skill training to enable officers to apply their knowledge in dynamic, stressful situations that approximate real life.


Dynamic training serves two purposes in improving the decisions officers make during deadly force situations. It allows them to implement survival stress management techniques in conjunction with effective tactics and procedures in a realistic environment, and it meets higher training standards imposed by recent court decisions.

The dynamic training technique uses role-playing scenarios that pit officers against live adversaries who think, plan, interact, move, use cover, and return fire using modified duty weapons firing simulated ammunition with marking dye. Such ammunition provides two key benefits. First, hits can be scored to rate the effectiveness of each participant's shooting. Second, the ammunition strikes with enough force to cause pain and minor bruising; participants soon learn the value of using cover in a way that cannot be duplicated by other forms of training.

Dynamic training also addresses some judicial concerns raised by a 1993 court decision that imposed higher standards for deadly force training. In Zuchel v. City of Denver, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a jury verdict that the City of Denver, Colorado, was deliberately indifferent to the rights of its citizens because of the inadequate deadly force training provided to its police officers.(21) The jury found that the death of a city resident during a police shooting was due to an unreasonable use of deadly force stemming from inadequate training. The implication of the Zuchel decision is that traditional instruction - consisting of periodic firearms qualifications on the gun range, the use of classroom shoot/don't shoot scenarios, and other closed motor skills training strategies - does not adequately prepare law enforcement officers to make effective deadly force decisions.

To meet the higher standard imposed by the Zuchel decision, deadly force training also must develop decision-making skills that enable officers to avoid confrontations when possible and to minimize the escalation of force when practical. Dynamic training meets this standard. It allows officers to apply survival stress management and safety and survival tactics in an open motor skills environment within the parameters of the law and the agency's deadly force policy. Open motor skills training - conducted in a fluid, reactive, spontaneous, stressful environment - adds realistic decision making to the instructional setting. For example, dynamic force-on-force training or a simulated deadly force encounter involves open motor skills.

Dynamic training provides another benefit: It often identifies performance deficiencies not spotted in other forms of training. One agency found that, in spite of continuous emphasis on the importance of decocking semiautomatic sidearms equipped with decock mechanisms, the overwhelming number of participants under survival stress failed to do so before reholstering their weapons following a shooting scenario. With this knowledge, trainers could take steps to address this dangerous performance issue.

Administrators and trainers seeking to use simulation-based training should be forewarned that it cannot be developed overnight. Creating a dynamic training program requires that administrators determine the agency's specific training needs, design and develop the content, and then evaluate and document the instruction.

Needs Assessment

One of the most difficult aspects of developing dynamic training can be the preparatory work that must be completed before actual training begins. Trainers should conduct a needs assessment to identify the gap between officers' actual performance and their desired performance. This evaluation might identify such deficiencies as poor teamwork or ineffective stress management in survival situations.

The needs assessment also should focus on identifying the types of threats officers likely will face so that training can be developed to address these needs. By examining an agency's use-of-force reports for the previous years, trainers can identify common force incidents and identify performance deficiencies. Other local sources of information include state crime commissions, training academies, peace officer standards and training organizations, and other area law enforcement agencies. Trainers also should consider national sources of information on threat trends, such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI's annual summaries of law enforcement officers killed and assaulted.

Based on the specific needs identified, instructional objectives must clearly specify the learning and performance outcomes expected of participants. Each objective must state precisely what tasks participants must perform, as well as how well and under what conditions they must perform them. The participants should be informed of the objectives at the beginning of the session. The complexity or depth of the subject matter probably will require that some classroom instruction precede the practical exercises. For example, before conducting a simulation that requires participants to use cover, instructors might lead a classroom discussion on the reasons to seek cover, the types of cover available in a variety of common situations, how to discriminate between good and bad cover, and how best to use cover.

After identifying the instructional objectives, trainers should script realistic scenarios so that participants can master practical and effective tactics that maximize control and minimize danger in survival situations. Instructors must avoid the tendency to create unwinnable scenarios. Few things destroy training efforts more than scenarios that never allow participants to succeed. This is not to say that scenarios should be designed so students cannot ever fail. Rather, if students follow proper procedures and take appropriate actions in the scenario, they can win. Research indicates that the most effective training provides participants with positive learning experiences. To optimize the learning process, training should proceed in phases designed to introduce the participants to increasingly complex and demanding tasks gradually, as their skill levels increase.(22)

Training Techniques

The needs assessment will reveal specific threats and problem areas that should be addressed in the scenarios. In addition, instructors should teach officers techniques to help them respond to these threats safely and confidently. Officers acquire confidence by practicing visualization, gross motor skills, conditioned responses to certain stimuli, and tactical breathing. As the officers acquire confidence in their ability to handle situations safely, they will be better able to control their heart rates and thus avoid negative survival responses.


Athletes frequently use visualization to improve their performance. Likewise, officers can rehearse specific survival situations, mentally identifying threats or threat cues and using appropriate tactical responses. Visualization allows officers to prepare for and plan their individual performance through mental rehearsal. They can clarify tasks, identify potential performance problems, and choose effective tactics.

Visualization contains three components - predicting potential threat cues, programming the proper survival response, and programming back-up plans.(23) First, officers imagine what factors might indicate a threat in a specific situation. For example, a potentially armed suspect detained on foot at 3 a.m. in an apartment complex might have a bulge in his waistband, refuse to remove his hands from his pockets, or make furtive hand movements.

After identifying the potential threat cues, officers picture themselves responding to the threat by using the correct survival responses. Finally, officers plan alternative actions in case the primary response is ineffective or cannot be used.

Through visualization, officers plan simple, yet effective, strategies to respond to deadly force situations. Studies of reaction time indicate that when the number of possible responses increases from one to two, reaction time increases 58 percent.(24) By mentally discarding ineffective responses in advance, officers limit their response options, which reduces reaction time.(25) Unfortunately, during a deadly force encounter, the gap between the suspect's action and the officer's response often is measured in milliseconds. Visualization reduces reaction time and increases the officer's chances of survival.

Gross Motor Skills

Due to the deterioration of fine and complex motor skills under survival stress, training must focus on gross motor skills whenever possible. These skills include the use of the following shooting stances:

* Single-handed point stance

* Modified isosceles two-handed stance

* Weaver stance.(26)

The choice of shooting stance depends on the circumstances of the event.

At ranges less than 3 yards when time is minimal, officers should use the single-handed point stance. The brain recognizes that there is not enough time to acquire the target with a two-handed grip; therefore, the officer extends the weapon, or punches it out, toward the target at stomach or chest height in a one-handed grip.

Officers should use the modified isosceles two-handed stance at ranges greater than 3 yards when time allows and greater accuracy is needed. With this stance, they grip the weapon in a two-handed hold and raise it to eye level. When startled, the body instinctively activates the sympathetic nervous system, forcing the head and shoulders to square on the target to obtain the maximum visual input. The arms automatically begin to bend at the elbows and assume an isosceles position, fitting the natural strength curve of the body. The dominant foot should be to the rear.

With adequate time, distance, and cover, such as in a barricaded shooting situation, officers can use the Weaver stance. Because it is a complex motor skill, this stance can only be used when survival stress has not fully activated the sympathetic nervous system.

Stimulus-Conditioned Response

For officers to survive deadly force encounters, their responses must demand a minimal outlay of physical or mental energy.(27) This quick response can be learned when training combines a stimulus - in the form of recognizing specific threats or threat cues - with a conditioned response.(28) Officers learn to respond automatically when the stimulus occurs. For example, upon recognizing the threat cues associated with a concealed weapon, officers might draw their weapons to engage the threat while moving to positions of cover and issuing verbal commands.

Tactical Breathing

Finally, officers can use tactical breathing to govern their survival responses. This technique helps them control their heart rates and avoid full activation of the sympathetic nervous system. By bringing more oxygen into their systems, they lower their heart rates, which improves perceptual abilities and reduces anxiety.(29)

During training, participants' heart rates should be monitored to provide feedback about their individual stress levels as they work through the dynamic simulations. This will help them recognize the onset of survival stress symptoms and employ stress management techniques.

Evaluation and Documentation

Participants' performances during dynamic training sessions should be evaluated and documented. A simple, impartial evaluation instrument that rates participants on the performance objectives serves three functions: It gauges the participants' learning, identifies remediation needs, and documents the instruction.

A practical rating instrument allows trainers to evaluate participants in critical skill areas quickly, uniformly, and impartially. A review of the ratings for the whole class might reveal topics that need to be addressed more thoroughly or in a different way. Trainers should give a copy of the completed rating instruments to the participants and place the originals in each participant's training file.

Videotaping all exercises provides additional feedback for participants. Showing an officer's performance on videotape eliminates complaints about the instructor's bias or misperception in rating and avoids the problem of denial if remediation becomes necessary. When officers see the mistakes they made, they can better correct the errors.

Agencies should keep detailed records of the instruction provided, including written rating instruments and videotapes of exercises. These records serve as documentation in case of a legal challenge to the effectiveness of the instruction. Well-maintained records also provide a wealth of information useful for revising and updating the training.


The primary goal of any law enforcement training is to increase officers' safety and effectiveness, for when they handle enforcement activities effectively, danger levels decrease. Proper training also reduces an agency's exposure to liability claims and expensive litigation. Clear policies that address the realities of deadly force encounters, instruction in survival physiology and survival stress management, and realistic, dynamic training exercises can improve officers' confidence levels and enhance their decision-making skills.

Law enforcement officers must make split-second life-or-death decisions. Agencies can demonstrate their concern for the rights of their citizens and the safety of their employees by preparing officers to make the best choices possible.


1 471 U.S. 1 (1985).

2 Exact source unknown. Author learned of the model during emergency services training provided by the 3902nd Security Police Squadron, Strategic Air Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Bellevue, NE, August 20, 1984.

3 Observed by the author on three different occasions with different participants during semiannual Simmunitions training conducted for the Douglas County, NE, Sheriff's Department, March-April, 1996.

4 Urey W. Patrick, Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness, FBI Academy Firearms Training Unit, Quantico, VA, 1989, 16.

5 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Deadly Force Policy: Instructional Outline. December 1, 1995.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 E. C. Poulton, "On Prediction in Skilled Movements," Psychological Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 6 (1957): 467-478.

9 B. K. Siddle, Sharpening the Warrior's Edge: The Psychology & Science of Training (Millstadt, IL: PPCT Research Publications. 1995), 121.

10 H. Breedlove and B. K. Siddle, "How Stress Affects Vision and Shooting Stances." Police Marksman, vol. 20, no. 3 (1995), 30-31.

11 W. E. Fairbairn and E. A. Sykes, Shooting to Live (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1987). 39.

12 B. J. Cratty, Movement Behavior and Motor Learning, 3d Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger, 1973), 207-213.

13 Supra note 8, 472.

14 Supra note 9, 61.

15 B. K. Siddle, Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, Specialized Training Course, Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center, Grand Island, NE, March 1996.

16 Observed by the author during semiannual Simmunitions training conducted for the Douglas County, Nebraska, Sheriff's Department, March-April, 1996.

17 Supra note 15.

18 Supra note 9, 85.

19 Supra note 9, 49.

20 Supra note 15.

21 Zuchel v. City of Denver, 997 F.2d 730 (10th Cir. 1993).

22 Supra note 9, 82.

23 Supra note 9, 102-104.

24 R. A. Schmidt, Motor Control and Learning (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1991), 90-105.

25 Supra note 9, 82.

26 W. White and B. K. Siddle, PPCT Defensive Tactics Instructor Manual: Series A (Millstadt, IL: PPCT Management Systems, 1989), 19.

27 Supra note 9, 119-121.

28 E. R. Guthrie, The Psychology of Learning (New York: Harper and Row, 1952), 23.

29 Supra note 9, 104-106.

Lieutenant Dean T. Olson commands the employee development division of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department in Omaha, Nebraska.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Olson, Dean T.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Feb 1, 1998
Previous Article:Managing sick and injured employees.
Next Article:Cyberschool: online law enforcement classes.

Related Articles
Deadly force in defense of life.
Use of deadly force to prevent escape.
Deadly force: a question of necessity.
FBI training on the new federal deadly force policy.
Integrated use-of-force training program.
Police use of nondeadly force to arrest.
Assessing the patterns of citizen resistance during arrests.
Reluctance to Use Deadly Force.
Deadly force.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters