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When it comes to deciding to use deadly force, is will more important than skill? We’ve all seen the dash-cam videos available on BluTube, YouTube, or “Insert-Cool-Name-Here” Tube. Many of these real-life video clips are pure entertainment; i.e, the drunk that gets Tasered five times because he won’t comply and surrender.

If we sort through all the trash we can indeed find actual recorded traffic stops and other “in progress” calls that have training value. Some of the training value is positive as in “see that worked well” and others are a form a negative reinforcement, “don’t ever do that!”

On the dark side, the moment in-car video recording began we knew that at some point what the camera recorded would end up as part of a post-mortem investigation. Sooner or later a cop would get killed and the entire scene would be caught on the dash-cam. No doubt it’s pretty damn morbid.


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From an emotionless, analytical standpoint, it is critical to determine what mistakes an officer made that contributed to his/her untimely death. Sometimes no mistakes were made. You can do everything right and still bite it. Those cases, nonetheless, are truly rare. Most often when an officer is killed or injured severely, there were one or more tactical mistakes made that gave the bad guy(s) the upper hand.

Programs and Training

A Small Arms and Tactics program, which I’ve instructed, has three days worth of Judgment-based Engagement Training. We utilize the FATS system as well as “Simunitions” converted rifles and pistols for “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” training.

On Day 1 of JET training (you knew a cool acronym had to be involved), we show the students a dash-cam video that involved a deputy who was murdered during a traffic stop. I cringed each time I watched. Despite numerous hostility indicators, the deputy allowed the man to challenge him, retrieve a rifle from behind his truck seat, load said rifle, and kill the officer.

By the time the officer made the decision to shoot, his attacker had a huge tactical advantage. The attacker, a Vietnam-era veteran, was committed to the assault and was operating on his own terms. The murder weapon was a Ruger Mini-14 in .223 Remington, a tremendously more powerful cartridge than the officer’s .40 S&W pistol.

During our class, we take time to discuss and dissect the incident. Rather than second guess the deceased officer, we have the students consider what went wrong, and more importantly, when the incident reached the point of no return. That is, when did it change from a “routine” traffic stop to a deadly force situation?

Will

When I was much younger, yes I was young once, I read a report in a martial arts magazine about a man who was killed, stabbed to death, by a street hood. The reason this was mentioned in an M.A. periodical was because the man in question was a Black Belt instructor in some form of Karate.

At the time I was just a teenager with perhaps six months of martial arts training under my belt. When you are a low ranking kid, white, yellow, blue belt, you look up to the black belts as invincible demigods.

Police Dashcam“How could that happen?” My young brain pondered. How could a Black Belt be killed by some punk? Well, how could a fully trained and certified police officer be killed by a man twenty-five years his elder?

When you cut through all of the minute details, it comes down to one distinct and ever so important factor; Will. That is, the will to immediately do what is necessary to not only survive but destroy your attacker. The Black Belt murder took place more than twenty years ago and I can only speculate how it went down. However, the deputy’s murder was recorded for all to see.

How It Happened

The officer got caught up in the broken-record syndrome or for you younger folks, he was stuck in a verbal loop. The officer kept yelling “show me your hands” and “drop the gun” over and over again, ad nauseam.

While the cop was stuck in verbal loop mode, the killer went about deliberately retrieving, loading, and firing his rifle. The killer had made the decision to act and was totally committed to it. From watching the tape, it was obvious that the officer was not committed or committed far too late. The killer had the will to carry through with his intended plan.

Those on the outside; non-cops and non-gun people would wonder at this situation. Wasn’t the deputy trained? Of course he was. I’ll guarantee you he went through a State-approved academy and was current on his firearms qualification. Hell, for all we know he might have been a great shot on the range with his service pistol. I feel confident that he had demonstrated the required skills to be out on the road.

That’s the real rub, isn’t it? The cop with demonstrable skill was nonetheless murdered. Yes, the killer obviously had some skill with a weapon. There is no doubt about that. But skill wasn’t the deciding factor in this encounter, it was will. While I don’t want to sound like Dr. Seuss here, skill doesn’t matter without will.

The Skill and the Will

Image Credit: Full Metal JacketHow do we instill in someone the will to do what is necessary? From the most serious of perspectives, how do we teach them to apply deadly force without hesitation? This is probably a good time for politically concerned Chiefs and Sheriff’s to look away.

Yes, will is more important than skill. However, combine the will with a high level of skill and you have something tangible. First and foremost we must understand or admit that a firearms qualification is not training. A Qual. course is simply a practical exam to determine if you have mastered the required physical skills.

That’s not Paul Markel talking out of his sphincter; the U.S. Supreme Court has held that qualification courses are not a substitute for training. Officers must be trained to deal with situations they are likely to encounter in their job. These include low-light situations, shoot/don’t shoot scenarios (judgment-based training), multiple target/attackers, emergency driving, etc.

Force On Force

Force on Force scenario training is not just some cool novelty, it is an absolute must if we genuinely hope to prepare officers for the rapidly evolving, hyper-violent encounters they will likely face out there.

Too often the FATS trainer is seen as a neat novelty item that officers are put through once. Force on Force scenarios with role-players involve a lot of time and logistics and therefore are difficult to put together.

I’ve attended private training academies with veteran officers whose first real FOF was during that school. They’ve been on the road five, ten, fifteen years but never had the opportunity to get serious Shoot/Don’t Shoot training. In my mind that is not only negligent, it’s criminal.

It is during FATS or FOF training that each officer will experience their own personal epiphany. They’ve been taught the Tueller Drill or had “action vs. reaction” explained to them. However, it is not until they experience it for themselves that they realize just how fluid and dynamic violent encounters are. They realize that hesitation will indeed get them killed.

Parting Thoughts

When it comes down to it, the simple fact is that the will to win, to defeat the enemy, is more important that simply having the skill. I won’t bore you with “dog in the fight” clichés by now you should get the point. The question is a very personal one that only you can answer. You’ve spent years acquiring the skill you need, do you have the will to apply it?

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Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

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