Training Mind and Muscle: How Police Officers Learn to Handle Crises

Hattie Bernstein

Act I Scene I

After the Game
The bleachers at the high school ice arena are empty, except for one section where a couple sits waiting, their faces knotted with worry. “Do you think we should ask someone to find out what’s taking him so long?” the woman asks the man. Their son is the goalie for his high school hockey team, and they’ve just lost the championship. When the game was over, the boy rushed off the ice ahead of his teammates.

Alone in the locker room, he chokes back tears he feels too grown up to cry. A loser like him would be better off dead, he thinks. So would his family and friends. He grabs the knife he’d been carrying in his backpack and cuts into his wrist, unleashing a dark river that spills onto his lap and the floor. He takes another cut, oblivious it seems, to the spurting blood, or the pain.

Outside, his coach has found his parents, still sitting uneasily in their bleacher seats. “Don’t worry,” the coach says. “I’ll find Kevin. He’s probably still getting cleaned up.”

The next few minutes are a blur: the coach enters the empty visitors’ locker room and finds the boy slumped in a chair and bleeding heavily. He makes a panicked call to 9-1-1 on his cell phone and rushes back to the parents, motioning for them to follow him. When the police arrive, they are greeted by three hysterical adults. “Help him! Help him! The kid’s going to die!”

In real life, neither the police officers nor the teenager would have had a second chance. But this is training, a program with the descriptive but opaque title of “Interactive Use of Force” and the shortened moniker “Sims,” for Simuntions, the trade name for the fake guns, fake bullets, fake blood, protective gear, and other props used to train police officers to respond to sudden, lethal dangers.

The goal of the training is to leave each officer with the “muscle memory” of success, a bodily confidence that translates into quick and effective action. It doesn’t matter how many times it takes to get the scenario right, and there is absolutely no shame in repeating a scene several times. Since the program, offered by the military and big city police departments for years, was started by the New Hampshire Local Government Center in the mid-1990s, hundreds of New Hampshire police officers have completed it.

“I really saw the benefit and the payoff,” says Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier, a police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s, where Simunitions training was routine. “Training has to be a big part of it.”

An enthusiastic supporter of LGC’s Interactive Use of Force program, Cormier says the New Hampshire program is unique. “We’re lucky to have a program like this in New Hampshire,” he says. “I attended an FBI Academy last year and was talking to police chiefs from other states about it, and they said, ‘New Hampshire does that?’”

Several of Cormier’s police officers attended the recent LGC “Sims” training held at the Tilton School where trainer Sgt. Rick Tyler of the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department began with a friendly briefing.  “Nobody’s an expert here. We’ll tell you about our mistakes so you don’t have to repeat them,” Tyler told a group of officers. “We hope you go through these exercises and not have to fire a shot.”

Act I Scene II

Exposure to Blood Can Be as Lethal as a Bullet to the Head
In the first scene, the two police officers responding to the call convince the teenager to drop his knife and let them help him. But they waste precious time dealing with the parents and coach, and there’s so much commotion that the officers forget to pull on protective gloves. Had this been a real situation, the officers would have put themselves at risk, unnecessarily. Blood carries pathogens that can be as lethal as a bullet to the head.

Sgt. Tyler, who is dressed in bulky protective gear, including an orange and yellow vest with the word “Police” emblazoned in square black letters on the front, sounds a single blow of his whistle to announce the end of the drama. In the locker room, at a bank of sinks near the toilets, he gathers the players, two local police officers and LGC Member Relations Assistant Manager Kevin Flanagan who has been role-playing the teenager. Tyler asks the officers about gloves. Were they carrying them? Did they think about using them? Despite the chaos, there was time to put them on, he points out.  He offers the officers paper towels dabbed with rubbing alcohol and instructs them to clean their hands. Small, superficial cuts are portals for germs and will sting when the alcohol is applied. “You can have one guy gloving up while the other one gets control of the situation,” he says. “Give good verbals and people will comply.”

Tyler is a former assistant commander for the Central New Hampshire Special Operations Unit, and he’s been a firearms instructor for years, teaching police officers how to use revolvers, pistols, rifles, shotguns, and machine pistols. He has also taught classes on Tasers and the ASP baton. He’s modest about his background, however, and eager to give his students the credit. “We’ll go over some scenes and show you what seems to be safest for everybody,” he says. “Our job is to make it safer for you guys.”

Today’s session is one of roughly 14 that will be held across New Hampshire this year to help police officers at every level, from rookie to veteran, boost their skills and confidence in situations that could turn suddenly lethal. The classes are offered by LGC to police departments with coverage through LGC’s Property-Liability Trust, one of a number of programs LGC runs for member groups to reduce risks and lower claims for its coverage products. When “push comes to shove,” says Scott Weden, Manager of LGC’s Health and Safety Department and a former New Hampshire police and fire chief, the training kicks in. Indeed, success is the product of repetition, positive reinforcement, and reflection: no one is allowed to leave without experiencing victory.

“I had the exact same situation,” says one of the officers during the huddle with Tyler, describing how he responded to a suicidal subject who was cutting himself. “I was by myself and I kept a calm demeanor. My gun was out, but I had it by my side. … I didn’t want to escalate it by pointing the gun. I talked to him and he dropped the knife and we walked out.”

Act I Scene III

When You Hear the Double Whistle, it Means ‘Begin’
The actors return to their places, Flanagan sitting on the chair set on a blue tarpaulin in the middle of the empty locker room, and the police waiting in the wings, just outside the door. This scene is a repeat of the previous one: the teenage boy sits cutting himself; the coach panics when he finds the boy bleeding; the police arrive within minutes. But this time, the officers order the parents and coach to leave the locker room, a direct command issued as they are approaching.

In seconds, the officers have slipped on their thin, rubber gloves and wrested the knife out of the boy’s hand. They use eye contact and conversation to keep communication open and the mood calm. The strategy works.

During the second locker room huddle, Tyler continues to talk about blood and disease. Blood carries HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, he says. Hepatitis B, which is also blood-borne, stays active outside the body for up to seven days, while Hepatitis C, contracted through exposure to blood, is common among IV drug users, and another lethal threat. “If you walk on blood with your boots, then go home and walk on the carpet, and you have a child playing on the floor, you put your child at risk,” Tyler tells the officers. “Or if you get into the cruiser with blood on your boots and the next guy to drive the car goes home with blood on his boots, he’s potentially exposed.”

The scene and lecture concluded, Tyler dismisses the actors, but not before complimenting them on their performance.

Act II Scene I

Good Instincts Save the Day
This drama begins as a routine call from dispatch: a 9-1-1 hang up has come in from the local VFW hall, and an officer is dispatched to check it out. It’s not likely to be anything serious, the officer tells himself. He handles these hang ups so often, in fact, that he’s tempted to dismiss the call as just another prank. But as he parks his cruiser and opens the door, a man rushes out of the building, pointing his blue plastic gun and screaming. “Get the BLANK out of here or I’ll kill you.” (The bad guy is being played by LGC Health and Safety Advisor Ron O’Keefe, a former New Hampshire fire chief.)

The officer, who has no time to think, backs around his car as the bad guy opens fire. For an instant, he takes his eye off O’Keefe, who looks the part with a black raincoat, a day’s growth of beard, and a crazed expression. When the scenario is over, instructor Butch Burbank will remark on the officer’s millisecond of inattention, pointing out how much it could have cost him.

When the shooting is over, the officer and his trainer examine the officer’s shirtsleeves and vest for bullet marks. He has sustained a number of shots, all superficial, and doesn’t have to repeat the scene.

“Your instincts are great,” Burbank tells the young officer as the two inspect the remnants of detergent-filled projectiles that traveled 300 feet per second from the bad guy’s gun to the officer’s protective clothing.

Burbank, a 27-year veteran of New Hampshire Law Enforcement and the Waterville Valley Public Safety department, joined LGC in 2005 as a Risk Management Representative and has been running the Sims program ever since. He says this role-playing is more complicated than it seems: at first glance, Interactive Use of Force Training looks like a robust game of cops and robbers, but it soon becomes apparent that a police officer’s response to a sudden threat requires not only physical skill, but also emotional intelligence. In most crises, Burbank says, an officer will have fewer than ten seconds to make critical, life-or-death decisions.

It doesn’t matter how many years an officer has been working in the field, either. “They get a little at the academy. But there’s nowhere else unless your department has a Simunitions instructor,” Burbank says.

In New Hampshire, however, most towns and their police departments are too small to have such programs. Indeed, some towns are so small they can’t afford their own police department and must contract with neighboring communities for police protection. Other towns with small departments depend on mutual aid agreements, sometimes across state lines.

LGC Health and Safety Department Manager Scott Weden, a former Holderness police chief and Ashland fire chief, estimates that 100 police departments and almost 2,000 police officers from across the state have participated in Interactive Use of Force Training since he started LGC’s program in the mid-1990s. The training is based on situations that some New Hampshire police officers have already faced and many more are likely to deal with in the future, Weden says, stressing that scenarios are developed from real life, not television or the movies. “Whether they’ve been on the job a year, five years, ten years, 15 years, it’s something they need to continuously train on to maintain competency,” he says.

Hattie Bernstein is the Communications Specialist for the New Hampshire Local Government Center. You can reach her at 800.852.3358, ext. 3342, or hbernstein@nhlgc.org.