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The importance of use of force training for police officers

A police officer in front of a brightly colored background.

The importance of use of force training for police officers

There’s no way around it: Use of force is complicated. It is the aspect of policing that is both the least likely and the most scrutinized, and it can have devastating consequences for officers and the community alike. 

According to the United States Bureau of Justice statistics, of the 61.5 million people who interacted with police in 2018, only 2% experienced the use of force, and yet we know from experience that those interactions will be the most likely to be shared, publicized and scrutinized. And in extreme cases, they can result in tragic outcomes.

Training for this eventuality is patchwork at best. There are few comprehensive guidelines across departments, even within the same state. Recently, the state of Connecticut mandated the first state-wide use of force training directive for all of its approximately 8,000 police officers. The objective is to reduce use of force incidents, provide a single set of working policies and guidelines for every officer in the state and address the lack of a cohesive, state-wide directive on the use of force. The four-hour training program focuses on de-escalation and empathy, requiring that officers exhaust reasonable alternatives to the use of deadly force and avoid injury to third parties.

As more departments roll out programs like Connecticut’s, it’s important to put use of force training in context and examine some of the best practices that will ensure better community outcomes. 

Learn more about police officer training with Axon's Law enforcement training: The complete guide.

What is use of force?

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, use of force is the amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject. Use of force describes a variety of methods at police disposal for compelling compliance, up to and including deadly force. 

In the wake of recent highly publicized use of force incidents, there is heightened scrutiny of law enforcement use of force. At the same time, an increase in availability and appreciation for more effective use of force training methods has demonstrated that departments can do more to protect officers and arm them with effective techniques for force avoidance.

Use of force training

Traditionally, the U.S. has had no national standard for use of force training for law enforcement officers in spite of the fact that use of force incidents are among the most stressful and complicated situations an officer may experience. 

No two encounters are the same. Officers must respond “in the moment” to a threatening situation, and often the amount of training that officer has received will determine the outcome. This highlights the imperative to equip officers with both the tools to deal with potentially threatening encounters safely and the wherewithal to know the difference between a situation that can be defused and the justified use of force.

De-escalation techniques

De-escalation means reducing the level of intensity of an encounter and bringing a standoff to a peaceful end without the use of force. This can be accomplished in a number of ways and can dramatically reduce the number of use-of-force incidents, complaints against officers and injuries suffered in the line of duty. 

Some essential de-escalation techniques include:

  • Slowing down: Not every situation calls for an immediate reaction. Sometimes it’s better to back away, give a subject space and re-evaluate the situation before acting.

  • Active listening: Instead of waiting for your turn to speak, or coming into a conversation with an objective in mind, actually listen to what a person is saying to you. You might be surprised how often being actively heard will calm a person down. Sometimes angry people just want to be listened to. 

  • Nonverbal communication: Keep in mind the picture you are presenting to the other person. If you are tense, with your hand near your firearm, that sends a signal to the other person that you are ready to act aggressively, and they may respond in kind. You can actively de-escalate a situation by appearing relaxed with your hands at rest.  

  • Isolation: Removing a subject from a crowd can help distract from a stressful situation or remove any peer or group pressure to respond aggressively.

Use of force training with Axon VR

Given the potential perils of use of force, and the need for effective training, law enforcement agencies can utilize modern technology to provide officers with realistic and safe use of force training alternatives. Using VR modules, officers are able to train for dangerous situations in a safe environment, learning effective techniques before a use-of-force situation arises. 

Officers who train in VR have the freedom to make mistakes without causing harm to themselves or others. VR also helps officers experience the full immersion of a scenario and details that might get lost in other methods of training; true-to-life virtual environments induce stress comparable to what officers experience in the field.

Community Engagement Training modules can take VR training a step further by putting trainees in the shoes of individuals in crisis, so that they can better understand what it is like to suffer from a mental health episode or experience extreme stress. This can help engender empathy and give officers new tools to use when dealing with community members in distress.

Axon can help

Effective training builds confidence, creates knowledge and helps ensure better community outcomes. As technology evolves, so does Axon Training, a powerful tool to help law enforcement professionals succeed. For more information about how Axon can help with use of force or other law enforcement training, contact us.