Giving officers a tactical advantage

Developing a scenario-based training program: giving officers a tactical advantage

Michael D. Lynch

The nighttime darkness splinters with the rhythmic pulsing of red and blue strobe lights. The cruiser’s spotlights focus on the passenger compartment of a vehicle with three occupants. The driver watches the officer from the side mirror as he exits the patrol unit, but the passengers’ furtive movements cause the officer to pause. Having radioed his location to the dispatcher, he now requests any available backup and takes a new position, using his cruiser as cover. The officer tells the driver to turn off the ignition and drop the keys out of the driver’s side window. He complies. The officer then instructs him to stick both of his hands out of the window, open the door from the outside latch, and exit the vehicle. The driver, approximately 6′ 4″ in height and weighing nearly 300 pounds, obeys. The officer orders him to raise his hands above his head, which he does, but his jacket conceals his midsection. Next, the officer tells the driver to unzip his jacket with his left hand. As the driver does so, the officer notices the front passenger door starting to open and commands the passenger to close it and remain in the vehicle. The passenger complies. The officer unsnaps his holster and instructs the driver to slowly turn until he tells him to stop. The driver makes one complete revolution. Then, the officer directs him to use his left hand to lift the jacket away from his body and to continue to turn until ordered to stop. The driver obeys. The officer commands him to repeat the procedure with his right hand, which he does. The officer tells the driver to keep his hands in the air, to turn and face away from him, and to walk slowly backward toward the sound of his voice. Again, the driver obeys. At this point, the officer realizes that the driver has complied with all of his requests but has not said a word. The officer instructs him to stop and get down on his knees. The driver states that he has bad knees and will not comply. At this time, both doors of the vehicle suddenly open and the two passengers begin to exit the vehicle. The officer immediately changes his position, draws his service weapon, and orders all three men to keep their hands visible and get on the ground face down. The two passengers begin to comply, but the driver turns suddenly and confronts the officer with a knife drawn from his jacket sleeve. But, to his surprise, he finds that the officer is no longer where he thought he was standing. The cruiser’s lights still illuminate all three subjects, but the officer has tactically disengaged into the refuge of the darkness. The officer orders the driver to drop the knife, but he refuses and moves menacingly toward the direction of the officer’s voice. The officer fires three shots, fatally wounding him in the chest, and commands the two passengers to remain motionless on the ground. Moments later, backup officers arrive and take the two subjects into custody without further incident.


A search, incidental to arrest, results in removing several weapons from the passengers and the driver. The officers seize a large sum of money and a vast amount of various controlled substances from the vehicle. An interview with the two passengers discloses the plot. While complying with the officer’s orders, the driver would try to narrow the distance between them. When he got as close as he could, he would signal the passengers to get out of the vehicle by responding verbally to the officer. The plan was simple: minimize the distance, distract the officer, and then kill him.


This deadly charade plays almost nightly on the streets of America. In this case, the officer was lucky. But, can law enforcement officers always rely on luck to be with them to ensure their safe return home at the end of each shift? The question is not rhetorical. Rather, it reveals an abundantly clear need: officers must prepare for life-threatening events. That preparation involves scenario-based training because, as experienced officers know, the one with the best plan, along with a survival mind-set and a strong will to succeed, usually wins.


The world has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001. Now, more than ever, Americans have to consider the mind-set of the adversaries who have breached this nation’s borders. What are their ideologies? What are they trying to accomplish? What are their motivations? What are they willing to risk or sacrifice? Are this country’s law enforcement organizations willing to meet that level of risk or sacrifice to stop them? The view of law enforcement must change. The profession now must become more insightful, intuitive, and proactive in not only enforcing laws but also in preventing major critical events. This will require using all of the training, knowledge, skills, and abilities that it has acquired, as well as developing new strategies and techniques.

Scenario-based training is an amalgamation of knowledge and skills-based training. It incorporates psychomotor coordination and reinforces a survival mind-set in the student. Just as new officers cannot learn how to use a firearm in a classroom setting without practical shooting exercises on the range, they also cannot know how to handle a hostile, fast-paced situation without training in a realistic, dynamic setting.

Training always should be designed and developed to give officers the skills to successfully complete a task. General training, therefore, can be broad in scope, as in teaching criminal law. Rather than teaching all of the particular ways a specific crime is committed, the more effective means involves teaching the elements that constitute the crime. Then, officers can recognize those factors present in any given situation that show a crime occurred. The goal with scenario-based training is to give officers skills and abilities that they can use in any encounter.

Sadly, stories abound about officers in the field picking up their shell casings after discharging their firearms or firing two rounds and then immediately returning their weapons to their holsters. Why would officers do these things? Because they practiced that way. This bears witness to the fact that officers in the field will revert to their training, even though it may incorporate hazardous dynamics. With this in mind, officers must develop critical skills and abilities that will transfer into the field when called upon. Officers’ abilities to think, move, and react prove critical to their survival. Likewise, an evaluation mechanism is crucial for measuring the desired skills and abilities and identifying any undesirable actions. The evaluation always should incorporate a critique where students receive an objective, constructive summary of their performance.


The best place to start is at the end. This means listing all of the goals and objectives that students should meet by the end of the training and then working toward them. Defining training objectives at the beginning actually will lay the foundation of a scenario-based training program. Using the traffic stop from the beginning of this article as an example, the officer would have to have a base knowledge of motor vehicle and criminal law, handcuffing and mechanics of arrest, and use of force and the implementation of intermediate and deadly force weapons. The officer also would need to know how to identify warning signs, or “red-flag” behavior, and how to properly approach a stopped vehicle. Developing a training scenario with the example given would require establishing some basic objectives.

Officer Safety

The officer stopped his approach when he noticed the furtive movement and red-flag behavior of the vehicle’s passengers. His use of cover and concealment further enhanced his safety. This objective is paramount. Building officer’s cognitive skills, perceptions, and understanding of tactics and safety should become the foundation of any scenario-based training program.

Knowledge of Law

The officer had to have a basis or probable cause for the stop or other violations committed during it, as well as a knowledge of authority. Obviously, to enforce the law, officers must know the law. Scenarios should incorporate multiple events and violations to test officers’ abilities to discern which charges may apply.

Interpersonal Skills

The officer clearly communicated what he expected or wanted to happen by directing specific commands to the driver and passengers. Communication is critical, not only for conveying directions or commands but also for actively listening for responses. Officers’ abilities to hear and perceive threats and to verbally control and manage the scene constitute major factors. People usually “size up” officers by their abilities to vociferate and take command of a situation. This skill comprises a component of “officer presence.”

Subject Control

The officer controlled the situation through careful monitoring of the subjects’ actions and responses to his commands. The bottom line is that officers must have the skills and abilities to physically control or subdue an offender. Unfortunately, many of the methods and techniques employed in physically subduing and controlling a person require frequent practice and numerous repetitions. Handcuffing, for example, can cause problems for some officers. This is a daily activity for them; however, they can fall into bad habits without refresher training to hone their skills.

Use of Force

The officer used the appropriate force necessary to neutralize the threat posed by the driver and his passengers. Knowing what appropriate force level to use in a given situation becomes an issue of safety and liability. The general guideline is what is deemed reasonable. (1) Many law enforcement agencies adhere to the “plus one” theory of an officer going to the next higher level of force than that employed by the offender.

Officer Adaptability

The officer’s ability to shift from a stationary point of cover to a tactical concealment in the darkness allowed him to maintain control of the situation. This often comprises a difficult area to help officers improve in because it deals more with each person’s experiences and cognitive processes. Because scene dynamics rarely are static but more fluid in nature, officers must have the ability to “change gears” as circumstances fluctuate. As the number of variables and stimuli increase, many officers find themselves unable to adapt and, unfortunately, can become more susceptible to violent attacks. Scenario-based training provides an arena for officers to safely practice such encounters.

Policy and Procedures

The officer demonstrated the importance of following his agency’s policies and procedures by using emergency lights, radioing his location, and requesting backup assistance. Such actions usually are intended to protect officers and their agencies from liabilities. In the course of training, a scenario may develop not covered by a policy or procedure. If that occurs, creating one as a guide for officers to use in similar situations in the future can prove helpful.

Investigative Skills

The officer’s subsequent investigation and search after the initial confrontation provided the impetus for the incident. Evaluating this area can ensure that officers are not missing or overlooking valuable evidence not only through their observation skills but also via their abilities to interview and solicit the information needed.


Personnel Functions

The scenario-based training coordinator oversees the program, selects the facility or site, and prepares it for use. This person establishes the training goals and objectives, schedules the training, and ensures that the facilitators and role players have everything they need to complete the training. The coordinator evaluates student performance, the effectiveness of the facilitators and role players, and the overall value of the training program. If deficiencies occur within the program, the coordinator must reevaluate and develop scenarios that will meet the desired training objectives.

Facilitators, who report to the coordinator, control the scenarios and act as safety officers. If they determine that a scenario is becoming too volatile and the probability of an injury exists, then they must stop the training. They make sure that the training site is prepared and the role players understand the scenario’s goals, objectives, and parameters. In addition, they evaluate the performance of the role players and the students, as well as critique the students at the end of each scenario and rate their performances of the established training objectives.

Role players, who report to the facilitators, take on a persona as needed by the scenario and create a realistic training dynamic. They provide hands-on experience for the students and deliver situational aspects within the set parameters of the scenario. At the completion of the scenario, they constructively critique each student’s performance.

Site Preparation

One of the first considerations in selecting a training site is identifying safety issues. Poor lighting, exposed or malfunctioning electrical wires and appliances, loose debris, sharp corners, and other problems should be eliminated. The site should be equipped to meet the training needs. If funds exist, technological advances, such as cameras, monitors, and intercom systems, can help make the training more efficient. If the site also is used for other purposes, scheduling conflicts may arise, which will require attention.

Time Allocation

Time, because of its limits, must be managed carefully. Scenario setup time and turn-around time for the next one, which also includes the critique and reset time, must be factored into the program. The time required to execute a scenario will depend on its complexity and the number of variables. As with all physical training, breaks must be structured to limit the amount of downtime.

Evaluation Methods

Evaluations can be completed in many ways, but they always must be constructive. After all, students attend training to learn and know that they will make mistakes. Therefore, critiques and evaluations never should demean or malign them. Rather, students need to know where they performed poorly and also where they did well. The goal is to develop students to where they can evaluate their own performance and learn from their mistakes.

Each training objective should be evaluated as it relates to the specific scenario. The type of scale is not as important as the way it is used. Students should have their own individual evaluation sheet to track and document any areas where they need additional or remedial training. For example, a form with a field for each training objective using a rating scale of 1 to 5 (1 being poor, 3 being average, and 5 being outstanding or excellent) can work well. It also is important to solicit feedback from the students as to their views of the training program.


Before they can train students, facilitators and role players must receive adequate instruction. Facilitators should be seasoned law enforcement officers with experience in training. Role players can be law enforcement officers or civilians. If the agency or training site is near a college or university, the scenario-based training coordinator may opt to contact the drama department and solicit students to perform as role players. The main consideration in using nonlaw enforcement personnel for training is liability. Dynamic training involves certain inherent risks of injury, and role players must understand this. For civilian role players, a signed liability waiver may prove prudent.

Selecting the facilitators and role players will require considerable care as they will be directly responsible for the success or failure of the program. Both must thoroughly understand the safety issues and limit their actions to the desired scenario parameters. The role players specifically must not ad lib outside the boundaries of the scenario. Clearly designed training objectives for each scenario will help reinforce the training concept and ensure the program’s success.

Obviously, students, especially entry-level ones, cannot participate in a scenario without the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully complete the training. Student preparation is essential for both the success of a scenario-based training program and, more important, for an officer’s survival in an actual deadly encounter. Such prior training should include physical conditioning; motor vehicle and criminal law; laws concerning arrests, searches, and seizures; use of force; subject control and mechanics of arrest; defensive tactics; weapons handling; radio and communication procedures; and crime scene investigation.


A great deal of consideration must go into the design and development of the scenario. Just as with establishing the training goals and objectives, the best place to start is at the end: what to measure or evaluate at the completion of the scenario. Officer safety issues, use of verbal direction and command, scene control, handcuffing techniques, and weapon handling and safety must appear in the scenario.

The type of scenario could involve a traffic stop with a hostile driver, a domestic battery with an uncooperative victim, or possibly a drunk and disorderly subject who refuses to leave a bar; all can provide endless training situations. Determining the scene parameters allows for planning every aspect of the scenario. This includes role players having guidelines and exhibiting those characteristics that students should respond to by vociferation or physical actions. Role players set the stage of the scenario by establishing facts upon which the students will then have to determine what action, if any, to take.

Scenarios can vary from basic and direct to detailed and elaborate. The important thing to keep in mind is what students should accomplish. The whole purpose of scenario-based training is to subject students to real-life situations in a controlled environment where they can learn. After all, lessons learned on the street often prove much more costly, possibly involving an officer’s life.


Obviously, a training program will require certain resources. Scenario-based training, however, can employ many of those that agencies already possess. The training area or facility represents a key element because it must allow for the creation of a realistic training environment. One cost-effective possibility is using a mobile home, possibly one seized as part of a drug forfeiture.

Other resources include training props and materials (e.g., household furnishings, training weapons and vehicles, protective clothing, first-aid kits, and two-way radios) and trained personnel. If possible, agencies can allocate a portion of their training funds for a scenario-based program and acquire training props and materials over time. In addition, law enforcement grants can offer an alternative solution to funding issues.


In today’s world of terrorism, law enforcement officers face many new threats that their training may not have covered. To counter this, scenario-based training offers realistic situations that officers can use to hone their skills and learn new techniques.

Developing a successful scenario-based training program requires establishing firm training goals and objectives that provide officers with skills they can use to complete their tasks effectively and safely. Creating scenarios that incorporate these goals and objectives can allow officers to practice a variety of enforcement techniques and strategies in a safe environment. Such realistic training will give officers a tactical advantage when they face the rigors of enforcing the law, safeguarding the public they serve, and, most important, protecting themselves from those intent on doing them harm.


(1) For additional information, see Thomas D. Petrowski, “Use-of-Force Policies and Training” (Parts One and Two), FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2002, 25-32, and November 2002, 24-32.


* Employ safe props and training weapons; no live-fire weapons or munitions

* Define levels of role player resistance or aggression

* Use protective equipment

* Remove jewelry and other impediments

* Check site for hazards

* Post signs to designate training areas

* Have first-aid kits readily available

RELATED ARTICLE: Checklist for Developing a Scenario

Type of Scenario

* Area to be used

* Number of role players and facilitators needed

* Number of students to participate

* Props and other needed materials

* Time allotted per scenario

* Variables involved

Nature of Call

* Probable cause for arrest

* Demeanor of role player

* Level of resistance or aggression by the role player

* Specific dialogue

Parameters to Establish

* Define the training objectives

* Predetermine the desired results

* Select methods of evaluations

Sergeant Lynch is the curriculum coordinator and an instructor at the West Virginia State Police Academy in Charleston.

Sergeant Lynch presented an excerpt from this article at the Future of Law Enforcement Safety Training in the Face of Terrorism conference detailed in the September 2005 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group