Scenario Role-Player Safety—Is it Time to Think About it?

Scenario-based training and Force-on-Force drills within law enforcement training is, without question, the most effective training that personnel can receive—that is, if it is conducted in a manner that lends itself to increasing the decision-making skills of the individual.  There is a prevailing attitude that these exercises are “reality-based” and should be run “at street speed” in order to have any value.  Officers are generally instructed to “Handle it like you would on the street,” and they do.  The officers shoot the suspect role-player when they would, they take them down on the ground like they do on the street, and they generally respond with force against the role-player as they might on the street—with full power strikes.  However, this is not the street and the suspect role-player is not a suspect. 

Police force methods are, fundamentally, violent.  This violence, governed by law and policy and acted upon in the name of the People, must be objectively reasonable based on the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time.  And reasonable force causes injuries, sometimes severe injury, and even death to suspects.  The problem is, there are no “suspects” involved in criminal resistance or assault in the training exercise area.  There are only police instructors inside protective clothing or wearing impact suits (e.g., High Gear, FIST suits, Red Man Gear, etc.) who are playing a role for the benefit of the officer.  Asking an officer to respond with force “the way you would on the street” in this environment against these individuals is irresponsible and should not be acceptable in training.  Far too often, this type of training is conducted more like a “Fight Club” than a professional skill development exercise.

Serious injuries are common to the instructors acting as the suspect-role-player.  Getting into “protective impact suits,” these valuable and experienced instructors can be exposed to a dozen—and sometimes, up to twenty—high intensity defense scenarios over a short period of time—and sometimes up to four hours.  They get fatigued, beat up, and dehydrated during these training sessions.  It may take years of training evolutions before any single individual is finally injured and requires hospitalization, but every role-player who is involved in full-contact training is eventually badly injured, commonly suffering repetitive brain injuries, joint injuries requiring surgical repair, and/or broken bones.  If exposed to this level of intense violence as a role-player, severe injury is inevitable and a mathematical certainty.

  • ITEM:  During a defensive tactics scenario, the “suspect” role-player wearing a FIST suit, is bodily lifted, turned head down, and is shoved through the drywall between the wall studs, then released, falling to the ground, striking his head and neck.  Result:  Chronic pain and limited range of motion to the role-player’s neck.
  • ITEM:  During “multiple officer takedown” training, a highly athletic, extremely large and muscular “suspect” role-player in a High-Gear suit, is resisting being taken down by three officer-role-players in an academy who are desperately working to get this “monster” into custody.  During this unscripted and extended event, one of the officer-role-players, a former professional “Strong Man” competitor, knees the “suspect’s” leg.  Result:  The role-player’s patellar tendon is completely severed, leading to the 37-year old instructor’s forced retirement from law enforcement.  Because the injury occurred at the academy, it was determined the injury was not an “on-duty” injury.
  • ITEM:  A suspect-role-player in a High-Gear suit on a traffic stop scenario is obstructing the officer, and is properly sprayed with inert OC spray (water).  The “arresting officer” then grabs the officer and performs a violent takedown on the suspect-role-player, causing both to fall heavily to the asphalt.  Result:  the “officer” fell on the role-player’s elbow, dislocating and breaking the joint, requiring surgery and several months of rehab with the officer on light duty.
  • ITEM:  In an Active Shooter scenario, the suspect-role-player has been shot several times with Simunition FX marking cartridges and is going down to the ground.  One officer-role-player, a part-time SWAT officer, from a distance of four feet, begins firing rapidly at the “suspect’s” head, and then makes a “contact shot” with an AR15 to the suspect’s back as he is on the ground.  Result:  The role-player is hit in the neck with a round that penetrates his skin, and the contact shot penetrates the padded heavy canvas jacket he is wearing.
  • ITEM:  A suspect-role-player in a ground defense situation is repeatedly elbowed in the head with full power strikes by a much larger “officer” before safety personnel are able to intervene.  Result:  A severe concussion leading to a several weeks off work.

Brain injuries, dislocations, broken bones, being shot in unprotected areas (including the face) at close range by FX cartridges.  Each of these injuries can be career-ending, life-long chronic injuries to these valuable personnel.  Beyond the personal price these individuals pay in limited physical activities and pain, what is the cost to the agency in losing these valuable people?  These individuals’ training and experience cannot be duplicated without years of intensive development, yet these instructors are treated as if they are both indestructible (because they are wearing an impact suit) and disposable (using an asset as expensive and valuable as these individuals in an exercise where serious injury is eventually guaranteed).

Instructor Vulnerabilities to Injury Within the Scenario   

The instructors who offer up their bodies and their health to the officers they teach do so in the belief that they are preparing the officers for the realities of the violence they face.  Regardless of the protective system the instructor dons, he or she is still faced with the reality of being the “human inside the suit.”

The term, “protective gear,” “impact suit,” and other nomenclature is misleading.  While all of the common protective systems found in scenario-training will more or less protect the body and head from inadvertent contact, it cannot protect against:

Brain injury.  The helmet with incorporated face shield protects the face from being severely injured, bruised, and lacerated by blows from fists, elbows, knees, batons, and training cartridges fired at the head.  However, it does nothing to protect the brain from the cranial vault being accelerated, concussing the brain.  The rotational forces caused by a well-delivered strike that dramatically affect the brain’s health (resulting in a coup/contracoup injury) are unaffected by the helmet.  While a particular type of head protection may slightly decrease the likelihood of concussion, none can protect the instructor’s brain from full force strikes to the face or head.  

Joint injuries.  Even the heaviest of the impact suits, the FIST, cannot prevent severe, debilitating knee, elbow, and shoulder injuries caused by hyper-extension or over rotation.  Officers participating in full-contact training lose their balance; disbalanced human beings fall, and can and do fall through knee and elbow joints, creating lifelong injuries. 

Spinal injuries.  Being repeatedly combatively “thrown” to the ground (rather than being taken down) or thrown into objects eventually leads to serious impact injuries.  Being thrown to the ground and having the bodyweight of the also falling officer applied through to a twisted spine or while in an awkward position leads to lifelong back pain and possibly debilitating injury.  Neck injuries also fall into this category and are commonly seen when multiple officers are working against a resisting role-player.  Strikes to the helmeted head can also contribute to the neck injuries.

Student Mind-Set:  Part of the Problem

When faced with another officer who is dressed in an impact suit (F.I.S.T., High-Gear, or Red-Man), many officers believe that it signals a “green light, weapons free” situation where they are free to act with impunity with maximum force against the “armored” instructor.  “I react like I do on the street,” is commonly heard as their justification for any type of force or intensity directed at the armored role-player.  And they do, with full-powered strikes and sometimes vicious throws.  If the truth be told, sometimes these strikes and throws are even more ruthless than they might be on the street because there is certain knowledge the suspect-role-player will not injure them and there is no accountability as there will be following a force response against a suspect, with reports, citizen complaints, internal affairs investigations, and civil liability all possible—these very few officers, unlike the vast majority of officers, now have the opportunity to “tee off” on the padded instructor without repercussions.

To a great degree, it is understandable that officers confuse the bulky, heavily padded impact suits with imparting an invincibility to the instructor;  they look formidable and well protected.  If they have never been inside the suit and taken the full-power strike or have been recklessly thrown to the ground or into something, nothing in their experience would tell them that their fellow officer, the instructor acting as a role-player for their benefit, is taking cumulative injuries and may suffer profound, life-changing and limiting disabilities as a result of full contact combatives.  Almost all would cringe in self-recrimination if they understood how much their instructors pay for the officers’ training in pain and injuries.  And almost universally, these officers are dismayed when their actions result in severe injury to role-players.

Instructor Role-Player Mind-Set:  Part of the Problem

Instructors who put on the impact suit (the second time) and are repeatedly pummeled, thrown, or shot at close range with FX cartridges tend to be tough guys.  Tough guys, as a rule, disregard high levels of pain, suck up minor injuries, and stoically face serious injuries.  If asked about concerns of potential injury, they deny them, believing they are sufficiently skilled, padded, and possibly lucky enough to escape serious injury.

They also have their experience working against them—“I’ve never really been injured before and I’ve been through some intense training fights.”  Whether the injury is cumulative resulting from multiple events per training over years, or the result of a single blow or mistake (a fall or trip), the human body cannot be expected to emerge unscathed from full-contact training.  The problem with finding one’s limits to the punishment a body can sustain, is that the limits must be exceeded in order to determine where they are.  It is when limits are exceeded that the human body is severely damaged and must be repaired by surgery if possible, time, and rest if, indeed, it can be repaired at all.

Because they are tough guys, these instructors tend to get “back into the saddle” following a severe injury, surgery, and rehabilitation.  It is not unusual to find long time instructors who have had trauma-caused dental repair, multiple knee and elbow surgeries, and back and neck problems, including surgeries.  As they age, they tend to accumulate injuries similar to that of professional MMA fighters and NFL football players.

Is the Current Status Quo Providing Effective Training?

Officers require a degree of exposure to high-intensity combatives training in order to make better decisions within a force environment and gain expertise pre-event, something few would argue over.  The idea that all training should have “zero-injury” potential is not practical nor even desirable—even classroom training has seen injuries to participants through trip incidents and students falling off chairs.  Combatives training, from live-fire to mat work, carries with it some degree of risk.  The current widespread practice of unscripted, full-contact, high-intensity training in padded impact suits is a direct result of this belief.  Many are sacrificed in this activity in the pursuit of “effective training.”

The question that is really on the table but no one wants to talk about is, “What is effective training when it comes to exposing officers to high-intensity combatives?”

The definition of “training” is the creation of standardized behavior.  During these full-contact, unscripted events, what is the specific standardized behavior being sought and created by the training iteration?  It is demonstrable and repeatable that prolonged, unscripted events do not result in a trained response by officers–they mostly resemble schoolyard fights.  If it is simply “The will to win,” is that really being developed or just demonstrated?  Instead, this type of training results in what could loosely be called a “fight” with little training value

  • ITEM:  A police sergeant attended an 80-hour ground fighting “Train-the-Trainer” course at a very large agency that had adopted a famous martial arts family’s program.  After attending a 5-day, 40-hour “user class,” and 39 1/2 hours of the “Instructor’s training class,” he sat out the last exercise due to a fresh injury.  The class was instructed to go at each other “hard while keeping injuries down,” and apply what they had learned.  The sergeant, observing the class of 30 instructors working “at speed” and with great effort, observed no trained techniques or methods during the total of 15 man-hours of total exercise time he witnessed.  His conclusion:  the class and the training was worthless–if an 80-hour intensive training failed to produce one trained application of what they had learned among 30 instructors, then no behavior had been changed, and therefore no training had taken place.  He went back and reported to his administration that while he had “fun” at the class, he deemed it a waste of his time to train his officers in this system.

These fights rarely result in anything resembling a trained force response, and generally do not resemble a police fight where police solutions are available to the officer.  What is the training value in this expenditure of police training resources?  Some will say that officers can “experience” a “fight” and so get more accustomed to the fluid events and changing violent circumstances.  While this may be valuable (and is, in my opinion) for an academy program within the first two weeks of a recruit’s training–where a career ending injury involves less cost to both the agency and the officer–the training value is almost zero for a veteran officer given the high risk of injury and the lack of a specific trained behavioral changes that training should engender.  Training should focus in how to make combatives decisions and giving the officer repeated “looks” at certain circumstances so that orientation may more quickly take place.  Because the situation has become sufficiently familiar, it precipitates an in-time, on-time reasonable force response.  This creates a trained trip-wire response to those conditions as a result. 

Training is not, and should not be conducted in the spirit of a Fight Club, where two combatants grind it out to prove who is tougher.  Even “sparring” in professional boxing is not two guys just slugging it out.  The sparring partner is instructed to give the boxer specific keys, looks, and moves the trainer wants the boxer to react to within the context of an opposing fighter’s actions.  Once the boxer is sufficiently schooled in a recognizing and reacting to a specific set of circumstances, the sparring begins and the context is presented over and over within the sparring session until the boxer is competent in his response to the given threat cues and actions of the opposing fighter.  Then the sparring changes to give him different cues to which the trainer wants him programmed. 

Until the agency’s training staff develops a plan on what they believe their officers need to be able to recognize and competently respond to, brief the officers in classroom presentations, have them practice, drill in Force-on-Force (partner repeatedly demonstrates a threat cue or position to which the officer responds) to a level of individual competency, there is no reason to put on impact suits and slam each other around because the preliminary foundation of the training has not yet taken place.  Without a standard of behavior that is being changed or reinforced, training is not occurring and injuries are being risked for nothing other than the effort of doing something that may be fun. 

Are There Solutions to Injuries? 

The goal should be to reduce avoidable injuries while maintaining training coherence and effectiveness.  In order to achieve this, the following training and policy suggestions should be implemented:

Change the concept of Scenario Training.  As a testing mechanism of the officer’s orientation to threat cues and the officer’s reaction based on training, scenario-based training has no peer.  Scenarios are intended to test an officer’s decision-making, not their fighting ability.  Effective scenario training is not a Fight Club where officers are expected to prove their fighting prowess.  Unscripted “fights” between two or more officers will eventually lead to unscripted serious or even catastrophic injuries to any or all of the participants, sometimes with monotonous regularity.  Scenarios, because they are about an officer’s decision-making, should be halted when the officer makes the decision to go hands on, take the suspect down, employ a Taser, resort to a baton, etc.  From this point, training can move to the training floor where the defensive tactics, takedowns, batons, etc., may be practiced.

Recognize that all training is fake.  Tony Blauer once said that all training is fake, but it is our job to make it as real as possible.  “Real” does not mean full power, full-contact, focused blows on a live training partner.  “Real” means high-intensity, time-compressed decision-making, transitioning quickly from one to another intensity of action.  Proficiency is achieved through competent repetition, that is, by performing actions, e.g., a takedown or escape, and repeated with sufficient conscious repetitions until there is “unconscious competence.”  This training effort will create a greater competency in performing the takedown than any full-speed, full-contact, unscripted fight will ever do.  What the padded instructor is perfectly suited to do is to help the officer recognize the “transition point,” or when the suspect is vulnerable to a takedown.  This is set up by putting the officer into a situation where he begins to recognize the circumstances needed for a successful takedown, and through repetition, begins to more quickly orient to this fact.  This creates a trained response that will be applicable in a real life fight that rolling around and swinging mindlessly at a padded instructor at maximum muscular exertion levels will never accomplish.  One is training, the other is “fun” if no one gets hurt.  The training has future value.  The fun activity has much less training value, and has high risk to one or both of the participants.

Required reasonable force response during training.  Police officers on the street, facing actual suspects who act with malicious intent for nefarious purposes to actually harm or murder the officer, are required to respond with objectively reasonable force to the officer’s perception of threatening suspect behavior and/or resistance.  No less should be required of the officer in training.  Any reckless or intentional behavior or action deemed by instructional staff that could or actually does lead to an injury will be formally reported up the chain of command for appropriate action, retraining, or discipline.

Severely limit force against instructors.  A vigorous force response against a padded instructor should be limited to one prescribed mini-scenario where the lesson, whether it is a component of a takedown, responding to being tackled, etc., and full-power strikes should not be part of the lesson.  The purpose for the impact suit is to protect against inadvertent strikes rather than making the instructor a padded punching dummy.  The use of this training tool is intended to work on transition points where officers must change gears mentally and come up from zero to 100  mph in tenths of a second.  Drills should not be permitted to last more than a couple of seconds, and are never a matter of allowing the combatants to “work it out” in a prolonged, high intensity effort.

All safety rules must be adhered to.  FX cartridges have published minimum safety distances for a reason:  they are powder actuated, projectile launching systems that must be expected to penetrate the skin if fired from close range.  Any disregard of the safety protocols cannot be tolerated.  This includes safety equipment malfunction, e.g., a face mask or helmet is dislodged, resulting in the role-player being unprotected should result in an immediate cessation of training by training staff as well as self-initiated by the officer role-player(s).  It is hard to believe that any training scenario could be so emotionally threatening that the officer role-player, upon seeing the instructor/suspect role-player on the ground three feet away with his helmet having fallen off, could not recognize a safety threat to the role-player and self-terminate the scenario.  There is no reason why a role-player, after having his helmet fall off, should be shot in the face by a rifle loaded with an FX cartridge from three feet away—this is simply recklessness and disregard of the safety of that role-player, and should not be tolerated.  The intentional violation of safety rules should be a disciplinary offense.  This, of course, must be supported by Police Administration and the police union—it is, after all, their member who was injured by this action.


Proponents of full-contact in-service training tout they are training officers how to “actually fight” on the street.  Nothing could be further from the truth:

Padded suspect role-players pull punches, kicks, and strikes, so “officers” don’t pay for errors like they would on the street.  In those few programs where the training staff’s egos are the driving force and both the instructors and the officers are suited up, it is often seen as blood sport for the skilled instructors in beating down the officers “to give them a taste of what they face if they don’t improve their skills.”  High injury rates in participants are often seen as a result of this type of program.

These extended fights detrain officers by emphasizing tournament and MMA-style wrestling bouts interspersed with blows, rather than working to police solutions based on law and policy.  This creates officers who think in “boxes” during a force response event rather than as a whole police officer who has access to various weapons and whom the law permits a wide variety of responses other than muscular control efforts.

This training de-emphasizes critical decision-making while reinforcing muscular effort as a survival strategy.  While this is fine for the few large, strong males who tend to be stronger than the suspects they arrest as well as the few highly trained martial artists in the agency, those officers not fitting into those two categories are poorly served and, indeed, are harmed by extended wrestling bouts.  They require training emphasizing police solutions within the police mission and force permitted by law.

It ignores the risks of serious, extended, or even career-ending injury to invaluable personnel whose extensive training and years of experience are extremely difficult—and very expensive—to replace.

It cannot be said enough:  employing violent measures against a human body is designed to injure, incapacitate, and sometimes kill that person, and full-speed, full-contact, uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) fights between officers in training, even though “protected” by an impact suit, will eventually result in moderate to severe injury, and the possible loss of career.

While these instructors who continually don the training suits and step into the cauldron of ten, fifteen, or even twenty extended full-speed, full-contact fights in a single training session are the very definition of “tough guys,” it must also acknowledged that tough guys tend to deny the reality of their own mortality and physical vulnerability to injury.  Many of these instructors are in their mid-20s and into their 30s and have yet to experience serious injury.  Even if they have, they are tough guys, and they get back into the saddle usually well before their injuries are fully healed.

Before the advent of modern padded training suits, I participated for a number of years as a suspect in full-contact, full-power training with officers employing wooden batons (for informational purposes:  cocobolo batons suck!).  A football helmet, shoulder pads, baseball catcher’s chest protector, elbow pads, hockey gloves, hockey pants and padding, and baseball catcher’s knee and shin guards (not to mention a protective groin cup) rounded out my protective ensemble.  More than a few strikes were narrowly contained by the helmet’s face mask.  Later it was a FIST Suit and ASP batons—a little more coverage, but similar results.  Ten officers at a time, three “fights” each, with the fight going until they were able to strike me sufficiently well to either get me to stop (hand strikes were often fight-stoppers) or until it was apparent that the power of their strikes and volume would likely stop an unpadded subject—that’s 30 “fights” in a row, folks.  For next couple of days, the body didn’t work so well.  I still carry evidence of this lunacy in the form of two bone chips, one in my elbow and one in my ankle.  I was lucky to get out of this with just these modest daily reminders, having experienced a couple of concussions, multiple sprains, and massive, spectacular bruising all over my unprotected parts.  I remember a lot of ice and limping from these days.

Training must evolve.  These impact suits have been in the police training world for the last 20-plus years.  It is time to come out of the dark ages and to engage in training providing increased expertise to our officers while carrying less risk both to them and to the instructors who so selflessly offer their health and safety in service to the officers they train.  It is only out of this sense of service and the instructor’s rational and very real belief in the urgency of preparing the officer to meet the needs of the profession that makes the sacrifices each instructor makes worth the risk to their health.  However, when these very real sacrifices do not further the training mission, and the officers’ capabilities these efforts are intended to benefit actually lessen in the real world of successfully fighting suspects, it is time for the tough guys to change the way they train.

Violence breaks people.  Even instructors in padded suits are broken when the body parts inside the suit are stressed beyond their physical limits.  If NFL teams limit full-contact scrimmages to pre-season practices because of the risk of injury (and quarterbacks are ALWAYS red-shirted, or off-limits), it only makes sense that law enforcement should do the same.  Highly scripted, high-intensity, short duration full-speed drills are where officers gain the benefit of decision-making and programmed reactions (motor neural scripts).  This is where training with impact suits is really beneficial. 

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