Mission creep in firearms training

The bank alarm call was only a block away on Toronto’s Yonge Street so I told the dispatcher my partner and I would check it out. Working in the fraud squad, we drove an unmarked car and wore suits. The use of force necessary to make 99 per cent of our arrests was non-existent.

The dispatcher made it clear to uniform back-up units that plain-clothes officers would be attending the call. We would not want to be mistaken for robbers (although few wore suits, especially in the mid 1980s) but we carried handguns, which could quickly cause a catastrophe when backup arrived.

It was just then that a chilling, terrifying thought hit me; Where was my gun? Oh crikey! I had left it in my desk drawer. What to do? I have to tell my partner, I thought to myself.

“Ah!… John… I have something to tell you. I left my gun at the office in my desk.” I meekly awaited the first of a long string of curses which were sure to follow my confession.

John continued looking intently at the traffic ahead and pursed his lips. I could see his hands stiffen on the steering wheel. His knuckles turned white. I braced myself for the eruption of epithets. “Well that’s a pretty stupid thing to do now, isn’t it? We’re in a fine pickle now because I left my gun in my drawer too.”

Many years have passed since that call. The pistol vs revolver debate of the mid 90’s has come and gone, with the semi auto winning hands down. It was only common sense to realize that the bad-guys had us outgunned. Fifteen Toronto officers paid with their lives during my career alone.

The changeover was painful, to say the least. Canadian policing had a 150 year history with the revolver and the training was well established and uniquely Canadian. The prevailing attitude was “We have to carry this 15 ounce chunk of metal so we might as well get use to it and learn how to handle it safely.”

We were taught how to safely handle and secure our handgun in a holster that would let it drop to the floor if not held firmly in place with your left elbow. The holster was designed to completely cover the gun so as to not offend delicate public sensitivities. It was not uncommon to sport a holster with a butt flap cover resembling a hound dog’s tongue, sparking the nearest steely-eyed sergeant to order you to replace it immediately.

The handgun was looked upon, reluctantly, as a necessary yet little utilized part of our equipment. Despite the relatively high number of officers killed in the line of duty during my era, the revolver was still viewed as more of a reassurance than a useful tool for deployment.

The sudden onset of semi automatic handguns became a serious issue. A far more complicated weapon, they required more detailed training. This was further complicated by the need to retrain, in Ontario at least, more than 20,000 officers in short order. It was soon discovered that the best and easiest way to accomplish this was to borrow established training processes from the United States, which knew a thing or two about quickly training large numbers of people to use pistols.

We may have been a little hasty. The US training style did not exactly match the Canadian style nor historical experience and it appears the fundamental cultural differences were not considered. Most US officers have had basic military training, including, by necessity, how to dehumanize a target to make taking a human life more palatable. It’s designed to reduce the trauma and moral turpitude of the act and increase the moral fortitude of the officer shooting.

This is bourne out by studies showing many soldiers in past wars seldom aimed their weapons at another soldier. Modern military training and equipment is designed to counter this and increase the kill ratio.

Police are expected to use their guns only as a last resort to protect their lives, or those of others, from grievous harm. They seldom expect these attacks to actually occur and the strategies used to counter them are more reactive than orchestrated.

The unfortunate side effect of the rapid transition of the mid 90’s is that military training styles may have crept into policing. Officers are trained to fire two or three consecutive shots in rapid succession each time they use their weapon and are required to carry two extra magazines on their gun belts, despite the negative effects of carrying this extra weight over a 25-year career.

It also ignores three other facts.

1. Soldiers do not have to carry weaponry every day of their career.

2. Police rarely if ever need 45 rounds.

3. Police are far more accountable for their use of force on an individual basis than soldiers.

It is clear the training and attitudes I possessed back in the day were far from stellar but have we gone too far today? We need to take a serious look at the way officers are trained and equipped.

Oh yes, as for that alarm call I mentioned! We arrived to find nothing out of the ordinary and were both profoundly relieved to hear the alarm was an accidental trip. I never forgot my gun again, even though it was heavy and hard to conceal.

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