Roots of the Reactive Posture: A Manifesto for Police Trainers


Daniel Modell, Lieutenant, New York City Police DepartmentRussell Jung, Sergeant, New York City Police Department

“Action  is  faster  than  reaction”  is  a  fundamental  axiom  of  tactics.  Curiously,  if  you  poll  police officers about whether they conceive of themselves as actors or reactors, they answer “reactors”with little variation.If the axiom carries any value, the answer is alarming. Tactically, it means that  police  officers  see  themselves  as  (and  therefore are)  disadvantaged. The  issue  therefore merits  substantive  inquiry. Why dopolice  officers tend  toward  a  reactive  posture  when  it  is disadvantageous to doso? This piece will tackle the question. The inquiry is crucial, particularly at  the  extremes  of  the  spectrum.  Overreaction  prompts  officers  to  fire  fifty  rounds  atunarmed suspects.  Underreaction  leavesofficers  brutalized  or  dead. Both  are  responses  to  the  same fundamental  pathology:  panic—and  panic  rests,  finally,  in  not  knowing  what  to  do. To  a significant  degree, then, training  is  the  culprit.  To  a  significant  degree,  training  is  also  the solution. Our purpose here is to offera comprehensive diagnosis of the problem.

I. Culture

In  the  movie  “Tombstone,” the  villain Johnny  Ringo  challenges  protagonist Wyatt  Earp  to  a gunfight. Earp is a fine marksman, but not so fast as Ringo. Knowing this, Doc Holliday, fastest gun  in  the  west,  unbeknownst  to  his  friend Wyatt  Earp,  shows  up  in  Earp’s  stead  to  square  off with the villain. As a shadowy figure approaches, assumed to be Wyatt Earp, Johnny Ringo says, “Well,  I  didn’t  think  you  had  it  in  you.”  The  shadowy  figure  reveals  himself  dramatically:  it  is Doc Holliday.“I’m your huckleberry,” Doc says in a famous line. Verbal jousting follows. They square off to fight. “Say when,” Doc says. By “say when” he means to challenge Johnny Ringo to  draw  first.  The  moment  makes  forriveting  drama.  After  all,  fattening  drama  is the  point. Tactically, of course, it is madness. In a real world violent encounter, it is absurd to cede the first move to an adversary knowingly and as a matter of course. Nevertheless,countless movies and television  shows,  multiplied  across  decadesby  an industry whose  lifeblood  isentertainment, ground  the  tacit  assumptionthat  the  good  guy  never  strikesfirst;  indeed,  the  good  guy  often prompts the bad guy to strikefirst.The trope shapes a mindset—all the more dangerous because it  flits  about  the  subconscious,  unexamined  and  unchallenged.  Good  guys  don’t  act  first.  This unexamined premise frames a reactive posture. 

Pre-conscious assumptions about “fairness” in violent encounters,inherited largely from athletic competitionssuch  as boxing  and  Mixed Martial Arts,  reinforcea  reactive  posture  in  real world encounters. “Ultimate Fighting” is often advertised as the closest thing to the “street” possible. In Meditations  on  Violence, Rory  Miller  demolishesthe preconception  that  martial  arts  and  real world violence share a mutual connection and applicability.

Competitions  are steeped  inritual  and  rule;the  streetsin  chaosand  lawlessness. Competitors warm up before a match. The street affords no such luxury. Competitive fights transpire through fixed  limits  of  time  and  space  (ring,  octagon;  three  minutes,  five  minutes).  The  street  abhors limits.  Competitors  rest  between  rounds  as corner  menurge  advice  and  work  cuts  to  stop bleeding.  Adversaries  can  only  wish  for  these  things  in  the  street  as  they  navigate  a  mix  of adrenalin,  chaos  and  terror. Referees  recite  and  enforcerules—and  stop  fights  when  serious injury  seems  imminent.  The  street  has  no  referee.  Competitions  are  flanked by  prohibitions:  no rabbit  punches,  no  kidney  punches,  no  sucker  punches,  no  groin  strikes,  no  biting,  no  eye gouges—that  is,  all  the  preferred  tactics  employed  by  street  predatorsagainst  their  “prey;”the street  brooks  no  prohibitions. Despite  the  violence,  asense  of  honor  and  fair  play underwrites these competitions.Dishonor and desperation underwrite the street. Competitionsare steeped in ritual and rule;the streetsin chaos and lawlessness.

Competitions nevertheless shape  a  mindset  about  what  the  “fight”  is  supposed  to  look  like: mano  a  mano;  skill againstskill;  size  isproportional;  force  employed  is  of  a  type.  These unexamined  assumptions  about “fairness”serve  to  framecriticismsfinding  expression  in questions  such  as  “Why  were  there  so  many  police  officers  there  for  just  one  person?” (The unstated presupposition is: “That’s not fair, many against one!”) “Why did the police officer use a  baton? Even  though  he  was  struggling,  the  person  didn’t  have  a  weapon.”(The  unstated presupposition  is:  “That’s  not  fair,  one  has  a  weapon,  the  other  doesn’t!”) Fairness assumes a defined framework of rules jointly accepted. Real world violence carries no commonly accepted framework  of rules;only  the  predatory  drive  to  destroy.  To  talk  of  “fairness”  in  real  world encounters  by  way  ofunexamined  assumptions  inherited  from  a  radically  different  contextis  a category  error—an  error  that,  in  practice,  often  swamps  the  capacity  for  meaningful  tactical evaluation. 

II. Procedural conditioning

Suppose you want to teach a child how to ride a bicycle. You tell the child “don’t put your left hand on the right handlebar; don’t put your right hand on the left handlebar; don’t put your left foot  on  the  right  pedal; don’t  put  your  right  foot  on  the  left  pedal;  and  do  not,  under  any circumstances, pedal backward. Now,ride!” What you told the child was true, so far as it goes. It is also useless. You  cheated  the  child,  pretending  to  guide  when  you  in  fact  merely  confused. You provided the child no guidance on how to ride a bicycle by barking orders about how not to ride a bicycle. The injunctions are no help as the child gropes to sort out the subtleties of riding. Yet this is  the  form  of  “guidance”provided  by  all  too many  police  agencies  to  officers  as  they navigate  the  complexities  of  the  most  extreme  and  perilous  interpersonal  encounters  possible, whereloss of life  and limb are real and daunting prospects. Enjoining police officers through a cognitively  withering  series  of  negatives  “Police  officers  shall  not  use  deadly  physical  force against  another  person  unless...”  “Police  officers  shall  not  discharge  their  weapons  when...” “Police officers shall not fire...” “[Police officers] will not be subject to criticism or disciplinary action for choosing notto discharge their weapons...”(this lastis a tacit injunction not to shoot) without any clear and countervailing guidance on when they can and should use force, deadly or otherwise, subliminally shapes a reactive mindset. The dangerous and deadly consequencesof couching policy in negative terms havebeen known since  at  least  1997,  when  the  FBI  published  the  second  of  its  three  seminal  reportson  Law Enforcement Officers killed andassaulted in the line of duty. Here is how the authors of In the Line of Fireput it:“In  general,  the  study  results  indicate  that  officers  had  clear  memories  of  what  ‘not  to  do’  and when  ‘not  to  use  force’  but  that  some  had  difficulty  in recalling  instances  in  which  the  use  of force was an appropriate, timely, necessary, and positive decision...Some officers had to make a conscious  effort  to  recall  their  departments’  use  of  deadly  force  policy  prior  to  the  initiation  of necessary force. In some instances, that recall came too late (In the Line of Fire, p. 43).”Their recommendations followed:“Based  on  this  information,  it  is  recommended  that  each  department  review  its  use  of  deadly force  policy  to  determine  that  all  elements  of  the  policy  are  clearly  articulated  and  easily understood. Department members should be constantly tested for their recall of this policy, and positive aspects of the policy should be stressed, especially in reference to the proper time to use deadly  force.  Negative  aspects,  such  as  when  not  to  shoot,  should  not  be  overemphasized.  It  is also  recommended  that  training  content  and  procedure  be  regularly  reviewed  and  evaluated  for the  express  purpose  of  keeping  the  officer  alert  to  the  constant  potential  for  danger  inherentin law enforcement service(In the Line of Fire, p. 43).”The recommendationsmet with stunning indifferenceas municipal police agencies clung, idiot-like,  tocomfortable  orthodoxies  etched  in  stone ages past. As  in  so  many  contexts  where  it prevails, unquestioned orthodoxy, cultivating a dreamy stupor, conceals a brutal truth: procedure is drenched in blood.

III. Training

The following narratives representactual training scenarios (past or present).

Recruit officers are dispatched to a domestic dispute. They should (and usually do) separate the parties  involved  and  glean  statements  in  an  effort  to  ascertain  facts  all  while  the  partners maintain  some  visual  contact.  If  the  recruit  officers  do  these  things,  that  is  to  say,  manage  the scenario as they are trained, an instructor strides into the room and cuts the scenario, announcing dramatically “you’re all dead.” If a recruit asks (usually sheepishly) what happened or how they failed,  the  instructor  says“ I  tossed  a  grenade  into  the  room.  It  killed  everyone.”  When  asked privately  by  a  more  seasoned  officer  what  the  purpose  of  the  scenario  is  supposed  to  be,  to  the extent  that the  instructor  can  articulate  one  at  all,  he  says  something  like  “Hey,  we’ve  gotto teach  them  that  it’s  a  dangerous  world  out  there.  Anything  can  happen.”  Instructors  appeared satisfied.  They  made  a  dramatic  point:  they  killed  the  cops.  For  the  record,  the  instructors provided no information, no counsel and no strategy on how to handle invisible grenades during domestic disputes.

At a car stop workshop, recruit officers are conducting a felony stop, multiple passengers in the vehicle.  As  they  pass  the  rear  of  the  vehicle,  a  perpetrator  emerges  like  a  jack-in-the-box  from the  trunk  and  sprays the  hapless  recruits  with simunitions  fire.  When  asked  privately  about  the purpose  of  the  scenario,  instructors,  to  the  extent  that  they  can  articulate  a  purpose  at  all,  say: “Hey, they should have checked the trunk. Anything can happen. They need to be taught that.” Instructors  appeared  satisfied.  They  madea  dramatic  point:  they  shot  the  cops.  For  the  record, the sort of incident scripted in the scenario has never happened.

A  seasoned  patrol  sergeant  was  compelled  to  take  part  in  the  “training”  scenario  that  follows. The  sergeant  happens  ona  scene  in  which  one  person  is  holding  another  against  a  wall  at gunpoint. The sergeant and his partner take cover, draw their weapons and issue firm commands to “drop the gun!” The role player with drawn gun shouts: “I’m on the job! I’m a cop! This guy is  wanted  for  robbery!”  The  sergeant  repeats  his  command  to  drop  the  gun.  The  role  player complies.  The  sergeant  and  his  partner  systematically  handcuff  both,  secure  the  gun  and  ask pointed  questions.  The  role  player  tells  the  sergeant  where  to  find  his  police  shield  and identification card as he offers a reasonably coherent narrative about witnessing a robbery. The sergeant scrutinizes his credentials and directs that the alleged robber be arrested. The role player then  asks  the  sergeant  to  remove  the  handcuffs.  Once  uncuffed,  he  retrieves  his  gun  from  the sergeant and shoots him.  The sergeant, having experienced many such remarkable plot twists in the  course  of  his  years  of    “training”  said  what  many  feel  going  into  it:  “I  knew  it.  I  knew something  like  that  was  going  to happen.  I  was  just  waiting.”  When  asked  privately  what  the purpose  of  the  scenario  was  supposed  to  be,  after  stammering  around  a  bit,  the  instructor answered, “Well, there are a lot of forged police ID’s out there. You just never know. You’ve got to know the good from the bad.” Instructors appeared satisfied. They made a dramatic point: they shot  the  cop.  For  the  record,  instructors  never  taught  participants  how  to  tell  good  from  bad police credentials, neither before nor after the scenario. Evidently, the scenario was designed to test knowledge that was never taughtto trainees. 

Although  details differ,  virtually  every  police  officer  will  read  these narratives with  a  weary sense  of  familiarity,  for  they  have  slogged  through  programs  teeming  in  the fantastic,  the theatrical,  the  wild  and  the  pointless:  the  dispute  that  explodes  into  47  ronin  emerging  from concealed lairs with arsenals of extravagant weaponryand attacking without intelligible purpose. In truth, the “bang, you suck, you’re dead” approach offends the reason and purpose of training. At its core, trainingshould aim to provide principled, practical strategies for navigating thebroad ranging  and  fluiddynamics  inherent  to  streetencounters.  Scenarios designed  to  kill  thecop; scenarios   designed   to   embarrass   andhighlight   deficiencies;   scenarios   designed   to   be unmanageable  and  unwinnable  “teach”  a  dangerous  lesson:  how  to  die;  how  to  focus  on shortcomings;  how  to  lose.  The  Kobayashi  Maru  does  not  test  character.  It  shapes  a  reactive posture.  Moreconcretely,  it  encourages  police  officers  to  distrust  their  training.  Considerthe movement:  instructors  convey  to  traineestactical  principles  purporting  to  assist  them  in managing  encounters.  The  instructors  then  design  scenarios  or  exercisesto  “defeat”  the  tactical principles.Why  would  trainees  feel  any  confidence  in  employing  strategies  that  bred  defeat—personally  experienced?There  is  NO  training  value  in  it.  None.The  unwinnable  scenario  isa theoretical  abstractionemerging  from  the  peaceofthe  classroom,  not from the realities  of  the street.Effective  trainingshould cultivate  a  winning  mindset,  expellingthe  concept  of  the “unwinnable”  from  the  mentalvocabularyof  trainees. There  are,  as  a  matter  of  fact,noinherently“unwinnable” scenarios in the street. But for the sake of polemics, assume that there are. What  is  to  be  done  about  them?  They  are,  by  hypothesis,  unwinnable. It  is therefore  in  a strict   sense vain   to   introduce   the   concept   into   training.   How   do   youwin   against   the “unwinnable?”

Most trainers are, of course, well intentioned. So what excites the will to designscenariosof the sort  described?  In  many  agencies,  training  is  conceived  as  a  luxury  even  if,  in  moments  of political expediency, press releases profess devotion to it. In practice, time dedicated to training islimited,  truncated,  minimized.  The  contentcovered  is  commonly  driven  bycynicism  and surveys fed through political algorithms. Frustrated trainers are madeto navigateedicts imposed from  the  rarefied  heights  of  executive  management.  This  does  not  make  for  a  healthy  training program. Given  the  painfully  limited  time  allotted  and  the  dubious  content  graftedonto otherwise sensible topics, trainers desperatelypack in everything that they canwith little regard to sequence because,after all, it  is  time-consuming to sequenceexercises in a meaningful way. Addthis  maddening,  striking  fact:most  Instructor  Development  Programs  are  themselves impoverished  and  time  constrained. Few  agencies  trulytrain trainersin  any  way  that  can  be characterized as systematic and substantive.Given thatframework, perhaps scenarios involving 47 ronin are predictable and unavoidable.

Many scenarios embedded   in   training   programs are,   moreover,steeped   in   a distorted understanding of “stress inoculation.” It wants reminding thatlaw enforcement did not forge the concept of stress inoculation. It inherited the concept from Psychology.Wedo well to recall its roots.  The  concept  was developed to remediate themental seizureof those sufferinga range of psychologicaltraumas,  especiallyphobias.  Distilled  to  essentials,  theideawas  to  introduce  the person  to  the  thing,  condition  or  environment  excitingthe  phobic  reaction  in controlled, measured, rationally sequenced  doses  in  a  systematic  effort  to  build  tolerance  so  as  to  manage the  stress  associated  with  the  phobia  or  traumawith  at  least  functionalefficacy.  Psychologists focused on the “inoculation” part of stress inoculation. Law Enforcement focused on the“stress” part  of  stress  inoculation.  In  practice, for  law  enforcement, the  concept  devolved  intoheaping undifferentiated  gobsof  stress  onto  trainees  with  littleregard  to how  itwas sequenced and without  substantive  understanding  about  the  limits  of cognitionand  performance  under  stress. Stress  became  an  end  in  itself—and  the  more  elaborate  and  wild  the  stress,  the  “cooler”  the training.This approach badly  misconstrues  how  human  beingslearn.  Heapingstress  on  an unprepared  minddoes  not  magically, “somehow,”prepare  it.  On  the  contrary,  it  deepens  thetendency to inaction andpathology.If your goal is to teachsomeone how to drive a car, you do not  explore  some  of  the  biomechanics  and  a  scanning  technique  or  two  and  then  dump  your student  onto  the Brooklyn-Queens  Expressway,  yelling  “drive, drive, come  on,  come  on!”Theoutcome  of  such  “instruction”  is  that  your  student  will  never wantto  drive.  Sensible  training begins  withtalk  about  the  mechanics  of  drivingand  the  laws  underwriting  the  practice;then appliesthe  mechanicsslowly  in  an  abandoned  lot;  then,  perhaps,  a  side  street  on  which  traffic moves only one way; then a major avenue on which significant traffic movesin both directions; and,  at  length,  ends  onthe  Brooklyn-Queens  Expressway.  Good  teaching  will  get  you  to  your desired goal,  in  this  case,  driving  onthe  Brooklyn-Queens  Expressway.  But how you  get  there makes all the difference. Proper training can and should condition a sense of efficacy.To achieve this end, stress should be introduced in a series of manageable, tightly sequenced exercises, each building  on  the  last  and  pushing  toward  the  ultimate  goal.Beginning  where  you  want  to  end  is poor pedagogy.Trainers should remind themselves regularly that stress is not an end in itself but rather a means to achieve efficacy in real world encounters.


Challenge  the  postulates  that  underwrite  your  training  programwithzeal.Attack  them,  siege them, scold and abuse them. Bring every technique, every strategy andassumption, every word and  every  illustrationbefore  the  tribunal  of  reason  and  demand  thatit  justify  itself.  If  it  cannot answer  the  demand,consign  it  to  the  dust  heap  of  good (or  bad) ideas  that  paved  the  way  for better,however long its tenuremay have been. Be wary equally of the “cool” and the “latest” on one hand and the old and enshrined on the other.Opt for the sensible, the operational, the usable.

Be  mindful  of  thesacred  bondbetween  trainer  and  trainee,  ofthe solemn  obligation, pregnant with  consequence, that  a  trainer  seeks  to  open  minds  to  possibilities  not  yet  conceived; to help craft  capacity  and  character;to  invest  chargeswith  abiding  skills  that  will  sustain  them  safely through a career of taxing harshness thatwouldotherwise consume them. As trainers, we do not owe trainees—ourfellow officers—good. We owe them great. We owe themthe best within us. This powerful mandate is neverachieved by inertia. For a trainer, the one unforgivable sin is to say,“Wedo it this way because we always have.”

Avoid chirpingnegative procedural edictsto trainees. Repetition of this sort leaves abitter taste, asthe forced rations ofpropagandaalways do. Itmay please executive management for reasons peculiar  to  that  stratum  but  ithurtscops  and  iscorrosive  to  trainers.Training  is  itself  de  facto policy. Make it positive. Tell traineeswhat to do—notwhat not to do.Having offered practical guidance about what to do, it is critical that trainerssupporttraineesas they applythat guidance in  realworld  encounters—and  to  signal  the  supportloudly  and  explicitly. As  a  corollarypoint, when  atraineefails  in  some  way  once  assigned  tothe  field,  a  decent  and  honorable  trainer assesses  the  incident  under  the  provisional  assumption  that  he  in  some  way  failedhis  trainee, knowing  that  thetrainee  wanted  to  perform  better.  Diagnose  the  issues  and  the  extent  to  which training underwrites them and modify the program accordingly. Waving about a lesson plan and fussingdefensively that you showed the traineehow “to get out of that,” thereby marginalizing the  cop,  avails  you  nothing,  for  you learn nothing  by  it. In  practice,  it  canonizes  a  passive approach  under  which  you  endlessly  await  the  next  incident  rather  than  actively  minimizing occasions for a next incident.

Finally,  wegrant  as  an  abstract  possibility  that  there  may  be  some  tactically  savvy  executives sensitive  to  the  nuances  of  building  a  potent  curriculum  tailored  to  the  distinctly  impolitic realities  to  whichpolicingis  liable,  although  we  have  not  ourselves  met  any. By  and  large executiveschatter  about  tactics  without  intelligible  meaning,  insisting  on  content  that  dilutes, truncates  and  eviscerates  the  sound  and  the  solid  in  favor  of  the political  and  the  banal.  Here, most of all, you must rememberthe courage that drove you into the profession and the pride you take in your role as trainer; at times, you must tell the ivory tower executive that hissuggestions are wrongheaded and dangerous. Though theymay prevail by fiat, their rank has noprerogative over  your  expertise.For  a  trainer,  the  only  reward  that  matters  finally  is  the  gratitude  of  a  cop who remembered histrainer’svoice urging counsel in a moment where it was most needed. By comparison, the transient approval of executives is a flimsy thing.


The authors express their deep gratitude to Detective Anthony Amoroso who through many years of guidance,discussion,fiery debate and, most of all, abiding friendship, set the authors on the right path in their tactical thinking.

About the Authors

Lieutenant Daniel Modell  is  a  twenty-year  veteran  of  the  New  York  City  Police  Department.  He  has  served  as  Coordinator  of  the  Tactical Training Unit and Training Coordinator for the Firearms and Tactics Section. Lieutenant Modell is also Adjunct Professor at the State University of New York-FIT where he teaches self-defense. Lieutenant Modell secured a Bachelor of Arts Degree, Philosophy, New York University, 1989 and a Master of Arts Degree, Philosophy, University of Texas-Austin, 1994. He studied under Fellowship, Fordham University, 1994-1995.

Sergeant  Russell  Jung  is  a  twenty-two  year  veteran  of  the  New  York  City  Police  Departmentand  served  proudly  in  the  United  States  Army.  He  served  as Supervising Instructor of the Tactical Training Unit and in the Firearms and Tactics Section. Healso fought for many years as a member of the NYPD Boxing Team.Sergeant Jung was the recipient of a Police Foundation grant and a Mayor’s Scholarship to pursuean advanced degree in Homeland Security Studies.