6 steps to improving CO command presence through DT training

Staff can gain confidence in their techniques and skills when they train in realistic, dynamic environments


Correctional officers need to be highly trained for risky and often unexpected situations. The CorrectionsOne Academy offers more than 25 hours of training on defensive tactics in corrections including tactical team formations, the role of disturbance control teams, techniques for cuffing an inmate and safely extracting an inmate from a cell. Visit the CorrectionsOneAcademy to learn more and for an online demo.

By Captain Sheldon Best, C1 Contributor

It is often said that the purpose of defensive tactics (DT) training is control. While that statement is 100 percent accurate, it is also incomplete. Regardless of the system your agency trains in, all DT programs train multiple use of force options to overcome various levels of resistance. These tactics are an invaluable part of an officer’s toolbox, and their importance cannot be overstated. However, DT training can also accomplish another important objective often overlooked: the development of command presence in correctional officers.

Like many of the skill sets required of officers, command presence is a “soft skill” that is hard to measure. We know it when we see it and we can identify the behaviors, mannerisms and language we want staff to display, but developing a legitimate command presence is not easy.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice Sgt. Louis Garcia, right, works with corrections officer trainee Christy Lawson on her jabs during a training session at the Minnie Houston Training Center in Riverside, Texas, Thursday, May 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Texas Department of Criminal Justice Sgt. Louis Garcia, right, works with corrections officer trainee Christy Lawson on her jabs during a training session at the Minnie Houston Training Center in Riverside, Texas, Thursday, May 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

We have all worked with officers who can take control of an inmate housing unit and ensure a smoothly running shift by their mere presence. Likewise, we have all seen officers who have no command presence and housing units immediately turn into a free-for-all when they are on duty. The second officer needs to quickly address issues as they arise and establish themselves as an authority figure on the unit. The first officer has command presence that may deter misconduct in the first place, which makes for a safer shift for everyone.

One trait that leads to command presence that can be developed in our staff is confidence. Through training, insecure staff may begin to develop confidence that can readily develop into command presence.

The level of confidence a staff member displays can often directly influence the climate in which they work. The confident officer makes it clear they are maintaining surveillance of their area because they want to know exactly what is going on. It is their house, and they take ownership of it. Insecure staff may perform the same routine, but their body language displays neither confidence nor authority. They are not the hawk, but the mouse and their surveillance appear based on nothing more than fear for their own safety. Inmates are quick to identify the staff in charge and the staff who are afraid and conduct themselves accordingly.

Realistic training develops confidence

Staff gain confidence in their techniques and skills when they train in realistic, dynamic environments. Exposure to uncomfortable situations in a controlled environment enables staff to learn to manage and then overcome their discomfort. Expanding their skill set often leads to more confidence in officers, which directly translates into a command presence.

Trainers must address each officer as an individual, recognize the limits of personal ability and proficiency, and then push staff out of their comfort zone. Only when they are pushed outside of their comfort zone – but not into their panic zone – can staff truly develop.

Here are six steps to improving staff confidence through defensive tactics training:

1. Base training on real incidents

Make your training realistic through basing scenarios on actual incidents (without openly criticizing or embarrassing anyone who may have been involved). Staff need to understand the applicability of the skills they are training. If scenarios are far-fetched or unrealistic, staff are less likely to take the training seriously and grow from the experience.

2. Maintain the intensity of training

Make your training dynamic by practicing techniques at the highest level of intensity possible for each officer. Staff need to understand how techniques work, how body mechanics come into play, dynamic movement, transfer of force and all the elements of any technique that make it effective. These elements cannot be appreciated when training is conducted at low intensity levels in slow motion.

3. Victories must be earned

Never let your officers win their encounters, make them EARN their victories. Make them choose proper force options. Have them apply techniques dynamically and effectively. Make them conduct proper threat assessments and respond accordingly. If trainers and role players “give up” too readily, staff may not be prepared when they encounter real resistance.

4. See every error as a growth opportunity

Do not allow your staff to quit because they ‘lost’ their scenario. When staff stumble, they must not be allowed to give up. Use every error as an opportunity to grow and learn so that officers can perform better next time. Slow things down if you need to, take a short tactical pause, or restart your scenario entirely, but DO NOT allow the scenario to end until your staff have found their way to victory. Give them the guidance and feedback they need but be sure that they win the encounter.

5. Focus on success

Staff safety and survival is your goal. Focus on the staff and play to their strengths. No matter how many attempts it takes, acknowledge when they have succeeded. They will berate themselves more than you ever could, so focus on their successes. The more they focus on successes in training, the more likely they are to repeat those same behaviors on duty. The more emphasis you put on their failures, the more THOSE behaviors will be on their mind.

6. Recognize that everyone has their own pace

Don’t expect miracles overnight. No trainer, supervisor or mentor can turn incompetence into excellence in one training session. Recognize that success is defined differently for every officer you train. Some will come in at full speed and move right into high-level simulations, while others will come in barely able to walk and talk at the same time. Success might be as simple as an officer making an effective radio call or applying restraints properly. If they completed a task they struggled with when they started, you have succeeded. Granted, it’s a small success, but a success none the less.

Staff development is the goal

Correctional facility policies are often written with specific behaviors in mind. Likewise, lesson plans should be written with specific training goals and learning objectives in mind. The goals of performing techniques, using equipment, and assessing and responding to threats are generally easy to articulate. The goal of staff development and empowerment is equally important and should not be forgotten. As a soft skill it is hard to measure and may not be an articulable training objective, but it should be a goal that we strive to achieve in every session.


About the author
Captain Sheldon Best, a Marine Corps veteran, has been with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections since 2004. He has held the ranks of correctional officer, sergeant and psychiatric care supervisor. He trains multiple disciplines including professional communications, use of force, impact weapons, electronic control devices and tactical team operations.

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