Preventing Unreasonable Use of Force: Scenario-Based Training

By Lon Bartel

We have all seen high-profile use-of-force cases in the media. In fact, it seems there is a new one each week.

These events can be highly emotional and cause visceral reactions in the court of public opinion—overshadowing the good work that law enforcement does every day. The reality is that all interpersonal violence, even when morally and legally justified, evokes serious emotional response from viewers.

A use-of-force scenario

For a moment, imagine the following situation. It’s 3 a.m. and you are dispatched to a call of shots fired in the area of Lincoln and 13th street. Upon arrival, you see someone running and try to stop the person.

Due to the scotopic lighting conditions, you cannot make out the color of their clothing. The subject, who is backlit, suddenly turns around and comes toward you with a weapon in their hand.

As a result, you draw your weapon and fire two rounds accomplished in .25 seconds from the first to the second shot. The weapon drops from the subject’s hand and you approach to secure both them and their weapon.

However, as you pick up the weapon, you notice it is lighter than expected—it is not metal. His ‘weapon’ was a plastic gun with the tip painted orange.

Reasonable use of force

Was it necessary to shoot someone wielding a plastic gun?

Many people would argue no. But what about the other questions: Was it reasonable that, in a 3-second encounter, the officer believed their life was in jeopardy?

Or that it was reasonable in scotopic lighting—where humans are universally color blind—that the toy’s orange tip could not be seen?

Furthermore, does the fact that motion impairs perception and the ability to see details for rapid consideration?

The use of reasonable force must take into account that officers are human and must make decisions in tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situations. The officer may not make the right—or some would call ‘necessary’—action.

But the action must be reasonable.

So, what makes an officer’s use-of-force action reasonable?

The foundation of what is considered reasonable is found in federal law, state law, department policies, and human limitations and abilities.  

However, it is worth noting that not everyone understands these principles or interprets them in the same way. We have all read technical documents and questioned what they meant—and providing copies of certain documents does not ensure that two officers will have the same understanding.

As an instructor, how do we ensure that all officers understand what is reasonable and apply it correctly?

The answer is simultaneously simple and complex—training. Specifically, training that is effective and meaningful in how you create, maintain, and alter behaviors.

The need for scenario-based simulation training

The foundation of reasonability is built on what officers are trained to do. This form of training comes from formal and informal sources, both of which are powerful.

Due to its importance in shaping officers, agencies must ensure that the training program is based on sound legal principles, human capabilities, and values.  

Instructors should, when building their training program in the manner described above, take care not to confuse training and education.

Education is about providing and expecting trainees to memorize information, then presenting problems where trainees can show how the information applies. Training is very different, with a significant focus on behaviors, skills and tasks. In other words, education is about telling, whereas training is about doing.

The best form of training is the scenario-based model, also known as problem-based learning.

Scenario-based training is where students are presented with complex, open-ended situations often based off real-world events and are expected to solve them.  

As such, this form of training is designed to develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, communication skills, and encourage learning to be transferred to long-term memory².

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It is a simple, yet incredibly effective model. Instead of the education model of presenting information and expecting memorization, the scenario-based model presents a problem and expects the students to learn and utilize their resources to solve it.

By searching and constructing the knowledge themselves, rather than passively being spoon-fed it, trainees have a better, long-term understanding of it¹.

While this concept applies to all fields, it is especially critical for law enforcement, who must rely heavily on their training when engaging in difficult situations in the field, especially in situations where use of force may occur.

Integrating scenario-based simulation training

As an instructor, one of the easiest ways to incorporate scenario-based training into your classroom is through the use of a realistic training simulator.

Trainees find themselves in the middle of a problem, as described in the pre-scenario dispatch call, and must navigate through the situation, focusing on the ideal outcome—that the subject is controlled and every person is safe.

The beauty of simulation training is the open-ended nature: As trainees make decisions, instructors select the branching option, and the situation changes to reflect this. The learning remains the trainee’s responsibility and becomes considerably more powerful than the old form of lectures and classroom presentations.

Imagine the impact this type of training can have on officers. Interacting with difficult scenarios raises questions and further learning opportunities after the scenario has finished. This time, the instructor—rather than the media—can question the officers about an incident.

Officers can then learn from that event and adapt during their next turn in the simulator, then later when in the field.  

Before beginning scenario-based learning, instructors must lay the groundwork, beginning with a lesson on the topic.

Then, complex scenarios related to the lesson are selected. These problem-based situations must fit the training topic while also integrating new or unfamiliar topics. This makes it relevant for future lessons because the foundation and familiarity are already built².

Lastly, instructors must coach trainees after the scenario. Whether this be leading a seminar or discussing a trainee’s actions one-on-one, further instruction must be applied to maximize the training’s effectiveness.

About the author

Lon Bartel is a former peace officer with more than 20 years of experience. Aside from his police career, Lon was a Rangemaster for 12 years—specializing in firearms, less lethal training and control tactics—and a certified law enforcement trainer for over 18 years. He was a founding member of the Arizona Tactical Officer Association. Lon is currently an IADLEST nationally certified instructor and has also been certified by the Force Science Institute as a Use of Force Analyst and Advanced Specialist. Lon utilizes this expertise in his job at VirTra, where he works as the Director of Training and Curriculum.


  1. Loveless, Becton. Problem Based Learning: The Complete Guide, Education Corner,
  1. Sheeba, Ali Sardar. “Problem Based Learning: A Student-Centered Approach.” Canadian Center of Science and Education, vol. 12, no. 5, 11 Apr. 2019.
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Posted on May 13, 2021