Back to Basics – A Practical Approach to Field Response

By: Tony Duckworth, Deputy Director, California Peace Officers’ Association

In consideration of the upcoming COPSWEST training session, Tactical Field Response, the elephant in the room is the current state-of-affairs regarding police use of force.

Use of force is a complicated multi-layered matter; and while there is room for improvement, some of the recent recommendations for change may be cause for concern. The most concerning recommendation is to have agencies adopt policies to hold themselves to a higher standard than the legal requirements of Graham v. Connor. This may be an impractical solution.

One of the layers to consider is the response to calls for service, especially calls involving a higher degree of danger that usually involve force. Two important components of tactical field response are leadership and training; each experiencing varying degrees of decline due primarily to economics.

For more than a decade, California law enforcement has experienced significant budget cuts, staff reductions and pension reform. As a result, many agencies reduced or eliminated training opportunities due to financial restraints and/or staffing reductions. It’s difficult to send officers to training when the streets can’t be staffed.

To make matters worse, we are also experiencing a leadership gap. Personnel are retiring earlier and others are deciding not to promote. FTOs, sergeants and command officers have less time in service and grade than ever before, often producing inexperienced leaders. Managing and supervising tactical field response requires competent leadership. Competence is gained through education, training and experience. Competence is reflective of decision-making; a bad or delayed decision reduces our chances of success.

Perhaps a concentrated focus on foundational components would serve law enforcement well. A focus on Policy, Training, Equipment, and Field Management and Supervision.


It’s not enough to just have policies based on best practices and current legal standards. Agencies must provide understanding to ensure that the application of policy is fulfilled. Strong policies, coupled with standard operating procedures help to establish organizational guidance, often referred to as Commander’s Guidance. This principle determines boundaries that provide a means for managers, supervisors and officers to be on the same page. Top-down expectations and accountability promote a healthy command climate.


Having had the opportunity to teach tactics to officers, sergeants and watch commanders (WC), I can assure you that there is an unfulfilled training gap regarding tactical field response protocols. I often ask students to share their level of tactical experience when introducing themselves in class. The most common response is “none”. We sometimes forget that an assignment in patrol requires tactical skillsets. Patrol personnel should train and maintain core competency skills reflective of the current environment, which is more dangerous than ever. Training should be viewed as a priority for agencies and the individual. We need to identify core competency skills and find ways to train without breaking the bank or devastating staffing requirements. Training is so critical at this particular time in history that it obligates you, the individual peace officer, to pursue quality training on your own.


Equipment is expensive and often difficult to determine. Equipment should be decided based on probability, not possibility. After all, anything is possible. We should figure out what is really needed, provide the right amount and train personnel how to use it correctly.

A training topic often discussed is active shooter. My first question usually regards mechanical breaching capabilities at the patrol level. What tools are immediately available and how often do you train with them? If we can’t get to the fight we lose and good people die. As you can imagine, the response back is seldom ideal.

Important considerations regarding equipment:

Availability: Buy enough. Not all equipment can be shared. Prioritize mission essential equipment versus “nice to have”. Plan and budget for the appropriate number of items, even if it requires you to divide procurement over multiple budget cycles.

Accessibility: One of the most important factors is accessibility. Is the tool available when needed most? Agencies often store essential equipment in the sergeant’s car. In today’s world sergeants are strapped with extra duties and spend up to 50 percent of their duty time in the station, leaving that equipment delayed or unavailable.

Care: Keeping equipment clean and in good repair should go without saying. How important is it to return that piece of equipment to its proper location, clean and in good repair for the next user? Caring for equipment is principal to operational readiness. Also, leadership is generally more supportive of new purchases with a proven track record of good care.

Training: Provide initial training and perishable skills training for each particular item regularly. Putting the tool in the hands of an officer and requiring practical application is the best form of training.


In addition to inexperienced leadership, budget and staff reductions have created a situation where work has been pushed down. Reductions in command officer positions have increased workloads for WC’s, sergeants and corporals. Instead of managing the watch or supervising the team, managers and supervisors are spending more time in the station working on staff reports and special projects. We need to get managers and supervisors back in the field.

During my travels I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of good people, mostly patrol sergeants, who have shared the good, bad and the ugly. My observations and conversations with students has led to two primary concerns regarding our future:

1) Few WC’s respond to calls requiring their presence in the field, and those that do respond often fail to accept command responsibilities.

2) Inexperience at the sergeant rank degrading the primary role of the sergeant as the trainer.


Watch Commanders who are not proficient should make an effort to become proficient in managing tactical responsibilities in the field. SWAT experience is a “nice to have” but not necessarily a “must have”. Utilize available resources to your advantage; manage the scene and be in-charge. Always remember these three things:

1) Someone has to be in-charge.

2) Someone has to develop a plan.

3) Someone has to communicate the plan.

Find subject matter experts to help with tactical decision-making if necessary. Proficiency requires you participate in perishable skills training with your personnel and find opportunities to improve your skill set.

Sergeant as the “trainer”. Good sergeants study their craft and function as the GLUE to every organization. Stay proficient and don’t shy away from subordinate correction. Valid correction delivered timely and with care will make the difference when it matters most. Your primary mission is to train your team to be the best they can be. Gift your team your “TIME and ATTENTION”. Spend time in the field with your personnel and give them your absolute attention. Attention equates to meaningful reward and appropriate accountability. Be fair and consistent. Make training your number one priority.

Learn more about this topic at COPSWEST in the training session Tactical Field Response on Wednesday, October 5 at 8 a.m. Find out more about COPSWEST Training & Expo at

Three of the new courses in the CPOA Leadership Series address views shared in this article. The new courses provide an opportunity to explore this subject manner further by means of facilitated discussion and problem solving. Click here to view the associated courses.

Critical Incident Response for Supervisors & Managers

Patrol Ops – Field Leadership

Advanced FTO – Adult Learning Techniques 

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