Introduction to Scenario Learning: Guest Post Series with Michael Barr

Last summer I proposed an article idea to about ways to improve scenario learning to cultivate better LEO responses based on my now 48 years of teaching and training CQC/C (close quarter control and combat). The Force Science Institute study came out about the time I finished my draft, which further confirmed that what I had already written and knew from experience was born out by people who knew more than I in the field of policing. As someone who has taught everything from economics to how to kill someone with your bootlaces, I knew I could write a “10 Best” article in a few hours listing abstract rules for learning that would be read in a few minutes and just as quickly forgotten. LEOs deserve serious professional tools. That’s why I suggested this 12 part series.

Parts to the Series

Scenario learning--- a way to perfect officer responses that allows them to deal with a broad spectrum of uncertain circumstances.

I was glad to find you as equally excited with the proposed articles that cover designing and using scenario learning as part of a process of officer building. Officer building may sound a little buzz wordish but it’s the best phrase I could think of that clearly and simply describes the goal of scenario learning – a way to perfect officer responses that allows them to deal with a broad spectrum of uncertain circumstances. There 12 articles will approach the development of LEO training/learning based on a holistic approach to policing skills. The articles take the LEO trainer from design to after action analysis. None of the topics require a PhD in anything…If you can consume oxygen in a safe, orderly and proficient military manner and are willing to be open to something…different…something engaging, functional, and elegant…something that works, then the reader is golden:

1.) Introduction: Appreciating the complexity of physical control situations in the current environment and the topics to be covered.

2.) Functional educational theory for scenario training. What works and why.

3.) Intake and Planning. Designing scenarios and building officer readiness. Safety, scenario selection and design, skills content, building officer buy in, and educating the public.

4.) How to use a CQC/C consultant. (This is not a thinly placed ad but an honest conversation about the value that CQC/C professionals can add to the training, i.e. making it easier, more effective, efficient, ethical/ecological, and emancipatory.

5.) How to Evaluate Student Readiness. This deals among other things with how to handle variations in size, strength, experience and confidence which can make training fun for some students and exasperating for others.

6.) Getting the Most Out of Your Scenario Training. How instructors and learners can get the most out of training.

7.) Decision Under High Stress. Some ideas on doing the hardest job on the planet.

8.) How Much Force? How to determine realistic thresholds for applying force in conditions of unfolding uncertainty.

9.) What to Do When “We Don’t Have the Budget for That….” How to get a little out of a lot. “Fortunately Chief scenario training can help us improve and stay within budget….”

10.) How Good is Your Content? How to avoid the “bag of tricks,” “tools in the toolbox,” and “best practices.” These don’t allow for transfer of learning, are mentally bulky, and end up being an average of what other people have discovered to be mediocre and not contextually relevant or prudent. You want consistent processes for how officers can think and respond in the complex dynamic of a close in encounter.

11.) Getting Feedback. The importance of the after action report for learners, instructors, and for officer building.

12.) Moving Forward. Long term officer building that continues to improve performance after the training. The practice after the training and how to maintain it.

The dynamic of teaching, learning and practice don’t have a simple linear relationship.  Readers will find redundancies and overlap in the series. The separation into 12 topics is merely a teaching convenience to focus attention on a particular aspect of scenario learning. The overlap will direct instructors to where learners may bring questions and make natural connections with their officer’s experiences.

As much as we wish there were 48 hours in an officer’s day to get everything done, there isn’t and so the articles deal with realities not, “Given a limitless training budget and unlimited time you too can become a Super Cop!”

As much as we wish there were 48 hours in an officer’s day to get everything done, there isn’t and so the articles deal with realities not, “Given a limitless training budget and unlimited time you too can become a Super Cop!” Scenario learning stretches across both training/surface learning and education/deep learning, so practitioners with various levels of experience and capabilities can learn to improve their defensive tactics within the context of their over-all policing skills. IF you’re open to achieving the objective of improving officer performance in high stress situations rather than teaching “X skills in Y time” you can accomplish a lot with a little. Scenario learning aimed at officer building is more than “defensive tactics.” A well designed scenario learning program emphasizes officer building—the professional development of an officer’s total policing skills.

A well designed scenario learning program emphasizes officer building—the professional development of an officer’s total policing skills.


My expertise is in teaching people how to improve their performance under high stress. Let’s see if LEO’s qualify: LEO’s are called upon to be responsible for physically controlling people under high stress, in uncertain situations, where they must make unique, relevant, and prudent decisions often in a seconds with inadequate and imperfect knowledge, where the outcomes may include severe injury or death to the officer and the public. That’s not the average citizen’s normal skill set. Yet every time an officer takes a call it’s these very skills that are required. In addition sworn officers of the law they must knowledgably apply all the appropriate federal, state and local laws as well as abide by the rules of engagement (ROEs) set down by their individual departments. In comparison, suspects have no such limitations on their use of force (UoF). They can use whatever force pleases them. LEOs have chosen, as a profession, to enter into this unbalanced and uncertain equation, voluntarily. Sounds like LEOs qualify as decision makers under high stress to me.

I’m deeply concerned about a creeping ambiguity about UoF and the implication that LEOs should “back off” when physical control is required. When physical control is needed, there is nothing wrong with winning and a great deal wrong with losing. Scenario training can help officers make relevant and prudent decisions about using physical control in an E4 manner—efficient, effective, ethical/ecological, and emancipatory way. Errors in close quarters could send you to the hospital, cripple you, or get your picture on the memorial wall. These are not outcomes I train officers to accept. Neither should any instructor. Anything that jeopardizes a LEOs life should be a total “no go.” Like anyone applying physical control, LEOs are responsible for their choice of actions. Incomplete or haphazard training in physical control can not only injure people physically but destroy years of hard earned public trust and good will. Instructors accept the burden of training officers to use CQC/C skills to responsibly accomplish their sworn duties when the situation requires it.

When physical control is needed, there is nothing wrong with winning and a great deal wrong with losing.

Many younger officers have been raised in “zero tolerance” environments. This means that until their training in the academy they probably have never experienced anything more serious than a bruised ego or hurt feelings. Their first experience in physical control is often all too brief. Periodic department training can be of uneven quality and consist of 8-12 hours for an entire year, with no additional practice or reinforcement. Imagine going to a heart surgeon whose continuing education consisted of only 8-12 hours a year. Current training is often static, with a compliant partner, with emphasis on ending a technique and getting a check mark in a box. Such training is both dangerous for the officers and the public they serve. The public at large doesn’t even have the officer’s training as a frame of reference. Too often their expectations are related to fictional events they see in entertainment, with a resulting expectation of unrealistic outcomes, e.g “shoot to wound.” Part of scenario learning involves not only doing the right things, at the right time, for the right reason, but being able to explain your actions to an audience that is ill equipped to understand the thresholds of the responses a situation demands. Too often you can win the battle but lose the war because of poor communication with the public, in written reports, or in court explanation.

I’m not writing THE guide to scenario learning. From my years of experience I’ve developed a sense of what works.  I change what I teach when the facts change; that’s how you survive in CQC/C. Mine is only one perspective. If it causes discussion, disagreement and the discovery of another direction and something better, then the series will have still accomplished its purpose. Copying me may be gratifying to my ego, but I’d be a poor teacher it that was my goal. I’d much rather have LEO instructors build on what they find here and do me one better.

Another point is that my expertise is in CQC/C. Although I am knowledgeable about and can appreciate what law enforcement does, I am not a LEO and do not have a LEO’s expertise in policing from years of experience. But where officers have spent their time becoming experts in policing I have spent my time in being an expert in influencing, manipulating, and physically controlling people in the roughly 0-30 meter zone with everything from words to firearms. I learn as much from LEOs as they learn from me.


My goal in this series it to help LEO instructors create a program of functional education that cultivates officer building via holistic scenario learning. Such learning challenges the officer at his experience level, allows him to learn from the responses of more experienced officers, and follows the law and department ROEs. all while getting people home after their shift or duty assignment. A point I make when training: “The object is to push you now under safe and friendly conditions, because if you don’t learn it here, your opponent will find out what you don’t know on that 2 am call to a dark alley or night patrol in Lower Nowhereistan. The School of Hard Knocks has high tuition.”


Michael Barr

Michael Barr is a CQC/C instructor, military historian, speculator, and high stress performance improvement educator. He has 48 years of experience training and teaching close quarter control and combat. He’s trained in mindshaping/mindscaping as well as interview and interrogation. He is the director of Ronin Research and the Ronin Ryu Aikijujutsu Association and is working on a book about the martial teachings of Miyamoto Musashi and their relevance to 21st century military and law enforcement. He’s written for the Army University Press, Strategy Bridge, Divergent Options, and the International Listening Association.