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Guest Post: Why Police Training in America is Failing and How to Fix it

Monday, January 9, 2017 10:18
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In light of police shootings in the past couple of years and the resultant protests that have driven a gargantuan wedge between those who support police officers and those who believe police departments are inherently racist and disproportionately target minorities, I thought it would be relevant to publish this longer piece on police training.

As mentioned below, the author is a law enforcement and security expert. He understands training, stress situations, and security matters and approaches them from a realistic, educational perspective, rather than emotionalist rhetoric.

It’s something we should all consider.

Police shootings of innocent people aren’t necessarily the result of racism or a desire to kill black men. Stephen Didier presents another possibility and offers some possible solutions.

We would all do well to seriously consider his essay.

Law enforcement training and preparedness in the United States today is largely ineffective and irrelevant.  This is due to its failure to adapt necessary training methodologies to address evolutionary changes both in technology and public expectations. However, there are effective solutions with accompanying practical policies that had been previously implemented on a national level, only later to be abandoned for political and fiscal ease.  Such abandonment has turned out to be penny-wise and pound foolish in light of the increasing number of criminal and terrorist attacks on law enforcement and the concomitant fear such attacks create among the public at large.  Before offering these solutions it is necessary to understand the complex social and human performance dynamics underlying this problem. It must also be noted that this article is not intended to be disrespectful of the courageous men and women who serve in blue.  Rather, it is written to present realistic solutions to the problems they are facing both personally and professionally.

The rule of law and the peace officers entrusted with the responsibility to uphold it is the fabric of a safe and prosperous republic.  Constitutional Republics like the United States, where a person’s private property rights and security supersede the wants of a government run by a communist despot or fanatical theocracy need virtuous men and women to keep the peace and uphold law and order.  When selfless individuals volunteer to do so, society owes them leadership and consistent and fair rules.  Moreover, it owes these officers the training, knowledge, skills, and equipment needed for the protection and betterment of society. These needs are not mutually exclusive from the needs of the people the officers serve. In fact, the better trained officers are, the less likely they are to infringe upon the rights of their fellow citizens.  

The average junior high school ball player practices about four hundred (400) hours per year, and for the most part these players are mediocre: only their parents and fellow students come to watch the games. Sadly, most law enforcement agencies spend less than four (4) hours per year – after entry-level academies – training their personnel on the ethical, legal, and tactical dynamics of deadly force encounters.

The public expects officers to demonstrate professional ball player-level performance.  This training-performance disconnect will not be solved by body cameras or more restrictive rules for the use of force.  Rules are generally written by the tactically unknowing in response to political demands for deadly force encounters to unfold as they wish them to rather than how they truly do.  This is another reason why judgment-based training is far superior to rules-based training.  Rules-based training is a linear solution to a nonlinear problem.

Despite all the negative press, police officers in America have and continue to do an incredible, and often thankless job, protecting and promoting the societies and secure communities in which many of us live and work.  They are the people who respond at 2:00 AM when something goes “bump in the night.” Moreover, the actual number of suspects who succumb to police officers’ use of deadly force is astoundingly low (Note: an increase in media coverage is almost certainly responsible for the perception that police shootings are at epidemic levels).  Annually, in a nation of 330 million persons, police officers are assaulted at least 66,000 times.  Of those assaults, at least 15,500 are committed with a dangerous and deadly weapon. (As discussed, below, this trend is getting worse). As a matter of law, if a suspect assaults a police officer with a deadly weapon, that officer can use deadly force in self-defense.  Yet, despite these numbers, police officers only kill approximately 600 suspects per year nationwide: about the same number of murder victims in Chicago in that same timeframe. So, this notion – repeated time and again by woefully or willfully ignorant members of the press – that police are on a rampant killing spree is a nothing less than a lie.  

Nonetheless, as communities grow and evolve, whether due to population increases, changing political and cultural norms, values, criminal activity, etc., so must the police. Since the 1960’s, there have been innumerable police reform initiatives in America, with several recent efforts driven by both political and social demand.  Given the broad responsibilities of the police, and often-limited resources, police leaders continually develop policies to prioritize and focus their activities.  Unfortunately for the individual police officer, most of the evolution and changes occur within the realm of administration, policing programs, enforcement initiatives, law changes and service orientations, and not in the individual officer’s physiological and psychological ability to be effective against the ensuing increase of personal attacks or terrorist threats against them or the public. 

Fortunately, the leadership at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) at the time, (then under the Department of the Treasury, and later to be moved under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security), understood that effective policing began with the individual skills of the police officer.  It embarked on a national movement of change at the federal, state and local levels and in partnership with the military.  FLETC commissioned a three-man task force after 9/11, to find “creative, innovative and imaginative’ solutions to inherent training issues faced by Law Enforcement Agencies and the US military over the last 50 years,” (this author being one of those three). They found those solutions through questioning, challenging and analyzing all current training ideologies and methodologies around the globe, which led to the development of revolutionary and new, innovative training curricula, methodologies, products, and facilities.  This FLETC team was not parochial; blending their own experiences with valuable lessons learned from elite special operation forces from military and law enforcement agencies around the world. As a result, they redeveloped, rewrote and implemented a highly successful and challenging ideological change in how training was conducted for tactics, combatives, firearms, operations, practical exercise,s and evaluations for FLETC, as well as created the state-of-the-art 220-acre FLETC Counter-Terrorism Operation Training Facility (CTOTF).

The new ideology and methodology were undeniably effective for the partner organizations (in excess of 100 federal law enforcement agencies) that train at FLETC.  The training was also available to select military units faced with unlawful combatants not wearing traditional uniforms: situations very much like those faced by law enforcement, albeit with suspects armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), AK-47s, and other weapons not typically seen on the streets of America. For instance, through multiple training iterations over a two-year period provided to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, who prior to the new training had suffered many preventable losses on the battlefields in Iraq, the trained units saw casualties decrease significantly and successes within their sector increase due to better target analysis and use of force decisions.

Unfortunately, over time, as leadership changed and lessons learned became lessons forgotten, the watchword became all about metrics, executives’ career paths, control, minor corruption, and politics.  FLETC’s innovative and successful training began slipping back to its old status quo. Leadership across the nation, especially in urban areas, lost focus due to changing agendas and politicization.  A coordinated effort and program to train officers in the realities of the “street” and performance under stress began to fall apart.  In many agencies, training programs and procedures slipped back into old bad habits. FLETC still exists, the CTOTF still exists and its mandate for training still exists.

Sadly, however, the fundamental solutions implemented after 9/11 to effect national change have all but disappeared, or have been diluted to less effective and challenging programs of instruction. This is why police sometimes find themselves at odds with public perception and ill-prepared for situations resulting in often-fatal escalations of force.  This is not to imply that if all agencies used FLETC’s innovative training course of action of fifteen years ago then there would be no problems in the use of force realm, but poor training, compounded by ill-conceived rules for use of force, does present a bad synergy that should be attenuated.

Unfortunately, the traditional and historic goal of training (more accurately qualification) is to provide the minimums necessary to employ personnel and execute the necessary documentation to mitigate liability for the agencies that are employing the officers. This is especially true in the high liability areas of “use of force and firearms.” Policy restrictions attempting to control excessive use of force or mitigate liability further exacerbate the problem by incorporating subjective rather than objectively reasonable terminology, thus misinterpreting or disregarding Supreme Court or Appellate Court decisions.  Such policy restrictions or recommendations, at best, attempt to define that which is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application. At worst, they offer dangerous and inane suggestions, such as “shoot to wound” or “verbal judo” in the face of an imminent threat of death or grievous bodily injury.

National press and media and bad policy decisions in the United States has inundated the public with terms such as “last resort,” “only what is necessary,” or “when all lesser means have been exhausted,” when dealing with police use of force. These misperceptions have become a pandemic not only with the unknowing press and public, but also within the Department of Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security and other federal, state, and local agencies that ought to know better.  

It is quite a sad spectacle when untrained and/or inexperienced young attorneys within the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division swoop down upon a hapless local or state agency and force said agency into signing a Consent Decree, which tries to “McDonalds-size” policing.  First, there is nothing “consensual” about a DOJ Consent Decree, as the Feds will bury with expensive litigation any municipality that tries to fight them in court. Secondly, even if staffed with Magna Cum Laude graduates of Yale Law School, DOJ lawyers simply “do not know what they do not know.”  

The law and science of how humans react under high-stress deadly force encounters is not something taught in law school.  In fact, by their nature, lawyers think they can precisely define the outcome of any situation.  While that may be true in the areas of contract, environmental, or corporate law, where participants have the luxury of time to make less than life threatening decisions, it is absolutely false in matters involving the application of deadly force.  The United States Supreme Court – and this is not a contentious 5-4 Court; rather typically 8-1 or 9-0 decisions – has understood this for more than a century.  Well before the seminal Fourth Amendment cases of Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 306 (1989) and Tennessee v. Garner 471 U.S. 1 (1985), in 1921 Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes succinctly stated in Brown v. United States that, “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.”

The latest false narratives that ignore such well-founded law create hesitation in officers and cause some agencies’ leadership to be more concerned with limiting pecuniary liability than with the lives of their officers.  

This must not stand.  

Law enforcement, individually and collectively, along with good-willed politicians and our citizenry need to shout down the lies of what amounts to an ongoing insurgency against good order and private property rights. The core legal truth is the standard of objective reasonableness.  It does not require officers to select the least intrusive alternative, only a reasonable one! The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Plakas v. Drinski, 19 F.3d 1143, at 1148 stated the following:

There is no precedent in this Circuit (or any other) which says that the Constitution requires law enforcement officers to use all feasible alternatives to avoid a situation where deadly force can justifiable be used. There are, however, cases which support the assertion that, where deadly force is otherwise justified under the Constitution, there is no constitutional duty to use non-deadly alternatives first.” The court in Elliott v. Leavitt, 99 F.3d 640 (1996) stated quite clearly, “The Constitution simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm.” The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Scott v. Henrich, 39 F. 3d 912 stated, “Requiring officers to find and choose the least intrusive alternative would require them to exercise superhuman judgment. In the heat of battle, with lives potentially in the balance, an officer would not be able to rely on training and common sense to decide what would best accomplish his mission. Instead, he would need to assess the least intrusive alternative (an inherently subjective determination) and choose that option and that option only. Imposing such a requirement would inevitably induce tentativeness by officers, and thus deter police from protecting the public and themselves. It would also entangle the courts in endless second-guessing of police decisions made under stress and subject to the exigencies of the moment. Officers thus need not avail themselves of the least intrusive means of responding to an exigent situation; they need only act within that range of conduct we identify as reasonable

As clarified in Graham v. Connor, “the test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application…” By creating a use of force policy that is more restrictive than what is required by law, agencies most often will force their officers to react in a manner violating subjective and unduly burdensome rules. This automatically will breed uncertainty and hesitation. The Supreme Court in Graham stated, “Imposing such requirements would inevitably induce tentativeness by officers, and thus deter police from protecting the public and themselves. It would also entangle the courts in endless second-guessing of police decisions made under stress and subject to the exigencies of the moment”… all of which can be seen in the current false narratives being endlessly repeated on the Internet and news outlets. An agency implementing policy that mandates police to choose “the least intrusive alternative” places the officer in a position of trying to assess exactly what is the least intrusive means in situations that do not afford the luxury of time or safety.  

Moreover, by demanding officers do so, the agency (as well as the media and certain sectors of the public) are placing the culpability on the wrong person.  Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO was the author of his own misfortune, as were the decedents in most other “celebrated” cases.  As quoted by the authors of In Defense of Self and Others, Sir Winston Churchill stated, “I decline to remain neutral between the fire and the fire brigade.”  So, too, must society decline to remain neutral between the lives of police officers and felonious suspects.  This is not said flippantly or without regard to the grave responsibility that officers undertake when pinning on a badge and holstering a weapon.  But, when they do so they must have the moral support of their leadership and the society they serve.

A police officer’s confidence in their leaders, the officer’s own abilities, and the corresponding competently trained skill level are all critical in preventing or mitigating an active threat. These skills must be developed and reinforced prior to any actual incident. 

With all the safety, budget, facility limitations, adherence to “the way we have always done things” training culture, and the cloud of perceived liability, police have become more focused on documentable qualifications at the cost of survival for both officer and the innocent public.  Much of the current training focuses on static skills and techniques that may or may not be practiced diligently by the individual officer after the annual, or if they are lucky, quarterly agency training iterations. Most often, it consists of going through the motions of rehearsed techniques without applying that training under stress, with as many variables and judgment calls at real-time speed.  If done correctly, the most important outcome of that type of situational training is that the individual officer can see what works (or doesn’t) for the first time in training, and not on the street, where consequences can be severe and often permanent.

Also, “Mat room folly” is a real phenomenon. If you slow any training down enough, it will always work… it just won’t work under stress in real situations!  Too often, training teaches solutions and techniques for specific problems (like a specific knife attack, tackle, weapon malfunction, door entry, etc.) and allows officers to practice until they get it “just right.” The goal seems to be to perform up to some predetermined and sometimes almost arbitrary standard. The problem is that in reality, events rarely go as planned, so why are we not applying that truth in training and bringing that concept into practice for our officers in a tangible way?

Culturally, in law enforcement today, most training is still centered on skill enhancement, with the primary goal of demonstration of “proficiency” or “qualification.”


Because it is an easy path to quantify as it does not require comparative time and cost.  

Strangely enough, one of the first, but irrelevant, questions investigators of an officer-involved shooting ask is, “Was the officer qualified on his or her weapon?”  

The question is irrelevant for a number of reasons:

The force used was either objectively reasonable or it wasn’t; the officer’s “qualification” plays no part in that calculus; and,

It conditions officers not to use field expedient weapons – another officer’s or suspect’s weapon or a knife, car or club – when they might be the only effective alternative. But, it also does not teach people how to think or instill relevant experience through reality-based training.  No two people will respond identically to an external stressful stimulus such as experiencing gunfire, having a gun drawn on them, controlling a spontaneous attack against a knife or reloading under fire during an active shooter crisis. So why then, does the culturally accepted training practice simply consist of taking a class and feeding trainees a series of rehearsed and predetermined maneuvers, tactics or techniques, with the assumption they will be able to perform that exact technique to a arbitrary situation when their life is on the line or facing bodily injury or death?

The argument in the industry most often is, “Well, we would never do that.” But don’t we?

As an example, consider firearms training with common training approaches such as using accepted drills, “Draw and Fire” from the holster, “Reloads” or “Malfunctions.” Anyone can practice and become “range proficient” and “accurate” but remember, the goal for law enforcement is to be operationally effective, not range effective!  

Traditional current training does not consider the variables of an unpredictable dynamic situation. A static firearm reload performed thousands of times on an indoor or outdoor range is not the same as when an officer has to move to cover at the same time, dodging incoming rounds or fighting through injury.

Combatives training is a good way to further explain the idea. How many people have you seen that look great hitting the bag, but perform poorly in the ring or in a real fight?

Same principle applies here. You can teach someone to manipulate a pistol or rifle while standing still, with someone blowing a whistle or calling out range commands, but that does not always translate to fight effectiveness.

Additionally, current training alone does not take into account the individual officers’ natural physiological response to stress. If a baseball is tossed to a person a hundred times, they will probably catch it 99 times pretty proficiently, but if they were tossed a grenade with the pin pulled out that same seemingly simple motor skill becomes not quite so simple. This same principle can be observed in professional athletes who perform well in practice but not on game day. Why not?  Because they have the skill but applying it under stress hinders their performance because practice seldom replicates the realities of the game or in the officer’s case, the use of force.  Persistent situational training exercises mimicking stress help fix this problem.

Finally, the current training does not consider the value of judgment in real life situations. If officers are simply trained to draw and shoot when a target faces them on the range, regardless of incorporating movement, it is akin to a teenager playing a video game where they shoot all the zombies that pop up. Unlike video games where there is no penalty for shooting the wrong zombie, there are real life consequences anytime an officer points their weapon, let alone shoots someone.

Remember, the goal for law enforcement is the ability to be operationally effective, not range or mat room effective!  But again, officers might only be involved in one deadly force encounter in their 20-year careers, so it is easy for agencies or administrators to focus on what is easiest or lowest cost, instead of what is correct.  Police must always be prepared with the right type of training, or we will continue to senseless sacrifice without a second chance to get it right.

Some of the greatest fears officers face are being unable to perform successfully under stress, such as the threat of bodily injury or death (e.g,, active shooter events, attacks with weapons, etc.), and fear that their leadership will not have their backs after an officer-involved shooting (a fear magnified under a perceived “questionable” incident). Almost none of the officers faced with the threat of bodily injury or death are confident in their ability or authority to stop it.  Recent videos of officer-involved shootings, active shooter events, or terrorist attacks around the world confirm this, and these fears are not specific to cops in the United States.  In 2016 videos of the Dallas Sniper footage, Baton Rouge shootings, and footage of the Chicago police officer who was severely beaten because he was afraid to use force confirm this assessment.

Police agencies need to take a hard look at not only what is being taught, but how to refocus training effort and time to things other than the “ABC’s” of technique and tactics. Training should be about gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts of force and the tactics used and then integrating reality-based drills and skill builders that allow officers to practice the “ugly stuff” that never goes as planned.  This type of training builds immeasurable competence for real-life incidents. And contrary to some misguided beliefs, enhancing training does not increase the likelihood of the use of force.  It may increase the likelihood that a truly dangerous subject will be shot, but it will also decrease the likelihood that a police officer will shoot an innocent person.  

This cannot occur by performing choreographed, rehearsed techniques repetitively until they are perfect.  That may look good for a dog and pony show for politicians or the media, but it will create a training scar that is only revealed, sadly, in a real fight or deadly force incident. There is nothing wrong with practicing good technique and skills, but tactical training must incorporate reality.  Officers must be prepared to react reasonably for when things do not go as planned, which should ultimately be the end goal.  Focus training for what goes wrong, not what goes right. Bad policy, ineffective training directives, budget constraints driven by cultural ideals and misinterpretation of law must be taken out of police procedures and the police must be supported through the reality and integrity of their training because at the end of the day, increasing the officer’s survivability and competence, and the safety of the public, is all that truly matters.

So how do we fix it?

Law enforcement training in America should focus on a teaching methodology which takes the officer through a series of drill progressions consisting of skill builders, drills, and mini-scenarios in a realistic environment involving stress inoculation, which is critical to skills practice of any kind or discipline. More importantly, for officer confidence, it provides the officer with an environment to manage their own physiological response to stress while applying good tactics and decision-making. Realism is further added by utilizing non-lethal training ammunition (NLTA) allowing the officer to use his or her own duty weapons and gear during training instead of simply a blue, plastic gun or unfamiliar dedicated training weapon.

Additionally, training should be specifically focused on providing a model or methodology to test the validity of individual’s or agency’s existing techniques and protocols. Tactics and training can be debated endlessly, but a good model for training should be the honest broker of what works and what does not through realistic conceptual means as opposed to relying on technique. An example would be in the area of tactics, which should be applicable to individual agency protocols or tactics without necessarily being “tactics dependent” as long as what is being taught is of sound content.

This can be accomplished with training that is not “blocked” or isolated / qualification focused, but has the operational “disciplines” that are blended and fluid, moving to logical conclusions utilizing available training technologies for Skills Practice, Force-on-Target (FOT), Force-on-Role Player (FOR), and Force-on-Force (FOF) scenarios. In the case of FOF or FOR, this allows for the engagement of interactive human role players, allowing officers and trainers to gauge if what is being taught is likely to have real world application and success. And don’t forget the importance of an immediate “after action review”(AAR) that provides an opportunity for an officer to articulate the pre-assaultive behaviors extant for his or her use of force and as required by law, predicated on their decision to use force from existing facts and circumstances, including all reasonable inferences, known to the officer up to that moment when force was used. The first time any of this happens ought not be after a real world shooting.

It should be pointed out there are many motivated and qualified agency training departments and training companies around the world with years of law enforcement, military and professional training experience, so one might ask, “What makes this type of training different?”

This is a valid question that must be addressed prior to any discussion of what training programs should look like, whether nationally, regionally or agency specific. The first part of the answer can be found in what this type of training “is not.”  The training principles are not intended to be a rigid, restrictive and singular set of rules and techniques that must be universally adopted across the board by every trainer or officer in every institution. That would not only be impractical, but contrary to the essence of what such a program or training seeks to accomplish. The goal for any training program should be to provide a template or model that allows the implementation of individualized agency or organization protocols and concepts that suit the needs of the specific audience and environment of operations, while still adhering to industry accepted best practices. This type of training provides the most relevant information and can serve as stand-alone instruction or training guide, but just as importantly, is flexible enough to have broader application among existing agency programs.

The second part can be best explained by understanding that how something is taught is every bit as important as what is taught, as information is only as effective as how well it is conveyed. A skilled officer may be able to perform a skill or job task very well, but that does not automatically make them an effective instructor or trainer.  From a program or agency’s perspective, this type of training provides realistic insight through reverse engineering of past incidents and case law, as well as honest testing of skill sets and protocols assisting trainers, bridging the gap between their knowledge/abilities and those of their students.  The programs can then be developed to ensure that the methodology is easily adaptable to the ever-changing needs or evolution of police, and that maturation of program instruction happens in line with the growth and progress of the agencies, organizations and country they serve. As in any successful training program, the goal is to create training success not training scars. Training scars can be viewed as an engrained bad habit borne from improper training or instruction, and is the antithesis of what trainers want students to take away from their training experience, but unfortunately is often the reality instead of the exception, in the culture of police training.

Regardless of the techniques, tactics, or approach to training in these areas, the goal of training is to provide a means of seeing what works, what doesn’t and to serve as a springboard to enhance a program and the officer task effectiveness through realistic training.  Ultimately, it should be about building up officer competence to ensure their confidence and provide effective security, patrol, operations, response, and sustained positive community involvement!


About the Author: Steven Didier has more than 25 years experience in law enforcement, government service, and private sector security, training and management – leading to the launch of Phoenix RBT Solutions in 2008, a revolutionary and innovative reality-based training company specializing in dynamic and holistic courses, education and products, training facility design and function – addressing and redefining the needs of today’s Law Enforcement, Military and Security Agencies worldwide. Prior to establishing Phoenix RBT Solutions (co-owned with Tony Lambraia), Didier served as a senior law enforcement specialist at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).  During his time with FLETC and after 9/11, Didier was selected to co-lead a special projects team dedicated to challenging the existing culture of training and provide imaginative solutions to evolve and transform training ideologies, training facilities, products and training methodologies unilaterally, for U.S. and Allied Agencies worldwide. Steve Didier Project Managed and co-developed the widely heralded FLETC 220-acre Counterterrorism Operations Training Facility and as the then Use of Force Expert for the Department of Treasury, was appointed as an original charter member in the development of the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Use-of-Force Policy – becoming one of the United States preeminent Subject Matter Experts (SME).

Additionally, he has developed curriculum, established standards and trained Civilian, Law Enforcement and Specialized Military teams along with basic recruits at Agencies, Instillations and Academies throughout the world.

He has a degree in Criminal Justice, technical certificate in law enforcement and is a graduate of multiple academies to include State of Idaho Peace Officer’s Standards of Training (POST), Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy (FLETC) and scores of other Police and Military programs and courses; has extensive experience in and teaches in Use of Force, Tactics, Mixed Martial Arts (Boxing, Karate, Muay Thai, Judo, Jujitsu) and is recognized as one of the premier Use-of-Force, Tactical, Combatives and “Train-the-Trainer” Reality-Based Training Experts in Law Enforcement, Military and Private Sectors worldwide.

For more information, consultancy, detailed training programs/curriculums or detailed reform plans, please contact, Steven Didier at, 1-888-504-5526 or +44 7796 997945.

Filed under: Guns, Knives, law enforcement Tagged: guns, Knives, law enforcement, police, training


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