What Promotes Peak Performance In Lethal-Force Conflicts? (Part 2)

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Part 2 of a 2-Part Series

[Note: In Part 1 of this series, sent 6/18/07, we reported results of an important new study about LEOs and the use of deadly force, conducted by Dr. Darrell Ross, chairman of the Dept. of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University, who presented his findings at the 2007 ILEETA training conference.

[Ross meticulously analyzed 86 high-profile police-suspect confrontations about which federal lawsuits were filed, alleging excessive force and civil rights violations. He was involved in all as an expert witness for officers and their departments.]

The cops in Ross’ study–121 male officers, mostly patrolmen, from 94 agencies scattered across the U.S.–compiled an enviable record. While suspects were killed in 97% of these controversial confrontations, all the involved officers survived. And of the ensuing civil suits that actually advanced to a courtroom resolution (86%), all the officers and their departments prevailed, either through summary judgments or trial verdicts.

Despite being under extraordinary stress in complex circumstances, the officers’ decision-making and physical responses were expert enough not only to save their lives but to successfully withstand legal challenges as well. “That’s all we can ask of any officer in any lethal-force situation,” Ross says.

In almost all cases the shooting was the officers’ first. What guided them toward peak performances their first time out?

In his ILEETA presentation and during interviews with Force Science News, Ross identified certain essential skills these officers brought to their decision-making, and he described the type of training he believes best builds these strengths.

Under ideal circumstances, Ross explains, decision-making is a deliberative process that follows “schematic, sequentially ordered steps.” There’s time to conjure and evaluate options, to weigh relative risks and potential benefits, perhaps even to field-test possibilities. In academic circles, this is called the “rational analysis” model.

Cops rarely have that luxury, certainly not in most lethal-force confrontations. These events, like the ones Ross studied, are typically volatile, rapidly evolving, chaotic, and unpredictable, with maximum stress and minimal hard data informing them. “Reaction time is at a premium for officers,” he says.

In such situations, “there is no ‘decision tree,’ as in the rational analysis model,” Ross says. Decisions tend to be made according to a “recognition-primed” model. That is, you quickly “read” what you’re dealing with on the basis of certain cues and patterns that seem familiar from past training and experience and you choose a course of action based on what those indicators seem reasonably to be predicting. “The decision may still be rational and logical, but it’s not reached through a rational sequence.”

The officers Ross studied possessed certain qualities that aided their decision-making under real-world pressures. “In sports terminology, they were good examples of ‘reading the play.’” Among other things, Ross says, they tended to:

  • Formulate flexible anticipations. “En route to the scene, these officers usually began constructing an impression of what they’d be encountering. They generally had some limited information from dispatch. Often they’d been to the location before or knew some of the history of the people they were responding to.”

More than 1/3 of the officers had formal training in mental imagery, and many others practiced it on their own. “A number of the officers said they had mentally rehearsed being in the kind of situation they ended up in,” Ross says. “This mentally prepared them to recognize danger cues.”

Yet they managed to stay open-minded, not locked in to their initial expectations in case things proved different, which they did in “a significant percentage of cases.” The officers proved adept at what Ross calls “transitional force decision-making;” that is, adjusting quickly to new tactics and responses with shifts in the circumstances. Such situational changes often abruptly escalated an encounter from a seemingly nonviolent episode to a lethal force crisis.

“Anticipation is a forerunner of perception,” Ross says. It can be helpful in “interpreting environmental cues and patterns” and can assist in “processing the situation and selecting options. It tends to bring your body and mind into unison.”

  • Have a heightened sense of “situational awareness.” The officers were keenly attuned to potential danger signals from subjects and from the surrounding environment. “They were particularly aware visually.” More than half had received specialized training in reading body language, and they were cognizant of facial gestures, body positioning, upper-body movements, hand actions, and other suspect behavior that could signal a pending attack, given the circumstances.

“Contextually,” Ross says, “each incident studied involved sensory factors, cognitive factors, physiological factors, and emotional factors. The officers displayed a quickness of mind and body in processing all of these.”

More than half the officers (55%) had unholstered their sidearm prior to making the final decision to shoot, indicating that they had “picked up on some indication that something was wrong” and were preparing themselves to counter it, Ross says. In the end, he says, about 80% of the sensory input that actually influenced perception and decision-making was visual.

  • Screen out distractions. “These officers could multi-task well under time pressure. They could scan the environment, observe the suspect and their partner, use the radio, give verbal commands, listen to what was said, yet still focus sharply when threats or potential threats arose. They were good at screening out ‘visual noise,’ irrelevant peripheral distractions. This is difficult, because the more distractions you have, the less likely you are to see everything and key on what’s important.”

–draw reasonable inferences quickly. The officers usually had little time to “organize and interpret their sensory input” and conclude that the time had come to use lethal force. Contact with suspects before shooting occurred lasted from 5 to 10 minutes in 4 out of 10 of the cases studied; some lasted up to half an hour. Nearly half the officers at least had time to give 3 or more commands. Yet when the suspect actually presented what was perceived as a deadly threat, 95% of the officers had less than 2 seconds to react; 70% had less than a second, Ross discovered.

  • Act emphatically. “They didn’t freeze up,” Ross says. “There was no ‘paralysis of analysis.’ These officers were able to accurately assess the dynamics of the situation, to appropriately integrate anticipation with ultimate perception, to detect and recognize behavioral cues and patterns in the context of the environment and circumstance, and to choose a course of action under time pressure in harmony with what was happening.”
  • Articulate well. In their reports and statements afterwards, “they were able to explain how circumstances, the environment, and what they observed and processed cognitively about the suspect’s behavior added up to the perception that led to their decision to use lethal force.”

Even in cases where their perceptions turned out to be wrong (about 1/3 of the dead suspects were found not to have a weapon, for example), an objective observer could understand the officers’ thinking process and appreciate the reasonableness of their inferences, Ross says.

Undergirding the officers’ admirable handling of the confrontations, Ross believes, was a dual foundation of experience and training. Although the overwhelming majority had never before used deadly force on duty, their average tenure on the street was 11 years. “They were not neophytes” at reading people, places, and circumstances.

Moreover, their agencies valued training. More than 1/3 of the officers received firearms training beyond mere qualification at least once a month. At least 75% said their training incorporated instinct shooting, scenario-based decision-making, the use of Simunitions and FATS-like technology, night-time drills, and other elements of modernized instruction and street preparation.

“If you want to achieve proficiency and continue to make progress in a skill, you have to train and practice in an environment where you are required to use that skill,” Ross says. To develop acute skill in lethal-force decision-making and delivery, he suggests the following, based on his findings:

  1. Train with interactive scenarios that force you to recognize danger cues and human behavior patterns and solve confrontational problems quickly under stress. “This is the heart of excellent decision-making,” Ross says. The scenarios should reflect the environments and the circumstances you customarily encounter on the job. Consider constructing exercises based on cases that have actually occurred in your agency for particular impact.
  2. Be sure to include scenarios that involve transitional-force decision-making and the need to stay focused despite distractions, 2 problems you are almost certain to encounter in a deadly force showdown.
  3. Either in-house or through outside sources, obtain specialized training in mental imagery and body language.
  4. Videotape all training exercises. Videos should be constructively debriefed so officers can see the good and bad of their performance, which they may not be aware of during the action. They should redo exercises as necessary, so they leave training having won all their encounters. “If they can’t win in training, how are they going to win on the street when it’s for real?” No-win scenarios that serve only to humiliate or terrify officers have no place in modern training.
  5. Training should be frequent. “Training once a year is not a viable mode of learning,” Ross says. “You need to keep your mind in a constant state of learning to build expertise. The human brain needs on-going ‘upgrades’ to keep it fresh and stimulated. Otherwise, it becomes stagnant.
    “Administrators often have no problem assigning SWAT-team members to 12 or 16 hours of training every month. Patrol officers need and deserve the same level of training as special ops groups. There’s an obligation to the community to have them performing at peak proficiency. In 2007, administrators have to find viable ways of providing relevant training to all officers. They can’t just throw up their hands and put their head in the sand.”
  6. For motivation, ideas, and practical guidance in developing meaningful preparation for the street, read “Training at the Speed of Life: The Definitive Textbook for Military and Law Enforcement Reality-based Training,” by Ken Murray, a technical advisor to the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

Ross would like to see his study stimulate more research is certain areas–deeper explorations of the psychology of anticipation and perception, contextual cue recognition, scan patterns, and the management of visual noise, for example.

Actually, those are some of the exact areas that the Force Science Research Center is exploring with projects that either are underway or will be as pending funds become available, according to executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski.

We’ll keep you posted on these and other developments as results become available.

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