Use Of Force Perceptions & Skills Retention Studies Are Conference Topics

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Preview reports on Force Science research findings regarding the public’s perceptions of police use of force, the retention rates of physical skills training, and the nature of unintentional discharges were showcased recently at major professional conferences in California and Minnesota.

Thumbnail summaries:

Civilian beliefs about use of force by police are often shockingly far from reality, behavioral scientist Dr. Dawn O’Neill of the Force Science Institute’s research division explained in a presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Police & Criminal Psychology in San Diego.

Citing findings from a pilot survey of more than 540 young adults in five states, O’Neill said that those sampled:

  • believe officers use deadly force in nearly 20% of their encounters with civilians (Reality: The figure is actually less than 0.0037%);
  • believe LEOs receive more than 80 hours of training in communications and de-escalation at the academy level (Reality: On average, they get 36 hours)
  • believe the time between shots in a gunfight is about three seconds (Reality: It’s an average of 0.28 seconds);
  • believe police UOF is dramatically on the rise (Reality: The rate has been relatively steady—and very low—across recent years; for a more historical perspective, see “note” below).

“A lot of media coverage fails to focus on human factors and behavioral science elements of police use of force, so it’s likely that the public is not aware of such research, contributing to the widespread misconceptions,” O’Neill says.

Physical skills deteriorate fast without refresher training, another FSI scientist, Dr. John O’Neill, told an SPCP audience in a separate presentation.

Drawing on early findings from an ongoing multi-academy study, John O’Neill revealed that:

  • Within eight weeks of being taught important DT techniques, trainees on average experience a “significant decrease” in their ability to perform relatively “easily acquired” skills, such as baton strikes and mandibular-angle pressure point control;
  • With “more complex” skills, such as handcuffing and weapon retention, “significant decline” in performance occurs within just one to two weeks after initial instruction;
  • Thus, recruits’ proficiency in physical skills needed to control adversaries on the street may, in reality, be “diminished drastically” before they even leave the academy.

Fortunately, O’Neill explained, the skills retention can be markedly improved with some simple changes in teaching techniques.

The study shows significant gains in sustained proficiency at a high level of mastery by the use of regularly spaced “refresher/booster training sessions,” video modeling, and assigned “homework” practice, he said.

Force Science News will be reporting in depth on this groundbreaking research in future editions.

At the SPCP conference, research projects involving other Force Science affiliates—instructors Chris Lawrence and Dr. Chris Hall and Advanced Specialist graduate Simon Baldwin, a researcher/use-of-force analyst for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—were also on the agenda.

Meanwhile, the Drs. O’Neill collaborated on a major “invited talk” on “Applications of Behavior Analysis in Law Enforcement” at a conference of the Minnesota Northland Assn. for Behavior Analysis at Bloomington, MN.

John O’Neill provided more details on the study of skills learning and retention and Dawn O’Neill described the study of unintentional discharges reported on in a previous FSN article.


From The Wall Street Journal, by columnist Jason L. Riley:

“[S]tatistics that are available suggest that police today use deadly force significantly less often than in the past. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest police force, officer-involved shootings have fallen by more than 90% since the early 1970s, and national trends have been similarly dramatic…. [A]ccording to figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate at which police kill blacks has fallen by 70% since the late 1960s.

“An increase in press coverage of police shootings isn’t the same thing as an increase in police shootings.”

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