Police Progress: Moving Beyond Ideas, Intuition, and Theories

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Ideally, police reform will involve the careful translation of research (knowledge) into practice. The American Society of Evidence-Based Policing recently made this case in Process for Translating Research to Practice, citing the requirement for collaboration between researchers and police practitioners.1 It’s this process that ensures reform proposals are not the product of untested ideas, intuition, or theories but instead reflect the latest human performance and decision-making research. In this article, I’ll lay out the role that Force Science has played in historic reform efforts, how we are supporting current reform, and why the police may have to fight for a seat at the table.

History of Collaborative Reform

When Dr. Lewinski founded the Force Science Institute, one of his earliest observations was police work’s “clinical” nature. “Although law enforcement is not typically associated with ‘clinical’ practices, the observations, assessments, decisions, and corresponding actions of officers align directly with the assessment, diagnosis, and subsequent ‘treatment’ of individuals in the ‘real world.’” Dr. Lewinski emphasized, “This is the very definition of clinical.2

With an appreciation for policing’s clinical nature, behavioral scientists at the Force Science Institute began working with police practitioners to study officers’ training, decisions, and performance during critical incidents. What became clear was that agencies, courts, and communities were evaluating officer performance without understanding the mental and physical processes impacting perception, decision-making, and performance.

In any profession, the absence of relevant knowledge tempts people to insert their ideas, intuition, and theories into policy and practice. Repeated enough, these feelings and unverified ideas can become the consensus. When consensus masquerades as science, it can quickly become “best practice” without ever being authenticated.

To start separating fact from consensus fiction, Force Science relied on independent research and existing human performance research to explain the mental and physical dynamics involved in deadly force encounters. The Force Science speed and movement studies erased many of the myths that had previously enjoyed professional consensus but were misleading use of force investigations.3

Force Science peer-reviewed studies and “human factors” training allowed the profession to move beyond ideas, intuition, and theories. Officers, attorneys, and courts now had the research needed to forensically validate that “action beats reaction.”4 This research and training challenged much of the consensus that had grown within the profession and dramatically changed how critical incidents were evaluated.

Years later, when reform advocates renewed their demand for effective de-escalation training, the Force Science Institute remained committed to advancing only evidence-based programs.

In collaboration with mental health professionals, emergency room physicians, human performance researchers, and police professionals, Force Science identified and integrated the best practices for managing agitation in a tactical setting. From this research and collaboration, the Force Science Realistic De-Escalation course was developed.5

Realistic De-Escalation confronted the myths and unsupported visions held by those who argued de-escalation was always an alternative to using force. The Force Science team produced training that reflected real-world tactical priorities and prepared officers to recognize and respond to the psychological and physiological influences affecting communication, persuasion, and de-escalation. 

The Next Round of Progress

As the country prepares for the next round of police progress, Force Science continues to support many of the agencies and civic leaders tasked with recommending and implementing reforms. As we continue to wrestle with these issues, it remains critically important that political consensus not be confused with science or be prematurely offered as “best practice.”  

Whatever direction reform efforts take policing, one area of progress will remain a top priority for Force Science; teaching instructors to develop and present effective, evidence-based training programs.  

In Why Law Enforcement Needs to take a Science-Based Approach to Training and Education, the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) highlighted the latest survey of skill development and decision-making. In it, Dr. Bill Lewinski and Dr. Jennifer Robb confirmed that no matter the curriculum, the method of instruction remains critical for skill retention and effective decision-making.6

Keeping A Seat at the Table

In 2021 we expect that civic leaders, with the help of academics, activists, and attorneys, will continue to advance police reform through policies, legislation, and executive orders. Force Science will remain engaged with willing policymakers to ensure these reform proposals are not the product of ideas, intuition, or theories but instead reflect the latest human performance and decision-making research.

In our experience, many reform advocates, politicians, and journalists are motivated by a sincere desire to improve public safety. However, in Leading the National Discussion on Policing, we predicted that officers might have a tough time getting a seat at the table of police reform, “During these coming weeks and months, it is almost certain that you will be confronted by those who sincerely view the police (and those who support them) as the problem.7

Although we have not conducted a formal survey, police professionals have been validating our concern. With alarming regularity, seasoned officers have reported that their advice and experience is mostly ignored. Some report being left out of the discussions altogether, while other senior officials explained that politicians and activists have told them they would not be included in the police reform discussions. The reason given is that, as the police, they are the problem.

For those unable to join or influence reform proposals, it may be that reform advocates in your jurisdiction simply have different goals than those traditionally associated with policing (e.g., public safety, officer safety, law enforcement). If politicians or reform advocates are describing their programs as efforts to “achieve equity,” “support social justice,” or “dismantle systems of oppression,” then the training, education, and experience of veteran officers may not neatly align with their agenda. 

If that is your situation, joining the police reform discussion may require you first to understand the distinction between traditional reform (“constant and never-ending improvement”) and “progressive” police reform, a topic we will cover in the next Force Science News.

  1. See Process for Translating Research to Practice. American Society of Evidence-Based Policing. Last accessed January 28, 2021, at https://americansebp.org/process_for_translating_resear.php  []
  2. See Lewinski, W.J. (June 27, 2019). “Clinical” Law Enforcement. Force Science News. Last accessed January 25, 2021, at https://www.forcescience.org/2019/06/clinical-law-enforcement/ []
  3. See Remsberg, C. (June 15, 2005). Ejected Shell Casings Can’t Reliably Tell Much About a Shooter’s Location. Force Science News. Last accessed January 22, 2021, at https://www.forcescience.org/2005/06/ejected-shell-casings-cant-reliably-tell-much-about-a-shooters-location/ []
  4. See Remsberg, C. (April 22, 2005). Is The 21-Foot Rule Still Valid When Dealing With An Edged Weapon? (Part 1). Force Science News. Last Accessed January 22, 2021, at https://www.forcescience.org/2005/04/is-the-21-foot-rule-still-valid-when-dealing-with-an-edged-weapon-part-1/ []
  5. Learn more about Fundamentals of Realistic De-Escalation at https://www.forcescience.org/training/fundamentals-de-escalation/ and the Realistic De-Escalation Instructor Course at https://www.forcescience.org/training/de-escalation-instructor/ []
  6. See International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, Why Law Enforcement Needs to Take a Science-Based Approach to Training and Education (2020). Last accessed January 25, 2021, at https://www.iadlest.org/training/science-based-training. []
  7. See Kliem, L.V. (June 25, 2020). Leading the National Discussion on Policing. Force Science News. Last accessed January 22, 2021, at https://www.forcescience.org/2020/06/leading-the-national-discussion-on-policing/ []
3 Responses
  1. Robert O'Connor

    Thanks for all you do to stay on top of police use of force issues. Keep it up! Bob O’Connor. Retired, Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Special Agent Supervisor

  2. Many thanks for the for the continued drive toward legitimate research with facts. The “Post Truth” culture has become nearly impossible to dialogue with any real sense of accomplishments. Law enforcement leaders and experts are regularly finding ourselves on “Boards” or “Committees” who find little to no value in our decades of experience. Especially, when it doesn’t conform to a preconceived narrative. Yet, no one sees the irony in those positions.

  3. Kathleen Spaulding

    I believe citizens and police men an women should be represented on your committees. They should have a voice.

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