Force Science News #93
In this issue:
I. Is the “triangle of death” real?
II. Scott Buhrmaster joins Force Science
III. Center findings gain global exposure
I. “Triangle of Death”: Is the threat real?
The rumor bouncing around various law enforcement listservs piqued Cmdr. Michael Richards’ curiosity.
Street gangs in California, the story went, were training members to shoot cops at night by aiming for the highly visible patch of white T-shirt exposed above the top of many officers’ vests. “The Triangle of Death,” posters to the listservs called it.
Whether the rumor was fact or fiction, Richards wondered: Just how dangerous is this so-called Triangle of Death for LEOs?
He set up a little experiment that he says shocked him.
On the indoor range of his department, Mundelein (IL) PD, an agency of 50 sworn in a suburb northwest of Chicago, he positioned a 6 ft.-tall mannequin target, buttoned a blue uniform shirt on it, and slipped a sheet of white, legal-sized paper behind the shirt so that just enough was exposed at the top to simulate a bit of T-shirt.
He then dimmed the lighting to resemble “what you’d find in an older residential neighborhood, with some streetlamps and a lot of heavy trees,” he told Force Science News. “You could make out the target, but you had to strain to really see what was going on.” In other words, a lot like normal nighttime patrol conditions in many areas. From the control booth, Richards says, “the contrast between the patch of white paper and the dark shirt was really obvious.”
One at a time, he brought in a series of randomly selected officers he knew, as the department’s rangemaster, to be “average” shooters. “They typically qualify with low numbers, don’t necessarily like to shoot and go to the range only because they have to,” he explained. “I figured they’d be like the typical suspect who gets into a shooting with an officer-not overly proficient with a handgun. I didn’t want any of the top shooters involved.”
Explaining only that this was a “quick course in low-light shooting” so as not to tip off the true point of the test, Richards led each officer to a spot about 10 feet in front of the target. He told each to draw at the sound of a timer buzzer, step to the left or to the right, come up on target, fire 3 rounds as fast as possible, then scan the area. By incorporating movement, scanning and time pressure, “I wanted to distract them from thinking too much about the target.”
Each officer fired a total of 18 rounds (6 sets of 3 shots apiece), using his duty pistol (either a .40-cal. Glock or a Sig). After an officer finished, the “T-shirt” was changed before the next test subject was brought in.
“The shot placement was shocking” when he analyzed the results, Richards says. “On our department we train to shoot center mass, usually using flat, 2-dimensional targets on a fully lit range. In training, our shots consistently tend to go to the center. If officers are shooting at high speed, their rounds may drop down toward the stomach, but they don’t often go higher.”
In his low-light experiment, by contrast, more than 80% of the shots across all the officers and all sets of fire hit in or immediately around the Triangle of Death simulated by the peek of white paper. In other words, Richards concluded, in low light they overrode their training and focused their shots on what was most vividly visible. All the officers confirmed in a post-shooting debrief that the patch of white had drawn their aim.
“Absolutely right,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. Although Richards’ sample was limited (only 6 officers) and his methods admittedly not scientifically pristine, the thrust of his experiment and his thinking are right on track, Lewinski maintains.
“Our research on attention shows that when people are trying to understand what is happening in a stressful, uncertain situation, they scan the scene quickly and grasp little bits of available information,” he explains. “This process is automatic, almost instinctive. For the most part, their attention is attracted to something first and then shortly after that they recognize why it caught their attention.
“This was verified in one Force Science study in which officers were thrust into a rapidly evolving, very complex and dynamic situation. Their immediate response was to scan the scene in an effort to understand it. In doing so, they reported picking up noticeable elements of each person they scanned. Something about that person attracted their attention to a particular body part, article of clothing or motion.
“The same phenomenon is at work with the ‘Triangle of death’ under low-light conditions. The brightest part of the officer’s body is automatically drawing the attention and the gunfire of subjects intent on attacking.”
Firearms expert Ron Avery, a technical advisor to the FSRC, notices the same low-light aiming tendency that Richards documented when he’s training officers from a wide variety of agencies through his Practical Shooting Academy (Visit the site).
As he puts it: “People shoot at what they can see, what they can focus on, not at what you train them. In low-light conditions, movement, shine, contrast and outline (silhouette) all become target indicators to a potential attacker. Shooters tend impulsively to take the target of opportunity, and when time is not working in their favor the target of opportunity is whatever is most noticeable.”
The problem is by no means limited just to white T-shirts under a dark uniform, Avery emphasizes. “Light-colored shoulder patches, shiny badges, bright metal on hats, an activated flashlight-anything that creates a contrast can be dangerous. In semi-darkness like ambient moonlight, even sweat on your face and hands can be reflective.”
For safety, he says, “you want to minimize yourself as a target.” This includes keeping your clothing low-contrast, staying in shadows as much as possible at night when you’re moving or pausing to observe, and being aware of your background environment.”
So far as the Triangle of Death is concerned, “Don’t equate looking professional with wearing a crisp white T-shirt under your uniform,” Avery cautions. “Dress for your mission: that’s the dress code for the modern officer.”
Cmdr. Richards now urges all his officers to wear dark T-shirts on duty. He and all the department’s firearms instructors do so, as a show of “leadership by example.” Most patrol officers have followed suit. A few officers still wear white, unmindful of what Avery calls “a no-brainer.”
[Our thanks to Jeff Chudwin, chief of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) PD and master of an outstanding law enforcement listserv, for tipping us to Cmdr. Richards' experiment.]
II. Scott Buhrmaster joins Force Science in key role
Force Science is pleased to announce that Scott Buhrmaster has joined the organization as Vice President of Operations. His addition comes as part of a growth initiative recently launched by Force Science in response to increased research activities, expert witness requests and training opportunities worldwide.
Buhrmaster, who has been a member of the FSRC’s National Advisory Board since its inception in 2004, was most recently Vice President of Training and Content at PoliceOne.com, with whom Force Science is strategically partnered. He will continue to serve as a consulting editor at PoliceOne.
Buhrmaster began his career in law enforcement training nearly two decades ago when he joined Calibre Press, Inc., where he was involved with virtually every aspect of the company’s officer survival training efforts, from the planning, creation and marketing of award-winning textbooks and videos to developing and securing content for the popular Street Survival® Seminar. In 1995, he was named Director of Calibre Press’ Street Survival® Newsline, an Internet-based training service he helped found. In less than five years, Newsline readership grew from 25 officers to more than 250,000 in 26 countries, making it one of the most popular training vehicles in law enforcement history. Most recently, Buhrmaster served as General Manager at Calibre Press after PoliceOne acquired the organization.
Buhrmaster has served as Publisher of The Police Marksman magazine, Contributing Editor for Law Officer magazine and Coordinating Editor for Force Science News, the Center’s bi-monthly e-newsletter. Additionally, he has served as a consultant for a variety of companies involved with law enforcement training, publishing and public relations. He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Assn. (ILEETA) and a past member of the American Society for Law Enforcement Training (ASLET). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
III. Force Science findings gain global exposure at two major conferences
Findings of the Force Science Research Center were shared at two major conferences recently. The first was the inaugural conference of the Assn. of European Threat Assessment Professionals held earlier this month [3/08] in Lucerne, Switzerland, where Cst. Dave Blocksidge, coordinator of FSRC’s research projects in London, England, made a presentation on the Center’s work.
Blocksidge, a firearms instructor and member of the Dignitary Protection Unit of the London Metropolitan Police, discussed the need for law enforcement executives to realistically consider the biological, physiological and psychological realities of human performance when formulating policy. In particular, he addressed issues of practicality regarding the recommendation by a consultant to the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police that officers employ head shots when trying to stop suicide bombers, a tactic that would require an exceptionally high level of training to perform successfully. [See Force Science News transmissions #26 (9/1/05), #27 (9/8/05) and #28
The AETAP has been formed to disseminate the latest information on threat assessment research and management in Europe and North America.
The second presentation, made in Las Vegas this week (3/6/08) before 800 homicide investigators at the annual California Homicide Investigators Association conference, featured the FSRC’s Executive Director, Dr. Bill Lewinski. Lewinski explained how many of the Center’s key findings can have a major impact on the investigations of officer-involved shootings. “Our work has helped investigators understand the critical differences between officer and civilian behavior during high-stress deadly force encounters,” he told Force Science News. “These differences play a pivotal role in determining what exactly happened during these types of confrontations and can dramatically impact the final judgement of an officer’s decision-making, and ultimately his level of justification for using deadly force, during the incident.”