Force Science News #171:
First results from ongoing survey of officers who survive wounds
In this edition:
I. First results from ongoing survey of officers who survive wounds
The first small sample of “near-miss” reports about officers who survived potentially fatal injuries has been reviewed by the VALOR Project—with some surprises emerging.
VALOR (Violence Against Law Officer Research) is the umbrella name for a variety of ongoing studies by Dr. Matt Sztajnkrycer, seeking to improve on-scene casualty care for wounded LEOs. Sztajnkrycer is chairman of emergency medicine research for the Mayo Clinic, a SWAT doc and police medical advisor in Minnesota, and a faculty member for the certification course in Force Science Analysis.
Last October, he launched a website (www.valorproject.org) where law enforcement professionals can confidentially report details of street encounters that could have resulted in officer mortalities but did not. By studying injuries that were survived, his intention is to gather important information that will ultimately be helpful in determining the best crisis medical interventions for wounded personnel. [See Force Science News Transmission #161, sent 10/22/10, for full details.]
Recently, Sztajnkrycer reported on the first 37 responses he has received—34 from 17 U.S. states and 3 from 2 Canadian provinces. A “broad spectrum” of federal, state, county, and municipal agencies are represented. There is a relatively even distribution between wounds considered slight, severe, and critical.
“Although we need many more contributions before solid conclusions can be drawn, I wanted at least to start getting information out to people who can use it. The responses already are showing some interesting preliminaries relevant to everyone,” Sztajnkrycer told FSN.
• Nearly 40% of the injury cases involved officers working alone, with no immediate backup available. “This has a major implication for departmental medical training,” Sztajnkrycer says. “Without buddy-aid capability, a wounded officer not only has to manage whatever tactical threat exists but also be able to take care of treating himself until backup or medical professionals arrive.”
• Injuries most often occurred (10 cases out of the 37) on “suspicious person” calls—more than twice as often as on domestics, which often get featured treatment in news reports. “This may change as we get more data,” Sztajnkrycer explains, “but right now a suspicious-person assignment seems to be a particular red flag.” The second most common circumstance for injury (16%): vehicle stops for traffic violations.
• Wounding by gunshot was the cause of more than two-thirds of the injuries reported, with only one case of MVA injury reported. This surprises Sztajnkrycer and he suspects “hindsight bias” is involved. “Looking back, officers are probably more likely to remember and report a tactical situation gone bad than a driving mishap which may be dismissed as ‘just one of those things’ without any particular lessons to be learned. Given the rate that officers are killed in MVAs, however, near-miss injuries in that category are undoubtedly important to know more about.”
• Also surprising—and also possibly influenced by hindsight bias—was the frequency of wounded officers needing to be rescued under conditions of an active continuing threat. “This occurred in one-quarter of the sample—a lot,” Sztajnkrycer says. “If this is truly reflective of field circumstances it shows the importance of knowing how to evaluate the condition of downed officers and to rehearse and perform safe extractions.”
• The most common medical attention provided in the field by LEOs to themselves or other officers was the control of bleeding. Mostly this was done by bandage and manual pressure. But in 2 cases, tourniquets were used. This is important information, Sztajnkrycer points out, because some question has been raised about the value of tourniquets in treating injured cops, given that wounds fatal to officers tend to be in the chest or head where tourniquets can’t help. The VALOR findings, however, show that some survivable wounds are indeed tourniquet-responsive.
• Verbal reassurance was offered to injured officers by other LEOs in a majority of cases. Even if no medical aid can be provided, verbal encouragement is “very important psychologically,” Sztajnkrycer says. “There’s a huge amount of comfort in being in the presence of friends telling you everything’s going to be okay. That can be a vital factor in maintaining the will to live.”
• More injured officers (about 25%) were transported to a medical facility by police car than Sztajnkrycer expected. “Except in cases where there’s concern about moving a patient because of neck injuries, this is probably desirable, given the wait time for ambulance or helicopter response, especially in rural areas,” he says. “Even if you start moving toward a hospital and intercept EMS along the way, you can cut down on wasted time. There is some recently published data from Philadelphia suggesting that police transport of patients with penetrating (stab or gunshot) trauma is safe. But if you’re going to transport people by car, you need to practice. It’s not easy to get a big officer wearing a vest, duty belt, and so on into the back of a squad car with a cage.”
In addition to compiling statistical tallies, Sztajnkrycer will be analyzing narratives that accompanied the submitted cases for additional data, especially information that might be helpful in shaping training recommendations.
A detailed summary of the initial near-miss findings appears on the VALOR Project website and also on a new VALOR Project Facebook page. New reports of injury cases can be submitted at the Project website, and Sztajnkrycer strongly urges that you send him information whenever you have knowledge of officer injuries.
“I’m dedicated to analyzing all the data I can get,” he says. “The more we can learn about what works in the field and what doesn’t, the faster training can be designed and shared to help keep officers alive.”
He intends to continue gathering near-miss reports indefinitely. Please remember to help as you experience or learn about such cases.
II. San Francisco trainers bring Force Science to “skeptical” media
It’s not unusual for progressive agencies to expose news reporters to use-of-force simulators. But San Francisco PD has added a unique Force Science twist.
After a recent spate of officer-involved shootings that attracted considerable public controversy, the department invited representatives from mainstream and alternative Bay-area media to the training academy for an afternoon’s immersion in force decision-making from a cop’s point of view.
Among the instructors who addressed the crowd of about 30 reporters and photographers before introducing them to the Meggitt simulator was Sgt. Michael Nevin, an OIS investigator, force options trainer, and certified Force Science Analyst.
As a group, the journalists “seemed skeptical when they came in,” Nevin told Force Science News. But seizing the “opportunity to speak directly to the public through them,” he drew on his Force Science training to paint a vivid picture of what an officer typically goes through during a life-threatening confrontation. Ofcr. Ryan Seto, a fellow Analyst and the academy’s force options coordinator, also joined in the presentation.
They talked about such things as the impact of high stress on the human brain and body, research into action and reaction times, concepts like inattentional blindness and perceptual narrowing, the effects of critical incidents on memory—“a lot of Dr. Bill stuff,” Nevin says, referring to Dr. Bill Lewinski, the faculty anchor in the week-long Force Science certification course.
After showing a couple of dash-cam videos that are analyzed during the course, Nevin sensed “a detectable attitude shift” in the media audience. Both videos capture a real-world, real-time police shooting, but from different angles.
After the first, a brief, limited view of the nighttime action, there was consensus that the encounter looked like an unjustified “execution” of a non-threatening suspect, Nevin recalls. But then the second recording, longer and broader in perspective, revealed more of what happened. The belligerent suspect was seen actively resisting an officer’s physical attempt to control him, assuming a shooter’s stance, and repeatedly pointing what appears to be a weapon at another officer before he is brought down with multiple police rounds.
“Did everyone see the suspect’s gun this time?” Nevin asked the crowd. All agreed that they had and that the officers “did what they had to do to defend themselves.”
Only then did Nevin reveal that what the suspect had been pointing at police was actually a cell phone.
The news people “were really thrown back,” he says. “They began to see that police shooting are not always as simple as they may appear and that video is merely one 2-dimensional resource in understanding a shooting, not the whole story.”
After that, those who volunteered were equipped with training guns, OC, and batons and run through force-option scenarios with the simulator. As expected, they experienced many of the physiological challenges Nevin and Seto had described: strong stress reactions (sweating, heavy breathing, racing heart rates), mistakes in perception and judgment, and shortcomings in memory afterward when they were asked to relate what happened.
“We paired them up for the simulator exercises so they could see how different officers legitimately come up with different descriptions of the same incident,” Nevin explains. “And we replayed each scenario so they could see that there were things they missed when they were actively in the exercise. Even those who didn’t participate got a lot out of just watching what happened.
Nevin strongly recommends that other departments stage similar media days. “A lot of the information we were able to get across was brand new to most of these people,” he says. “Their reporting of what they experienced was very positive. The TV stations had satellite trucks there and gave live news feeds from the scene.
“Long term, I think that when these reporters cover an officer-involved shooting in the future, they’ll pause and think about their story line and remember the hours they spent at the academy.
“OIS stories capture the attention of the public and they are going to be reported on whether you want them to be or not. If you’re not able to get your side out there, the narrative will be defined for you.”
[For one of the reports that emerged from the SFPD event, see “Humans and stress: the science of police shootings.” This account, which you can click here to read, appeared in The Informant, an online publication of the public radio station KALW News.]
III. Mailbag: Our readers write…
When reporters seek comment on another agency’s tragedy
Regarding efforts by the news media to draw comments from private-sector professionals and trainers from other agencies when a department suffers a line-of-duty fatality:
It is seldom in the best interest of the law enforcement community to offer any opinion to the media regarding policies and procedures prior to a formal investigation and before the department whose officers have been lost has had the opportunity to make an official statement.
Most savvy reporters are trained to keep you on the phone, regardless of whether your initial intention is to refrain from commenting on the situation. The longer you stay on the phone, the greater the chance that you will inadvertently say something that could give them exactly what they are looking for, a juicy story that sells.
Whenever a blanket statement is made that insinuates any deviation from policy or good procedures, the media translates that into an open invitation to ask the WHY question. The WHY question is impossible to adequately address without FULLY understanding the totality of circumstances, which may take weeks or months to truly define. An immediate over-generalization can seriously mislead readers or viewers and unjustly discredit the agency and officer(s) involved.
If you are asked to comment on another agency’s tragedy, our recommended response is along these lines:
“Police officers work to preserve the safety and security of their communities. Today, a community hero paid the ultimate sacrifice. We offer our thoughts and prayers for all who have lost their loved ones. At this time of great sorrow, patience and understanding are needed until a thorough investigation has been completed and the cause of this horrific tragedy has been determined.”
Make no further comment. We as trainers must be cautious and understand the limitations of our expertise and our knowledge of events that may have occurred far from home. Effective communication is an art best left to those who specialize in this critical, yet often overlooked, discipline.
President, training coordinator
SARK Securities Inc.
Is it time to require “cognitive” recertification?
Regarding current shortcomings in officer qualification standards:
Law enforcement requires officers to qualify regularly with their firearms, but not their brains. There is really no effort made to determine if an officer possesses a sound mind.
I have noticed in a lot of the recertifications I teach, there is “slippage” of cognitive and motor skills with some officers due to age, unknown cognitive degeneration, deteriorating physical skills, or just plain laziness. An annual “sound mind” qualification could focus not just on overall psychological health, but things like reaction times and eye-hand coordination as well.
Also statistically, it is much more likely an officer will lay his hands on someone vs. pulling his gun, much less pulling the trigger. Officers train and practice control tactics and self-defense tactics, but are they required to qualify at least as often as they are with their handguns? Cops would be much better off keeping their cardiovascular system in shape if they had some qualification incentive.
If we really want to get radical, we should be suggesting career paths for aging officers within law enforcement based on these qualification outcomes—places where their wisdom and talents can and should be utilized, instead of allowing them to cling to positions they are no longer well-suited to be in.
CEO, Sr. Dir. of Research & Education
Assault Prevention LLC
Written by Force Science Institute
February 8th, 2011 at 8:17 am
© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.