Do experienced, survival-savvy cops visually dissect and evaluate a potentially deadly scene differently than inexperienced or unaware officers or civilians?
Certainly seems logical…and now researchers are about to find out not only whether that’s really true but also exactly how the best cops’ eyes seek and track danger cues.
What they learn about the specifics of human “scan patterns” may significantly increase your survival odds by showing you how to detect and analyze lethal threats more efficiently, respond faster to protect yourself, and explain better in reports and in court why you took decisive defensive action.
“The rapid, accurate acquisition of information is the most important thing in a lethal-force encounter,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “We want to figure out how good cops get visual information and make good decisions. That undergirds everything. If you make wrong decisions–or no decision–because you’re not picking up and properly interpreting important visual cues, that can have fatal consequences for you.”
Lewinski became interested in scan patterns–the precise sequencing of eye movements made in taking in a field of view–because of research at Florida State University-Tallahassee on athletes and fighter pilots.
There Dr. Paul Ward found that highly skilled, elite athletes have a very different pattern of eye movements when surveying a field of play than do less-skilled, sub-elite athletes. That’s apparently because their training and experience have taught them to look for and acknowledge certain behaviors in their opponents that, correctly interpreted, will help them anticipate and prepare for the flow of play.
“A good baseball batter begins to read a pitch very early from the way the pitcher’s arm is working,” Lewinski explains. “The batter is setting up his swing long before the ball crosses the plate, whereas the amateur may wait until the ball is coming at him and then it’s too late to respond most effectively.
“The great hockey legend Wayne Gretski was known for his fast reactions and for always being in the right place at the right time. His father started taking him to arenas when he was very young and taught him to track the players and the puck on the ice. He learned to see and interpret patterns that allowed him to anticipate the action.”
An intriguing aspect of Ward’s work is that elite athletes, in addition to responding better, also remember more of an event–particularly those elements connected to their actions–than do non-elite athletes.
A colleague of Ward’s, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, found in studying outstanding Swedish fighter pilots that they, too, had visual scan patterns that differed from less experienced flyers.
“We suspect that the same is true among police officers,” says Lewinski. “We want first to document the scan patterns of seasoned officers, of rookies and of civilians as they view short, dynamic, rapidly unfolding situations. Once these differences are understood, we hope to develop ways to teach officers the best scan patterns for assessing people and places so they get better at reading situations and more clearly and quickly see, evaluate and respond appropriately to lethal threats.”
In a collaborative project now getting underway with Ward and Ericsson, a team of firearms trainers and police attorneys assembled by FSRC first will analyze multiple deadly force training scenarios supplied by the IES Interactive Training company of Littleton, CO. They will study and catalog body movements and other visual cues as each incident unfolds, identifying indicators that a threat is potentially present, when it becomes imminent and when it becomes immediate.
The Florida researchers then will show the scenarios on IES’s Rangemaster simulator to a representative sampling of officers and civilians and track their scan patterns with the help of special optical equipment. They’ll determine what skilled officers look at and in what sequence in order to quickly pick up on the danger signs, compared to the scan patterns of subjects who miss or misinterpret what is happening.
The findings should have important survival implications, particularly if successful scan patterning can be “blueprinted” and taught to others. “Scan patterns undoubtedly affect reaction time and the quality of response,” Lewinski believes. “The more efficient you are in looking for and recognizing potential or unfolding threats, the more time you have for decision-making and reacting.”
There also could be significant legal consequences. “Many times after violent encounters the reports of civilian witnesses about what happened are vastly different than what officers saw and reacted to,” Lewinski says. “Their respective scan patterns may well be an important factor. Officers simply see things that civilians don’t, and see their implications differently.
“If this can be documented and explained, it could help counter the suspicion that an officer is lying about perceived threats when stories conflict. We’ll be able to explain in objective terms how and why people see different things in the same situation.”
Preliminary results are expected as early as next spring, with a detailed analysis of the research probably available by next summer.
Once the scan phenomenon is researched, more work will need to be done to determine how much of quality performance is due to natural ability and how much can be influenced by training, Lewinski says. The FSRC will collaborate with IES and with LaserMax Inc. of Rochester, NY on the research.