A new study that measured the body-alarm reactions of officers during and after an armed encounter underscores the value of simulation training and the need for treating shooting survivors with sensitivity during OIS investigations.
The study confirms that participating in a realistic training scenario can deliver close to the same emotional and physiological wallop that would be expected from an actual shooting, and reveals that recalling what happened in a life-threatening encounter even hours later during an interview in a safe setting can be nearly as stressful as experiencing the danger in the first place.
“These preliminary findings have profound implications for trainers and investigators alike,” Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, told Force Science News.
“They help us better understand how best to prepare officers to meet the mental and physical strain of violent confrontations and how we should approach them afterward to best mine their memories.”
More new discoveries are expected to emerge as data collected during the study are more thoroughly analyzed this winter.
The study is part of a broad-based investigation underway by FSRC into how officers process and remember life-threatening events. It was conducted at a training facility near London, England, with funding from the Constables’ Branch Board of the London Metropolitan Police Federation. The Board approached FSRC about collaborating on a series of practical research experiments related to street performance after failing to find any sources for such critical studies in England.
Last October, under Lewinski’s direction, and with coordination by Branch Board representative Dave Blocksidge, 48 male and female volunteers from London’s armed response teams, SWAT unit and diplomatic protection group were fitted with heart-rate monitors by Justin Dixon, head of the exercise physiology lab for the Met force.
Divided into teams of 3 and armed with Glock 17s loaded with Simunition blanks, they were assigned one team at a time to participate in the same scenario: an armed robber had been shot and was in a hospital setting; they were to respond to his bedside as a protection-and-containment unit.
As each team entered a simulated hospital lobby, filled with patients and visitors, they unexpectedly witnessed a verbal altercation in progress between a receptionist and a man who claimed to be the brother of the wounded bandit. He was adamantly insisting on seeing the suspect; the receptionist was standing firm that no visitors were allowed.
The male role-player kept escalating the situation, even grabbing the receptionist if that’s what it took to provoke the officers to intervene. (This was so realistically staged that during one enactment when Lewinski was playing the receptionist, he was dragged across a desk and broke his glasses!)
As officers responded to calm the conflict, another “brother” of the armed robber unexpectedly popped out of a room off the lobby, wielding a sawed-off shotgun and holding a female hostage. He fired Simunition blasts out of both barrels into the floor, then pointed the gun at the officers and started to make loud demands that his wounded brother be freed.
As soon as officers responded–invariably by shooting and controlling him–the scenario ended. (Interestingly, the volunteers were highly enough trained that even though they had never worked together before, each team automatically split its areas of responsibility so that while 2 officers dealt with the receptionist squabble one stayed alert to the surrounding environment. “As a result,” Lewinski recalls, “the response to the suspect with the shotgun was so fast he never got a chance to fully voice his demands.”)
Immediately after the scenario, the officers, still wearing their heart monitors, were divided into different groups. Some conferred with other team members on what they had just experienced, which Lewinski says is standard after-action practice on London Met. Others were not permitted to confer. Then each of these groups was further divided. Some wrote reports of the incident and some were interviewed.
The interviews were conducted by trained investigators who had undergone refresher sessions on cognitive interviewing techniques before the scenario. Again, cognitive interviewing, a specialized technique in which all an officer’s senses are explored in an effort to enhance memory of a stressful experience, is standard practice on London Met, Lewinski says. (The refresher training, in this case, was provided by Dr. Amina Memon, a psychologist with the University of Glasgow and a recognized expert on that interviewing style.)
Finally, the officers were subjected to aerobic fitness tests during which Dixon measured their pulse rates and oxygen levels.
“The results are being tabulated in fine detail and will be analyzed extensively but early emerging patterns already appear important,” Lewinski says. He elaborates on 2 of these:
1. Pulse rates among the officers spiked to 160 bpm once the shooting started. “That’s roughly double the normal heart rate for a reasonably fit person,” Lewinski says.
No matter how fit an officer was proven to be by the physical test at the end of the experiment, his or her pulse rate shot up to about 75% of his or her maximum heart rate during the sudden, intense psychological stress of the simulated shooting threat.
“This validates the value of simulation training,” Lewinski explains. “It confirms that realistic scenarios do produce extreme stress arousal that is at least in the range of what a real-life situation would provoke. And this, in turn, helps acclimate an officer to respond well under high psychological stress conditions on the street,” where decision-making and skill performance would generally deteriorate without that training “inoculation.”
To achieve that benefit, however, Lewinski emphasizes that exposure to training scenarios has to be more than just a one-time “demonstration.” A department “needs to use simulation training on a repeated, consistent, sustained basis and the scenarios need to be constantly freshened in order to remain unpredictable and provocative.”
In any encounter, Lewinski says, “confidence undergirds competence. The more genuinely confident you are in your performance, the better your performance will be.
“By participating in simulation scenarios, you gain confidence that transfers to the real world. You get used to performing under high levels of stress and are less likely to react to it with fear or anger. Instead of being alien territory, stress actually becomes your friend, When you’re accustomed to it, emotional intensity fuels great decision-making and great performance.
“The study findings regarding body arousal suggest that trainers who advocate simulation training for these reasons are on the right track.”
2. During the post-scenario interviews, when participants were asked to recall details of the threat encounter, heart monitors recorded jumps in the officers’ pulse rates up to 135 bpm, about 60% of their maximum heart rate.
“This was less than the spike that occurred during the scenario itself, but still significantly above normal and surprisingly close to the impact of actually experiencing the confrontation,” Lewinski says. “In other words, vividly ‘reliving’ the event in your imagination and talking about it can produce essentially a secondary stress assault.
“The implication of this is very profound,” Lewinski declares. “The interviews took place one to three hours after the simulated life-threat, but a strong stress arousal was still produced just by recalling the experience.
“From this, there’s no doubt that officers need to be treated with sensitivity after being in a shooting. Not that they need to be unduly coddled, but they do need time to decompress and allow the stress response to abate somewhat so they’re not handling the most difficult interview of their life while in the midst of emotional turmoil. Expecting them to be RoboCops and immediately report all pertinent information factually and completely is not realistic.
“We know from other research that stress hormones tend to interfere with how memories are formed. Stress affects how memories are consolidated and recalled. So re-inflicting a stressful mental state by asking an officer to recount the event before he has had a chance to process it on his own is not likely to be helpful in getting as full and accurate a picture as possible. The clarity of his thinking and recall is going to be significantly impaired if he’s pushed into giving a statement too soon.”
How long a report or interview should be delayed and what preliminaries might be helpful (such as a walk-through of the scene) were not part of this phase of the bigger study, Lewinski says. But he does expect that other important findings about memory will yet emerge from the recent experiment.
Three cameras, as well as audio equipment, recorded the scenario so that what actually was said and done can be compared to the officers’ memories of what took place. Among other things, the researchers will be analyzing the effect that officers conferring with their teammates had on their recollections.
Initially, Lewinski reveals, it appears that allowing officers to confer produced a significantly fuller and more accurate account of what happened, but that impression is yet to be precisely quantified from the data.
Force Science News will keep you updated as more information becomes available.