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New Studies to Reveal Best Methods for Peak-Performance Training

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Two major new studies of how best to train officers to maximize their street skills and win against potentially deadly suspects are being launched by the Force Science Research Center.

One project will focus on finding and teaching the most effective techniques for verbally gaining cooperation and preventing assaults by difficult-to-control subjects, such as the criminally inclined, the mentally ill, the drunk and drugged, and the developmentally impaired.

The second will be the most ambitious investigation yet undertaken by the FSRC. This study will explore how in-service and academy trainees can most reliably be elevated from mere competence to peak performance at all levels of the force continuum in a cost- and time-effective way.

“Both these pioneering projects will allow the FSRC ultimately to recommend specific, vital changes for strengthening police training, if and when necessary. This has been a challenging goal of ours from the beginning,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “We expect the results to reverberate throughout the law enforcement community world wide. Officers and trainers will be the immediate beneficiaries, then the citizens and communities they serve.”

Preliminaries are already underway, with the studies expected to be fully operational by January. Running simultaneously, each is expected to last at least 3 years.

The research has received 7-figure funding from the U.K. Police Federation of England and Wales, a staff association representing 140,000 police officers, from Constables to Chief Inspectors, as well as the Police Federation of the London Metropolitan Police Department. The research will be conducted predominately in the United Kingdom, although “the findings will be applicable to policing generally,” Lewinski assures. The British unions, he explains, have taken an aggressive role in encouraging scientific inquiries into LE issues “because they want to do whatever they can to maximize the safety of their officers and the community.”

Lewinski will be the lead researcher on both studies. On-site project coordinator will be Cst. Dave Blocksidge of the London Metropolitan Police. Blocksidge will be based in a satellite office the FSRC is opening in England.

In a recent interview with Force Science News, Lewinski described the basics of the 2 studies.

1. Verbal Communication & Persuasion Project

“One of the most powerful communication tools is persuasion,” Lewinski says. “Yet it is the least understood and taught component of a law enforcement curriculum.

“The core question this study will explore, he explains, is “how as a line officer you can be more effective verbally in persuading suspects to stop doing what they want to do but you don’t want them to do and start doing what you want them to do but they may not want to do.” In short, how can you best gain voluntary cooperation before force becomes necessary.

“Broadly speaking, there are 3 methods of persuasion: logical, emotional, and characterlogical,” Lewinski says. (Chacterlogical involves appealing to a person’s self-image.) “Each of these approaches may work in gaining compliance with certain subjects in certain circumstances, but no one method of persuasion works universally with all people in all situations.

“The key, then, to short-circuiting potentially dangerous confrontations before they escalate to a violent level requiring force is to learn to ‘read’ the subject and situation you’re dealing with and tailor what you say to the persuasion style most likely to be successful under those conditions.

“Officers often get in trouble because they aren’t able to accurately pick up on the cues they need to tell what style is appropriate, or they only know one approach-most often one that depends predominately on logic, which usually has limited effectiveness with some of the difficult subjects they encounter on the street.”

Among other things, the study will attempt to identify:

  •  specific behavioral cues to help officers easily determine the personality type they’re dealing with;
  • how officers can learn to read these faster;
  • the persuasion strategies and techniques most likely to be successful and those most likely to fail with the subject an officer is trying to communicate with;
  • how cues and effective techniques alike may vary from one cultural or ethnic group to another;
  • the training methods most effective for enabling officers to master a range of techniques and be able to apply them effectively under stress in street situations.

“London is one of the most diverse cities in the world,” Lewinski says, “so it will be an ideal testing laboratory when we bring what we learn to the street.”

The study will have 3 phases.

PHASE I

First, researchers will study police training curricula internationally to catalog what communication/persuasion techniques are currently being taught. Through focus groups of LE personnel, academic experts, professional specialists (those who work in clinical settings with the mentally ill and substance abusers, for example), and advocacy groups, they will also identify the kinds of situations in which vexing communication problems most often arise, and they’ll probe for resolution techniques that seem promising enough for scientific testing.

“It’s important to remember that law enforcement has different needs and expectations, as well as a different level of urgency usually, than practitioners in the social work and psychological communities,” Lewinski acknowledges. “But by the same token some techniques they find effective may be adaptable to common police situations, and we are looking here for fresh ideas not currently being widely exploited in police training and practice.”

During Phase I, researchers will also be examining instructional styles and how these can be adapted to the time and cost constraints of police academies.

“Advisory boards will be established to help us decide which techniques and which teaching styles we are going to research in depth,” Lewinski says.

PHASE II

Lewinski terms this “nuts and bolts time.” With the guidance of advisory boards of academic experts, the researchers will be “looking at effective tests to identify different student learning styles, and then identify the teaching style that best trains each type of student.”

As Lewinski explains, “There are trainees who learn best through seeing, others who are auditory learners, others who learn by doing, and some who only learn well through a combination of all three styles.” If a student’s optimum learning style can be reliably determined and then matched to the most compatible instructional style, then the researchers hope to establish how this linkage can be utilized within academy and in-service training limitations to maximize each student’s comprehension and performance.

PHASE III

Finally, there will be the evaluation or “pay-off” stage. Through computerized simulations, role playing, and ultimately street testing, the researchers will assess both content and instruction-what communication/persuasion techniques prove to work best in practical, real-life policing situations and what training method(s) best teach officers to use them successfully.

By the time this study concludes, Lewinski is convinced, it will have yielded surprising new guidelines for persuasive communication in volatile encounters. He offers some observations on the kind of useful material that may emerge:

In dealing with EDPs, officers are often taught currently to “try to convince them you are their friend and want to help them,” Lewinski says. “But if the subject is extremely suspicious or paranoid, that approach may only heighten his suspicion and make him more reluctant to cooperate. We may find that the best way to work with paranoids would be to encourage them to be suspicious of you while you work with them. Paradoxical, but possibly most effective.”

With amoral or criminal personalities, an appeal to their emotions or self-esteem is rarely persuasive, he believes. “They’re not interested in feeling good or in your opinion of their character. They’ll seek whatever is in their best interest, how they can get out of the situation with the greatest ‘cost-saving’ to them. So I think we’ll find that techniques employing logic are most likely to be effective: ‘If you cooperate, this is what you get; if you don’t, this is what you get.’”

Street experience shows that “if you find yourself liking someone greatly or hating them instantly, it may be that they are trying to play you, to read you to see how to manipulate you, and they’re either connecting or missing. Start being suspicious that you’re dealing with a dangerous psychopathic personality. If you get sucked in to the wrong persuasion style in trying to handle him, it could be extremely dangerous or even deadly for you.”

Lewinski explains that “cops aren’t going to need to become psychiatric diagnosticians to be good persuaders. I believe we can come up with simple ways they can quickly characterize the difficulty they are having with an individual and then know how to overcome it.

“Today we have many theories and techniques being taught for how to do that, and many methods of instruction. We haven’t yet proven what’s best. Thousands of officers will be involved in this study, helping us establish scientific answers.”

This study is being funded by the London Metropolitan Police Federation, a joint committee of the London Met staff associations representing constables, sergeants, and inspectors.

2. Skills Enhancement Study

This will be a broad-based examination of training methods across the full spectrum of force skills, encompassing verbal commands, empty-hand control, OC, electronic and impact weapons, and firearms.

Pivotal to the study will be interaction between two “think tanks,” to be created by the FSRC and drawn from the UK, the US, and Canada.

One advisory group will consist of about 15-20 top academic authorities who have specialized in various aspects of human performance under high stress, including sports psychology, cognition (how the brain works), perception (how the brain and eyes work together), attention, and memory. The other group will be some 40-50 LE trainers who are considered experts in their particular force disciplines.

Using Britain’s national force curriculum as a reference, the trainers will identify what techniques need to be taught in what time frame and the academics, drawing on their expertise, will suggest instructional methods that can best maximize trainees’ abilities.

“A collaboration on this scale has never been done before,” Lewinski says, “and it has the potential of significantly improving officers’ chances of surviving and winning to everyone’s advantage in violent confrontations.”

Currently, he claims, most training programs, especially in the realm of defensive tactics, “teach officers to a level of competency. To use a sports analogy, we lob softballs at them in training and expect them then to defend their life on the street when they’re up against a world-class pitcher who’s hurling hardballs at them at 90 miles an hour.

“Training to competency means the student is adequate to qualify but the skill is not likely to be deep-seated. For instance, if you have to think about how to use a control hold in a street conflict, by the time you’ve thought about it the opportunity to use it may be gone. Your thinking has occupied too much of your mental resources for too long.

“Ideally, we want to train to a level of proficiency. That’s where you’ve developed your physical and mental abilities to the point where you can stay focused on the threat confronting you and no conscious thought is required to confidently and properly apply the skill that is required for a successful outcome.

“The goal of this study is to determine how to train to this level-peak performance-with methods that work within law enforcement’s time and cost restrictions. With the help of the think-tank advisors, our researchers will look at what is being taught, how it is taught, how students tend best to learn force-related skills, and what improvements need to be made to bring law enforcement training to the next level.”

At least a year of the study will be devoted to rigorously and scientifically testing whatever proposals are made, Lewinski says. “Too much of police training has been based on what seems logical, on tradition, and on what influential individuals lobby for. We want to move the profession forward based on the science of human behavior.”

Some recommended changes may prove to be relatively minor, he anticipates. For example, in one academy he’s familiar with the entire class of D.T. students is required to watch while each member tries to pass the final qualification exam. “Nothing is gained by those watching, but 6 to 8 hours of their limited time is wasted, about a fifth of the total course. Without extending the course or incurring additional costs, that time could be devoted to gaining additional reps, if nothing else, to enhance the trainees’ skills.”

He’s confident that more profound means of strengthening training will also surface as the 2 think tanks work together to adapt to law enforcement various performance-enhancement techniques that have proven successful and are well-established in other settings. “From sports psychology, for example, we may learn how to teach control of attention in the midst of conflict as a cognitive skill,” he says. “That, in turn, could help us train officers to direct their attention to the right tasks when under threat, and that could have a life-or-death impact on their survival.”

Financing for this study is provided by the National Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents all operations officers at the rank of constables, sergeants, and inspectors within those 2 countries.

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