Three studies that will explore certain subtleties of force encounters in hopes of improving safety on the street are underway at the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
One is expected to provide insights into a phenomenon that has not previously been analyzed in detail, says FSRC’s executive director, Dr. Bill Lewinski. That’s how-and how fast-wounded suspects fall down once they’ve been shot.
A second project involves extending earlier research into the nature of verbal commands that law officers give in life-threatening situations, and the third will measure the potentially dangerous time cost of visual distractions when officers are trying to focus on a suspect’s threatening behavior.
“These investigations will help us understand more fully the true dynamics of lethal confrontations,” Lewinski told Force Science News. “The more we can expand our knowledge, the better equipped we’ll be to help officers react appropriately and effectively to threats against them and also help those who judge officers’ actions to properly evaluate controversial encounters.”
For example, he explains, when suspects collapse after being shot, they sometimes fall through an officer’s continuing field of fire. “This can result in wounds in the top of the head and other locations that in retrospect may look suspicious and may be misinterpreted as ‘execution’ shots that were delivered after the subject was down.
“Knowing more about how suspects typically fall could be critical in accurately re-creating some encounters, particularly in pinpointing the timing and sequence of shots fired.”
In gathering resource material for both the falling and the commands studies, FSRC enjoyed the generous cooperation of In the Line of Duty, the independent law enforcement training organization that is well-known for its real-life, “lessons learned” video programs.
With the help of ILOD researcher Julie Van Dielen, 3 FSRC representatives spent nearly a week reviewing all of the hundreds of camcorder tapes of officer-involved shootings archived at the company’s headquarters in a St. Louis suburb. “Their eyes were glazed, their tongues were hanging out, and they couldn’t wait to get the flock out of here,” says ILOD president Ron Barber.
He was joking-but barely. The team returned to FSRC with more than 260 video clips that reflect officers issuing commands to confrontational suspects, wounded suspects falling, or both. [For a steady posting of police-related videos and law enforcement information, see ILOD’s website, (http://www.lineofduty.com)
The clips depicting falling subjects are now being transferred to a time-coded format that will allow for minute scrutiny. “We’ll be looking not only at how long suspects take to fall but also analyzing why they fall the way they do, which may involve their physical dynamics at the moment they’re shot, as well as environmental influences,” Lewinski explains. “Right now, such information is essentially unknown.”
This study will dovetail with findings from a previous investigation of how long it takes an officer who is firing rapidly to stop shooting once he perceives that the threat has ceased. Correlating this data in a given controversial shooting situation may help knowledgeable police investigators establish that “suspicious” shot placement was more likely the result of uncontrollable physiological phenomena than of malice, Lewinski says.
[For a report on the previous study, go to: https://www.forcescience.org/articles and click on “Reaction Times in Lethal Force Encounters-the Tempe Study”.]
Analysis of the ILOD tapes that include voice commands will expand a small study conducted in 2006 by Dr. Daniel Houlihan of the MSU-M psychology department. As FSN reported previously [http://www.forcesciencenews.com/home/detail.html], Houlihan and his research team concluded from a limited sampling that when officers sense that confrontations are slipping out of control, their commands to resistant subjects tend to deteriorate, changing from clear, specific, goal-directed orders (“Alpha” commands) to statements that are repetitious, confusingly vague, and highly emotional (“Beta” commands).
“Issuing effective commands in a rapidly unfolding, life-threatening confrontation is a tough challenge,” Lewinski acknowledges. “Good commands can be given when an officer has time and some rapport with the subject. But there comes a point when he has to channel his resources toward his survival. He can’t take the risks of expecting a threatening suspect to conform to verbal orders. It’s hard-and potentially dangerous-to try to focus on effectively responding to defend yourself and simultaneously give great commands.”
With an estimated 100 ILOD tapes involving commands to analyze, Houlihan hopes to get a better feel for what works and what doesn’t in threat confrontations.
“Ultimately, the goal is to reach a more sophisticated understanding of the capabilities of verbal commands,” Lewinski says. “Trainers need to know how to instill a mind-set that enables officers to issue commands that focus specifically on what they want a suspect to do, rather than just emotionally recoiling to the suspect’s threat, but that also allows them to accurately read when the time for talking is over and it’s time for emphatic, effective use of force to stop an imminent threat.”
Explaining ILOD’s participation in the 2 studies, Barber told FSN, “We believe in the mission of the Research Center. Dr. Lewinski is a one-of-a-kind guy doing one-of-a-kind research that has already saved officers’ lives and will save many more.”
FSRC’s third current study has to do with the time it takes officers to shift attention during a confrontation, and the potentially ominous consequences of such diversions.
Lewinski estimates that 100 officer volunteers will be recruited for reaction-time testing that will involve interaction with a computer-controlled light board and a special pressure-sensitive Glock pistol.
One at a time, officers with the gun in a firing position will face the board and concentrate on a cluster of lights in their direct line of sight. At unpredictable intervals, other lights within their narrow visual field will illuminate. When the officers identify a certain predetermined pattern of lights, they are to pull the trigger, as if shooting at a suspect.
The trigger is linked to a sensor embedded in the weapon that can measure trigger pull in 320 discrete increments, allowing position samples to be taken every 10 milliseconds, Lewinski says.
The goal of the testing is to determine how much time it takes for the average officer to shift his or her attention from the “suspect” to evaluate the intrusive light patterns and recognize the prescribed pattern for “firing.”
“If the answer turns out to be 4/10 of a second, let’s say, that’s enough time for a hostile source to deliver 2 rounds at the distracted officer,” Lewinski explains. “And that’s even without a major attentional shift, because the distracting lights will be within just 5 to 7 degrees of the officers’ direct line of sight.” (Later, researchers will evaluate the attentional shift required to check on distractions within officers’ peripheral range of vision.)
“One practical implication of all this might be to underscore the importance of assessing a scene from the earliest stage of an encounter,” Lewinski says. “If you wait until you are critically engaged with a threatening suspect to check for possible cover, for example, the time it takes for you to shift your attention even for a quick glance could cost you your life.”
Preliminary tests of the research equipment are underway now at FSRC. The unique sensor gun, being used for the first time in law enforcement research, was improvised by Dr. Bill Hudson, deputy director of the Center, and Andy Miner, a faculty member of the MSU-M Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Technology.
“The special sensor mechanism can be embedded in any gun,” Lewinski says. “It can withstand the shock and dirt of a live-fire weapon, and will undoubtedly play an important role in a wide variety of future experiments related to reaction time.”
Lewinski is hopeful that preliminary findings from at least some of the new studies will be available by spring, 2008.