Do police officers who are highly adept at dealing with violent situations visually assess potentially threatening scenes in a different way than less skillful officers?
Studies of the “eye movements and gaze control patterns” of professional vs. amateur athletes suggest that may be the case, and a unique research project just launched by the Force Science Research Center will confirm whether it actually is.
If it is, FSRC hopes to determine how less proficient officers can best be trained to emulate their elite peers and thereby enhance their level of performance.
Working in Northern Ireland under the auspices of FSRC, renowned scan-pattern and gaze behavior researcher Dr. Joan Vickers recently completed a 2 week research study of field testing, involving some 2 dozen officer volunteers.
Half the subjects were members of the Headquarters Mobile Support Unit, an ace ERU counter-terrorism team of that country’s Police Services, based in Belfast. “These officers are consistent winners of international SWAT competitions, and work in a very active environment against organized criminal groups that are importing drugs and guns and committing extremely violent acts of terrorism,” Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSRC’s executive director, told Force Science News. “Police cars with officers in them, in the team’s jurisdiction, just in the last few months have been blown up, come under sniper fire and been attacked with an RPG.”
The other test subjects were “regular” officers who recently completed training in firearms and decision-making but did not have extensive experience dealing with real-life violent confrontations.
One at a time, all the officers were exposed to a dynamic, realistic series of live-action, conflict scenarios that required them to be alert for possible threats, evaluate whether the behavior of any of the participants required a deadly force response, and then to react (firing simulated rounds) or not react appropriately.
Role-players in the situations “worked for weeks with an acting coach to assure that every scene was repeated consistently for every officer,” Lewinski says. “To make the encounters as realistic as possible, we did not want to use computerized simulations.”
Before entering into the scenarios, the officers each were outfitted with a light mobile eye tracker designed to track their eye movements. Additional cameras were positioned to capture the scene as a whole and their shooting movements as the action unfolded.
The lightweight eye-trackers pinpoint where the wearer is looking by monitoring movement of the sighting eye’s pupil, capturing the gaze every 33.33 milliseconds and transmitting the information to a computer that uses software specifically designed for Vickers’ studies.
“In any complex, evolving scene, it’s impossible to look at all elements simultaneously,” Lewinski explains. “You have to fixate on the most critical cues in the limited time available, scan from side to side, up and down and near to far to get everything, and the brain works with the eye to processes the information to determine what seems to be the most important to focus on.
“By coordinating the time-coded images from the various cameras, the researchers can track each officer’s eye movements–what he or she looked at, in what order and for how long they read the situations, made decisions regarding the proper force responses, and then delivered deadly force or did not engage. Their focus of attention, body positioning, judgment, speed and shooting accuracy can all be evaluated.”
In analyzing the massive amount of data gathered, Vickers and her research team will try to identify the differences in scan patterns between “elite” and “ordinary” officers and to see which pattern(s) seem to correlate most closely with good judgment, speed and accuracy–in short, with successful performance.
The study, funded by the Force Science Institute, and also with part of a research grant from The Police Federation of England and Wales, “is the first extensive investigation of the scan patterns of police officers,” Lewinski says. “This is breaking important new ground that is expected to have a significant impact on training and on officer survival.”
Vickers was selected to head the project because of her widely acclaimed work with Olympic and professional athletes. She is director of the Neuro-Motor Psychology Laboratory in the Kinesiology Research Centre at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
Once a high-level volleyball player and coach, she became intrigued more than 20 years ago with how visual focus relates to motor performance skills. Working with athletes in a wide range of sports, including golf, basketball and ice hockey, she has documented a relationship between certain visual patterns–what the athletes sees, when they see it and for how long–and top-notch performance.
A winning gaze or scan pattern in a high-stress, competitive environment depends on 3 key elements, she says:
- The optimal location for the eyes to focus within the performance space. This varies, depending on the activity. The best place for a golfer to focus, for example, is the back of the ball, while in basketball it’s the front of the hoop.
- The optimal onset or when the eyes begin to concentrate or fixate on the optimal location. “Timing is crucial,” Vickers says.
- How long the focus is maintained before a critical action occurs or it leaves the optimal location. In golf putting, for instance, the gaze needs to stay on the back of the ball through the stroke and then dwell briefly on the green. “Most golfers,” she says, “do not do this consistently.”
One result of Vickers’ past studies has been the identification of what she calls “the quiet eye.” This is a period of focus just before the performance of an athletic act (a basketball shot or a batter’s swing) when the player is able to screen out all distraction and concentrate fully on the target he or she is about to move on. “The duration tends to be longer for elite performers,” she says. The basic idea behind the quiet eye is that your brain needs a window of time to receive the right information in order to organize the movement and then control it while it is occurring.”
Once an individual’s pattern of eye movements is identified and the optimal gaze control pattern for the activity identified, training to remedy deficiencies can begin. When one university basketball team began training according to Vickers’ recommendations, the team’s free-throw scoring statistic improved in competition by 22%. “Normally when you train athletes using only physiological or biomechanical techniques at the highest level you get only a 1% or 2% improvement,” she says. “Most athletes don’t have a motor problem. They have a concentration problem and the combination of quiet eye training during active practices leads to much greater improvements in performance than what is traditionally found.”
At stake in Vickers’ FSRC research, of course, are lives, not just points in a game. The hope is that she will be able to find a trainable similarity in the way fast-changing, volatile scenes are visually analyzed by those officers who show the best judgment and the best shooting ability.
“We can’t know what to teach,” Lewinski says, “until we know what is occurring the with highly skilled elite officers.”
He expects the initial analysis of Vickers’ data to take at least 9 months. After that, a second phase of the research will be started, to determine how the information revealed could best be used in training.
Force Science Research Center is very grateful for the outstanding cooperation of the Chief Constable Hugh Orde of PSNI, The Police Federation of Northern Ireland, members of the Headquarters Mobile Support Unit and the student officers of PSNI.
Force Science News will keep you updated as this project progresses.