A new research project getting underway at Washington State University in Spokane aims to develop a means to “dramatically improve the ability to measure police officer performance in deadly force encounters, and thus evaluate the impact of management and training practices.”
The result “has the potential to help save lives” as well as to “increase government efficiency,” according to an abstract describing the project.
The study is headed by Dr. Bryan Vila, a CJ professor at WSU, director of the Critical Job Task Simulation Lab there, author of the insightful book on police fatigue, Tired Cops, and a LEO and trainer for 17 years.
Currently, says Vila, there’s “a critical lack of scientific evidence” about whether or to what extent “deadly force management, accountability, and training practices actually have an impact” on how officers perform in lethal confrontations and “whether alternative approaches would be more effective.”
Vila intends to create what he calls a Deadly Force Scenario Performance Metric, a “measurement scale” for evaluating life-threatening encounters.
When refined, he says, this tool will make it possible to consistently grade police shootings according to their complexity and “difficulty” and to compare officer performance across multiple departments and situations.
The project was launched recently with a 2-day meeting of a focus group in Spokane, facilitated by Vila. Some 20 experts with diverse perspectives on “deadly force judgment, decision-making, and performance” from across the country attended—veteran trainers, academics, command and supervisory personnel, police association leaders, researchers, and veteran street officers regarded as elite performers by their peers. Among the participants was Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
The group brainstormed extensively on 3 subjects, Vila says:
- What objective elements tend to add to the complexity or difficulty of a deadly force encounter, making it harder for an involved officer to bring about an “optimum outcome” (i.e., the officer accurately identifies a threat, and neutralizes it lawfully, while minimizing harm to innocent bystanders and officers);
- What skills, actions, or decisions by an involved officer tend to lead to an optimum outcome;
- What relative weight, on a scale of 1-11, should be assigned to these various factors in terms of overall importance.
A sophisticated technique known as “concept mapping” was used to filter the group’s comments and produce a consensus of core ideas.
“Such things as light-level, number of suspects, the distance between officer and subject, and the types of weapons involved were agreed upon in the first category,” Vila told Force Science News. “The second included use of cover, command presence, the ability to clear a malfunction rapidly, and clear communications.
“With the collective experience and expertise of the people in the room, I’m confident we captured the major issues that need to be considered.” To be certain, however, the opinions of deadly force instructors from across the US will be sampled through an online survey in the near future.
From all the data, Vila and his colleagues hope to compile a list of about 100 items that can be the basis for measuring a confrontation’s difficulty and an officer’s performance. That template will then be pilot-tested with officer volunteers confronting a variety of deadly force situations in simulator exercises and ultimately be refined into a valid checklist in printed form.
The eventual goal, Vila explains, is not so much to rate any individual officer’s performance but from aggregate numbers to determine a baseline, develop performance standards, and see how scores might be affected for better or worse by changes in training and policies and by other pertinent variables such as officer fatigue, multi-tasking, duty hours, and so on.
Having reliable measurements, Vila says, “is vital for evaluating organizational performance and developing effective deadly force training.
“People have strong opinions on the best way to teach rules of engagement. But in order to test these opinions scientifically, there has to be a means of measuring them in a context of scenario difficulty and officer performance. What we hope to produce for the first time is that measurement tool—something more precise, objective, and reliable than anything currently available for use by researchers, trainers, and police managers.”
Beyond that, he speculates that a proven scale for measuring a confrontation’s difficulty could also have implications in court. “Applied to a case at issue, it could help explain the challenges an officer faced in making reasonable decisions in the midst of dynamic, rapidly unfolding, ambiguous circumstances,” he says.
Vila hopes to have an elements list in draft form for testing by the end of this year, followed by at least another year of pilot experiments. The research is being funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice.