Top Award To FSI Researcher For New Vest Study Presentation

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Three researchers with Force Science credentials presented new study results at the recent annual conference of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology in Austin, TX.

One, Dr. John O’Neill, a behavioral scientist on the staff of the Force Science Institute, was cited with special recognition. After reviewing all the conference’s presentations, 64 in total, a judging committee bestowed on O’Neill the prestigious Shaffer Award for Best Research Presentation. The honor is named for the late Dr. Charles Edward Shaffer, a founder of the Society known for his unwavering “commitment to solid research.”

The Society, with international professional membership, is devoted to drawing on scientific knowledge about “the full range of human behaviors” to create “practical solutions” to problems in law enforcement, corrections, and the criminal justice system, according to its mission description.


O’Neill’s presentation focused on some surprising findings from a new Force Science study he led regarding public perceptions of ballistic vests.

As we all know, some of the complaints of vocal activists and the media after the Ferguson riots and other OIS-related disturbances have centered on the alleged “militarization” of law enforcement, including police clothing and equipment.

In brief, O’Neill’s team took one item of police gear that’s often highly visible in public confrontations—external ballistic vests—and surveyed samplings of civilians as to their perceptions. These included their impressions of how various vest models and their attachments affected officers’ approachability, “militarized appearance,” intimidation, confidence, and other qualities, as well as the “confidence instilled in the public.” Also the participants were asked to rank the relative importance of these various attributes.

“Obviously, public interaction is a large portion of the job for police officers,” O’Neill explains. “And how the public perceives officers, including LEO appearance, has an influence on every interaction.”

The six vest models assessed ranged in appearance and utility from one “designed to look like a dress shirt with buttons down the center and pockets in the chest area with no attachments” to a “complex” version that featured five attachments: “a radio, taser, handcuffs, magazine pouches, and a body-worn camera.”


“Vests with more external attachments were rated as more militarized and intimidating,” the researchers found. Probably no surprise there.

However: “Participants rated militarized appearance and intimidation as the least important attributes when considering external ballistic vests,” O’Neill reports. What the civilians said mattered most was the confidence that a vest instills in the officer wearing it, “followed closely by how confidence-inspiring the vest is to the public.

“While more complex vests (3-5 attachments) were rated as more militarized and intimidating and less approachable, [they] were also rated as more organized, professional, recognizable as law enforcement, and as inspiring more confidence in the officer and public”—all positive attributes.

“Given these findings,” O’Neill concludes, “it is possible that the public may prefer officers to perform duties while wearing more tactical-styled vests with outer carriers than vests that appear similar to an officer’s buttoned-up shirt or vests that are not equipped with attachments…. [M]ilitarized and intimidating appearance might not detract from the public’s overall acceptance….”

He suggests that “educating the public on the function” of external vests “might decrease” whatever negative perceptions do exist and “help the public feel safer, more connected, and trusting of their local law enforcement personnel.”

O’Neill told Force Science News that he anticipates publishing a detailed report of the study in a peer-reviewed professional journal later this year. He can be reached at: john.oneill@forcescience.org.

UDs & ExDS

Also featured at the Society conference were two other researchers with Force Science affiliations.

Staff behavioral scientist Dr. Dawn O’Neill presented a study she headed regarding unintentional firearms discharges, which we reported on preliminarily last August [see article here]. Among other things, her findings pinpointed where and when officers are at highest risk of experiencing UDs and what precautions seem most likely to prevent them.

Simon Baldwin, a use-of-force analyst with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police national headquarters, described findings from research he led into Risk Factors of Excited Delirium Syndrome in Non-Fatal Use-of-Force Encounters.

Baldwin, a PhD candidate in psychology at Carleton University, is among the small, hand-picked cadre of basic Force Science graduates to earn advanced-specialist certification in Force Science Analysis. The research team for his ExDS study included Force Science faculty members Dr. Christine Hall and Chris Lawrence.


The next annual conference of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology is scheduled for next Sept. 13-16 in San Diego. More information is available at the group’s website: www.policepsychology.org

Meanwhile, Dr. John O’Neill and Dr. Dawn O’Neill will be appearing on the program at the annual convention of the Assn. for Behavior Analysis International, May 25-29 in Denver. They are expected to disclose significant findings from a major Force Science investigation currently underway, regarding law enforcement training practices and motor skills retention. Executive Director Dr. Bill Lewinski is heading that research.

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