New scenario-based training intended to reveal and overcome biases in shooting decisions is being offered to departments by a research team from Washington State University-Spokane.
Called Counter Bias Training Simulation (CBTSim), the program takes shoot/don’t-shoot video to a new level of authenticity and performance assessment, according to its principal developer, Dr. Lois James, a native of Ireland who is now an assistant professor at WSU.
“I was very keen on this not being typical deadly-force decision-making training,” James told Force Science News. “I wanted to create a bias training program that uses decision-making as a vehicle for learning and as a way to generate meaningful conversation.”
The portable, cost-effective format she designed makes it particularly practical for smaller agencies that often lack the budget and facilities for traditional simulation training, James says.
Previously we’ve reported on some of James’ stereotype-busting research regarding alleged racial bias in police practices. In a previous FSN, for example, we detailed her finding that contrary to popular perception officers tend to hesitate more and make fewer errors when shooting black suspects.
With the CBTSim program, she says, racial and other biases that may exist even subconsciously among officers can be surfaced and addressed before they become factors in life-or-death street encounters.
“If any biases are influencing officer behavior, this program addresses them in a very practical and tactical way,” James says. “It’s not just an academic presentation on the subject, which maybe less meaningful for officers.”
A panel of experts that included Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, helped craft the video scenarios that form the core of the program.
The scenes were carefully designed to “reflect the true dynamics of deadly confrontations, as determined from years and years of scientific data about officer-involved shootings,” James says. “Our goal was to make them absolutely authentic in terms of how these tense, uncertain, and rapidly unfolding events develop in real life, in contrast to the unrealistic portrayals too often featured on simulators.”
James’ group ended up constructing 60 scenarios, ranging from 15 seconds to about a minute each, with varying degrees of complexity, available information to “responding” officers, and management difficulty.
Using professional actors, the episodes depict a wide range of contact situations—some turn deadly, some don’t—and incorporate varieties of race, gender, age, socio-economic status, appearance, demeanor, sobriety, mental capacity, and other elements that potentially could provoke officer bias affecting how subjects are approached and dealt with.
In a typical training session, five officers are present and one at a time interact with and respond to a group of six high-definition scenarios projected life-sized from a portable simulator while the others watch. Armed with a training-modified Glock 22, each officer experiences a different set of scenarios.
“Immediately after a scenario,” James explains, “the responding officer does a self-reflective debrief of what happened, identifying his impressions of the suspect, the decision points of his actions, and the factors he believes influenced his responses in shooting or not shooting.
“Then each peer officer is asked to reflect on the decisions and offer insights—what he or she saw differently, what they would have done differently.”
The aim, James explains, is to “tease out” for discussion any points at which the variables of race, gender, appearance, etc. may have influenced an officer’s decisions, rather than an awareness of true danger cues being the guide.
“We’re trying to facilitate an ‘aha moment’ in an officer that can produce a life-altering change in focus and reaction,” James says.
After all the scenario interplay has been critiqued, James and her husband and fellow researcher Dr. Stephen James, who conduct the training together, offer a brief summary of bias-related scientific studies. “There is no PowerPoint, no reading handouts,” Lois James says. “We keep it all very practical.”
The CBTSim program has been demonstrated at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia, and field training kicked off recently with officers from the Astoria and Warrenton PDs in Oregon.
More research is needed to confirm the long-term effect of the training, but James shares some preliminary observations:
- “Officers tend to be worn out” by the end of the training session, which she believes speaks to the realism of the scenarios and the intensity of the debriefings. Based on their experimental research, they’ve found that direct involvement as a responder in six or so scenarios is effective, she says, but beyond that officers tend to become “less engaged and treat the exercise more as a video game” than a simulation of real-life encounters.
- “The most important part of the training, officers tell us, is learning the things their peers saw in the scenarios or in their performance that they themselves didn’t see,” she says. “Learning how others might have responded differently helps them self-identify the biases that might be influencing their decisions.”
- “If officers consistently respond to a particular type of suspect in a certain way, they begin to identify this and start to think about what it means. ‘Is there any objective evidence, like behavior cues, that the subject I’m facing is a dirt bag, or am I just feeling that he is because I’m reacting to something else about him?’ This gets them to drill down through surface impressions and focus on meaningful threat cues.”
- “Officers generally are good at reading people. What they’re not as good at is verbalizing why they regard some people as threatening, which creates the opportunity for civilians to assume that they’re reacting to some kind of irrelevant suspect demographics. Officers come away from CBTSim training better able to home in on dangerous behavior indicators and clearly articulate them.”
Drawing from their inventory of scenarios, the Jameses can tailor CBTSim training to emphasize specific demographics for bias testing if a department so desires. And, says Lois James, they are prepared to work with agencies of any size, anywhere in the US.
They provide and operate all equipment involved, hold a train-the-trainer session, and conduct the decision-making exercises and debriefings for a base fee of $5,000 (which covers the first 10 officers), plus $250 per additional officer, with an expectation of training up to 10 officers per day. Their fees include all expenses. What they net from their services, James says, will be funneled back into law enforcement-related research.
Lois James is a member of the IACP’s Research Advisory Council and has received honors for her CJ studies that include Best Violence Research Award from the American Psychological Assn. Stephen James, also a multiple research-award winner, is a member of the California POST research advisory team and manages WSU’s Simulated Hazardous Operation Tasks laboratory.