New Study Tracks Officers’ Response to Stress During Calls for Service

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

It is widely understood that the body can automatically prepare us to respond to threats.  Not just actual threats, but those that are perceived or merely expected.  Ideally, when this process is engaged, the nervous system is activated and we benefit from heightened senses, faster decision-making, improved mental function, and increased strength.

But when this acute stress response is “maladaptive” or prolonged, our health can suffer over the long term.  And in the short term, under extreme stress—attention, perception, decision-making, and even physical performance can be severely impaired. 

For those committed to public safety, learning to recognize, manage, and operate under extreme stress is critical.  For the police, that process begins by understanding when and how they experience stress.

In a recent study, Simon Baldwin (PhD Candidate and Force Science Advanced Specialist) and a team of researchers from Carleton University’s Police Research Lab (Ontario, Canada), provided valuable insight into these important questions.  Specifically, researchers studied how frequently police officers experienced “physiological stress responses” during a shift, whether those responses changed during the distinct phases of a call, and whether the priority of a call or other factors (e.g. arrest, use of force) affected physiological arousal. 

Intuitively, readers might expect that an officer’s experience and training would improve their response to stress. Researchers examined these factors as well—with important findings.

The Study

Using an officer’s heart rate as a measure of stress response, researchers attached pulse monitors with GPS capability to track 64 officers over various shifts.  To help distinguish between heart rate resulting from physical exertion and heart rate resulting from psychological stress, the researchers attached foot-mounted “stride sensors” to the officers.  When combined with the GPS, these stride sensors provided researchers with important speed measurements.

After collecting data from 754 calls for service, the researchers examined the participants’ heart rates throughout the phases of the calls (dispatch, travel, arrival, and encounter).  Additionally, the calls were categorized and analyzed by priority level (routine, urgent, very urgent), type (e.g. shots fired, assault in progress, suicidal person, etc.), and incident factors (e.g. arrest, use of force, weapon presence).

Finally, the relevant training and experience of the officers was considered for any impact on the physiological stress response (as measured by heart rate variability).

Notable Results

The researchers noted significant heart rate reactions during the calls for service.  More significant reactions corresponded to the higher priority calls—with increased arousal noted as the officers moved through the phases of the call; beginning with the dispatch, continuing through travel, and peaking at the encounter.

Readers who remember their first months of police work, may not be surprised by the finding that dispatch alone caused an increase in heart rate.  Training officers may recall recruits who experienced emotional responses triggered upon hearing the description or type of call.  These reactions were likely noted well-before officers arrived at the scene where they could assess actual threats.

As might be expected, the study also found that the presence of weapons, carrying out of arrests, and drawing firearms also resulted in notable heart rate increases.  Researchers were able to collect vital data and graphically display the effect of these factors during real-world interactions—including a call for service, during which an officer drew his rifle and ultimately deployed his taser on an armed subject.

Finally, researchers looked at the impact of training and experience on the stress responses identified in this study.  They found that the officers’ demographic (e.g. age, sex, etc.), experience, and operational skills training did not significantly impact (or mitigate) stress induced heart rates.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, had this to say: “Simon’s observation that physiological responses were triggered across the range of experience was consistent with what we’ve seen in other research.  For example, in sports, we’ve seen that pre-event arousal is impacted by the meaning that is assigned to the event.  Both novice and elite athletes can experience pre-competition anxiety when they view the outcome as important.  That said, we’ve seen world-class performance from athletes and law enforcement officers operating with extremely high heart rates.  There continues to be mounting evidence that the ability to recognize, manage, and confidently perform under the effects of physiological arousal remains a key to optimum performance.”

The Carleton University researchers also recognized previous studies in which officers’ experience and training were shown to improve decision-making processes, attention, control, shot accuracy, and cue recognition1. Given these findings, the researchers encouraged further examination into the interaction between stress, training, and performance.

A Recommended Read

Simon Baldwin is among the growing ranks of Force Science Advanced Specialists at the intersection of science and police practice. With this latest study, his team of researchers have provided important insights for officers training and preparing for exceptional performance and increased resilience during high-stress encounters.

“While most are familiar with the concept of ‘fight-or-flight,’ this research aims to provide officers with a better understanding of what this threat response actually looks like, factors that impact it, and how frequently it occurs in the general duty policing context. Our hope is the research will improve self-awareness and promote the importance of evidence-based training methods that develop stress resilient skills.”

Simon Baldwin

The full report of this latest research is titled Stress-Activity Mapping: Physiological Responses During General Duty Police Encounters2 and can be accessed for free.  It not only advances the study of officer resiliency but provides an excellent primer on the terminology and processes involved in physiological stress response.  Readers are encouraged to consider the full report.

Questions, comments, and recommendations for further research in this area can be sent to Simon Baldwin.

  1. Vickers, J. N., and Lewinski, W. J. (2012). Performing under pressure: Gaze control, decision making and shooting performance of elite and rookie police officers. Hum. Mov. Sci. 31:16. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2011.04.004 []
  2. Baldwin S, Bennell C, Andersen JP, Semple T and Jenkins B (2019) Stress-Activity Mapping: Physiological Responses During General Duty Police Encounters. Front. Psychol. 10:2216. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02216 []
3 Responses
  1. Robert A O'Connor

    Thanks for this valuable information. Although I am retired, I try to stay informed as a concealed carrier and father of a serving LEO and training deputy. This info is valuable for anyone who was or is in service, and adds to the body of knowledge for all of us interested in the outcomes of the interaction between law enforcement and the public.

    Bob O’Connor MSCJ
    Retired Special Agent Supervisor, Florida Dept of Law Enforcement

  2. Chris Leblanc

    Interesting – but it seems the study is at first saying that training and experience is NOT a factor in regulating heart rate during high risk/high threat events.

    Granted it said that frequency or recency or the kinds of training wasn’t measured (some training is after all better than others), but are we to gather from this study simply that certain people – regardless of age, experience, training, or training type – just handle the heart rate spikes better than others and are able to make better decisions when their HR is spiking? We all know that some cops react much better under stress than others.

    Later it seems to be pointing to other studies saying that certain stress-based training does show results in reducing arousal related to heart rate spikes….so what to make of it?

Leave a Reply


  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.


We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: support@forcescience.org
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.