Provide training and equipment to improve decision-making abilities and tactics under stress
Use of Force
Law enforcement and excessive use of force has taken center stage in the wake of recent events. Used in both law enforcement and the military, the term “use of force” refers to the amount of effort required to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” Use of force can relate to verbal, physical or other actions taken by an authority to achieve compliance and can involve lethal and non-lethal options, physical and verbal tactics. Use of force training and education varies from agency to agency, and the skill of effectively using force is rapidly perishable. Officers are required to utilize proper use of force during real-world scenarios with the intent of minimizing harm to both themselves and the suspect(s) while attempting to deescalate situational outcomes.
Decision-making under stress
Much of the public eye has failed to understand the difficulties of employing the appropriate use of force tactics in high-stress and life-or-death situations. Although virtual reality and live scenario simulations offer the public a peek behind the curtains, the truth is that most will never fully comprehend the reality law enforcement officers experience daily.
During high-stress and life-threatening scenarios, humans experience an alteration in decision-making abilities, leading us to make more reactionary decisions – often known as fight-flight-or-freeze, a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. When law enforcement officers are under duress, this primal response kicks in, requiring them to negotiate its powerful pull, all the while attempting to perform their job. This is dangerous for law enforcement and the public since during a stress response the decision-making center in the brain (the prefrontal cortex) and the memory hub (the hippocampus) are awash in stress hormones (epinephrine and cortisol). This means that under a high-stress situation a law enforcement officer will not physically be able to effectively retrieve previously learned information and will have difficulty making decisions. And in very few circumstances, when stress hormone levels are very high, a first responder will “freeze” or “flight” at the scene of an emergency where their services are needed. These stress-induced changes are part of a basic, automatic physiological response in the body, and even some of our nation’s most elite military units struggle with decision-making and use of force during these types of high stress scenarios.
It is possible, however, to train the body to dampen a stress response. This is because one’s ability to effectively make decisions under stress is a function of their past experiences under stress – specifically their exposure to real-world high-stress situations. Frequent and consistent exposure to decision-making scenarios under duress will decrease the amplitude of the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, allowing the officer to engage in more logical, effective decision-making. As simple as it sounds, “stage-fright” during a public speaking experience, elicits a strikingly similar physiological response as does engaging with a dangerous high-risk suspect on the streets. As such, the more public speaking one does, the more comfortable they become on stage and the less likely they are to experience stage-fright (fight-flight-or-freeze); and although a novel public speaker may only get one “real-world” opportunity to speak publicly, training and deliberate practice can provide near-real-world experience, enabling greater capability and confidence for their big debut – similar to the police officer who hasn’t yet dealt with high-risk suspects in the past but has extensive scenario-based training. This type of real-world training effectively and safely habituates the officer’s nervous system to the high-stress environment.
The way forward
Advancements in technology and training techniques in recent years have afforded more opportunities for law enforcement officers to train in “high-stress” scenarios. One of the several root causes of improper use of force is insufficient training and qualifications. Whether it’s fiscal restraints or prohibitive agency policy, many law enforcement officers do not receive the appropriate level training and qualifications commensurate with public expectation. Rather than dissolve law enforcement resources, we should be concerned with providing more resources and opportunities to train, improve performance, and confidence.