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Departments : Officer Survival

Rethinking Reaction Time

New research could have tactical and legal ramifications for lethal force encounters.

December 01, 2004  |  by Charles Remsberg

When you survive an armed threat, you're certain not to remember much of what happened because of the intense stress and trauma of having your life on the line. And what you do remember may be distressingly puzzling.

You may vividly recall that when you made the decision to shoot, your assailant was facing you straight on, pointing a gun at your chest. But when the smoke cleared, all your rounds had hit him in the back. What happened? And how do you keep from looking like an illegal executioner?

You may recollect holding your sidearm behind your leg as you approached the suspect's vehicle, thinking you were buying an edge in case of trouble. Yet he was able to grab a gun off of his console and blast you before you could get a round off in defense. How could he be faster when you were "ready"?

Or maybe your attacker dropped his gun and went down, neutralized, after your first two rounds. Yet you kept on shooting. Was that simply vindictive overkill?

Force Science

A behavioral scientist who has studied officer-involved shootings for nearly 30 years is coming up with some surprising answers to these and other perplexing questions about the dynamics of deadly force. Last spring, Dr. Bill Lewinski, a specialist in law enforcement psychology and human biomechanics (body movements), established the nonprofit Force Science Research Center (FSRC) at Minnesota State University-Mankato to expand and intensify his unique experiments.

What Lewinski has discovered already could have a profound impact on your physical and legal survival. Combined with groundbreaking research now in progress or being planned at the FSRC, his work may ultimately produce revolutionary changes in tactics for winning armed confrontations.

Most of Lewinski's efforts to date have involved documenting and timing-to hundredths of a second-the precise movements of action and reaction that typically occur in deadly conflicts. Using scores of volunteers roleplaying as officers and suspects recorded by time-coding video cameras, he has been able to prove for the first time "exactly how far behind the reactionary curve cops are in street confrontations."

Behind the Curve

In one startling test, for example, a female volunteer who had never before held a firearm (simulating an inexperienced offender) was able to pull a hidden gun from her waistband and shoot at an officer in an average of 16/100 of a second. The typical officer going for his weapon in a Level I holster requires 1.5 seconds to draw and fire a sighted shot once he perceives a stimulus to act. "In 1.7 seconds, an attacker using a Glock 9mm pistol can deliver six rounds on average," Lewinski says. "Considering just reaction time alone, the officer is screwed."

Amazingly, that's true even if the officer has his gun out in a "ready" position and is mentally committed to defending his life once a lethal threat is evident. Lewinski compared the timing of the woman "assailant" against officers with guns held in the belt-tuck, low-ready, close-ready, and "Hollywood high-guard" positions. In every case, the woman with her hand on the hidden gun in her waistband was able to produce a deadly action faster than the officers could perceive the threat and respond with a defensive reaction. Lewinski independently and scientifically replicated these findings with other volunteers.

Indeed, even when reacting from the ultimate ready position-gun on target, finger on the trigger, prepared to fire-the average officer is still behind the reactionary curve, according to Lewinski's action/reaction timings.

"When it comes to reacting to an immediate deadly threat," Lewinski declares, "you'd better hope that the suspect is inaccurate in delivering his initial rounds, and that your accuracy overcomes his willingness to kill you."

Understanding Police Shootings

Branching out from his core research, Lewinski has explored some of the most controversial elements of officer-involved shootings.

By videotaping and analyzing footage of armed subjects turning away as fast as possible from face-to-face threatening confrontations with officers, he has been able to explain how offenders sometimes end up unintentionally shot in the back.

"We have documented that a young, agile assailant can turn from facing and pointing a gun at an officer to presenting a square back to him in just 14/100 of a second," Lewinski says. "The officer may make an unretractable decision to shoot  when the suspect is facing him and threatening deadly force, but before the officer's gunfire reaches the suspect, he has turned to run and unavoidably is hit in the back. The movement is so fast that many times the officer doesn't even realize the suspect has turned and is mystified by where the bullets end up hitting."

In one California case, Lewinski's experiments kept an officer from being charged criminally after a fatal in-the-back shooting and later were credited with preventing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by the suspect's survivors from being brought to trial.

Other studies have addressed the phenomenon of "extra" shots being fired by officers after a threatening suspect is neutralized. Lewinski documented that once a stimulus to cease shooting in a high-stress, life-threatening situation is perceived, a typical officer will still squeeze off two to three additional rounds before the message to stop transmits from his brain to his trigger finger. "In just one second an officer can shoot a semi-automatic pistol four times," Lewinski observes. "It's not a case of malicious over-reaction. It's a law of physiology."

On behalf of officers under legal scrutiny after a shooting, Lewinski has explained his unique findings to internal affairs and homicide investigators, medical examiners, prosecutors, grand juries, judges, civil rights lawyers, civilian review boards, criminal- and civil-court jurors, and others who are responsible for assessing officers' judgment in street conflicts. His documented work has kept a number of officers from going to prison or being found liable in civil lawsuits.

Now, Lewinski says, it is time for officers, trainers, and administrators to start looking more closely at the tactical implications of his discoveries.

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