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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

Getting a Jump on the Bad Guy

"Some things are obvious," says Lewinski, "once officers acknowledge how much at a disadvantage they really are in the action/reaction dynamic. Because it is so dangerous and difficult to shoot your way out of threatening situations, it's important to devote more attention to preventing them in the first place."

That means enhancing your tactical attention to cover and concealment, cautious approaches to potentially high-risk situations, contact/cover deployment, verbal and physical suspect control and restraint, and other street survival basics. Otherwise, as trainer Gary Klugiewicz, a member of FSRC's national advisory board, puts it, "Careless tactics may set you up for turning a suspect contact situation into a desperate personal safety situation."

Lewinski also stresses the importance of being alert for and responding to early indicators of imminent threats (such as furtive movements and other potential preludes to violent attack) rather than waiting for immediate threats (such as a gun being pointed directly at you). "Incredibly," he says, "there are still departments that insist by policy that officers cannot legitimately shoot to defend themselves unless an offender is actually pointing a weapon at them. Given what we have confirmed about reaction times, that is lunacy."

In a standoff situation, can officers turn the action/reaction realities to their advantage? Perhaps. "If the suspect is already starting to pull the trigger, you cannot react fast enough to get the first round off, according to our research findings," Lewinski explains. "But if he has his finger on the trigger but has not yet made the decision to shoot, you have a very narrow window of opportunity.

"It will take him on average half a second to mentally process anything you might do and begin to pull his trigger. So what can you accomplish in half a second that might allow you to outshoot him?"

Depending on your mental state and on how close to on target your gun is, you might be able to shoot effectively before he can in this situation. Once you have decided to shoot, it will take you approximately one-third of a second to raise your gun from a low-ready position and pull the trigger. That would beat his reaction time. Some preliminary testing by a police department in Colorado has shown promising results for officers under these circumstances.

Delving Deeper

Other options for improving reaction time suggested by some firearms trainers-ones that Lewinski intends to fully research-may be to move or to move and shoot, imposing lag time on the suspect as he reacts to the change in circumstances and tracks your new location.

"But many questions need to be tested," Lewinski points out. "At what distances does moving work best? What kinds of moves are most effective? Does an officer's size and fitness affect the value of moving? What effective moves can most easily be taught and then remembered and exercised by officers on patrol? What are the risks in the field of an officer who has not tactically assessed the scene he's in moving blindly to the side? What challenges to an officer's shooting accuracy are created by moving and how can these best be overcome? And how much time and edge does he lose if he quick-peeks to the side before he moves? There is so much even about this simple proposal that needs to be determined."

In reality, we don't know for certain a lot about tactical survival options because we have not really researched them scientifically, Lewinski contends.

"We've embraced a lot of tactics because they seem logical or because some trainer or other influential 'expert' has persuaded us they're effective," says Lewinski. "I've never seen a football team play a game strictly on logic. They use the practice field to come up with innovations and to 'research' their value. In law enforcement, at best, we have largely tested tactics on relative handfuls of trainees and have drawn broad conclusions without the scientific process being imposed."

Verifying Theories

Through strategic alliances built by the Force Science Research Center, Lewinski intends to expand not only his research capabilities but also the ability to create and verify survival options that address the challenges being documented by his growing roster of discoveries.

Conducting such research is not cheap or easy, so Lewinski is willing to take all the help he can get. Recognizing the importance of understanding officers' reaction time, law enforcement agencies have offered personnel for research-related experiments. Through another alliance, Lewinski is using donated equipment from IES Interactive Training of Littleton, Colo., to conduct further research on deadly force.

Also collaborating closely with FSRC is Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis., which provides hands-on, in-service instruction to law enforcement officers. "The officers attending our courses can serve as a great pool for devising and testing tactical options," explains Bob Roberts, criminal justice dean of Fox Valley College and a member of FSRC's national advisory board.

Meanwhile, as funds permit, Lewinski and other researchers at the Force Science Research Center will be delving into the secrets of topics such as how the information officers detect in their peripheral vision impacts their judgment and reaction time and how perception and visual discrimination change under various light conditions.

"Each of these inquiries is bound to produce discoveries that will present significant challenges to trainers and officers and, ultimately, result in important strides forward in the campaign to make law enforcement personnel safer in America and throughout the world," says Lewinski.

Charles Remsberg is the co-founder and former president of Calibre Press. He has written textbooks concerning officer survival and has co-produced several police training videos.

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Tags: Cops Getting Sued, Deadly Force, Officer Involved Shootings


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