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The Force Scientist

Bill Lewinski is a psychologist, a college professor, a use-of-force researcher, and the best friend many a beleaguered cop will ever know.

March 23, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Until recently very few academic researchers concerned themselves with what happened to police officers during shootings. And those who did had their research buried in peer-reviewed journals that were rarely seen by the men and women on the front lines of law enforcement. That was before Dr. Bill Lewinski co-founded the Force Science Institute at Minnesota's Mankato State University.

Since 2004, Lewinski and his team of researchers, law enforcement officers, and other colleagues have dedicated themselves not only to researching human performance factors under stress and fear but also disseminating the research of other academics to rank-and-file officers.

Lewinski was a clinical psychologist in Manitoba when he first became involved with law enforcement operations. He was called in to help with a hostage situation involving a psychopathic paranoid. An officer was killed, two others were wounded, and Lewinski wanted to help prevent such tragedies in the future. "I knew then that my days of doing therapy were over," Lewinski says.

Lewinski has focused his research on officer-involved shootings, the dynamics of the incidents, the way that stress alters the memories of the officers involved, and how officers make life-and-death decisions. His research has shed light on edged-weapon attacks, how movement in a gunfight leads to suspects being shot in the back, why officers give meaningless commands under stress, how emotion affects perception, and hundreds of other topics.

Today, Professor Lewinski's students are officers and administrators who attend his Force Science seminars. And on March 31 from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., he will present the keynote address at POLICE-TREXPO West in Long Beach, Calif. on the telephone after he had finished a long day of seminars in San Jose, Calif.

What do officers least understand about officer-involved shootings? And what is the source of all the confusion?

With officers and departments you have to look at where they get their training about how people are going to perform [in officer-involved shootings]. They either get it through stories from fellow officers or from Hollywood. They hear what happens from fellow officers, and they hear it in classroom instructions. But for the most part, there's a lot of training about officer-involved shootings from Hollywood.

Your research is academic in nature. Is it really relevant to the street officer? And do the researchers need to do more to get this information to the officers?

There's a whole realm of performance psychology that is kind of missing in police training today. Some officers are extremely well-trained, but the issue of the science of human dynamics within the middle of a high-stress encounter is something that most officers really haven't looked at.

Many do not look at the research we do in the university, particularly the psychology and the science of human performance. And most universities...if they're doing research at all in criminal justice, it is in the area of criminal justice. It's not in kinesiology or psychophysiology, it's in the area of administration, it's in the area of community relations. And there's almost no, certainly very little, research on the dynamics of human performance, particularly connected to the line officer. So that's a bridge that never gets connected to either the university or the officer.

Your e-newsletter, Force Science News, is like a digest of research going from academia to the rank-and-file officers. What spurred you to publish it?

Back in the mid 1980s, while I was on the road with Calibre Press and their Street Survival seminar, I came across a firearms instructor who attempted to testify in court on tunnel vision and tunnel hearing. And the judge said there wasn't any research on those. Several police psychologists like Kevin Gilmartin (author of "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement") had written articles in police magazines on those, but there wasn't any academic research, according to the judge.

But the judge was wrong. Thirty years before, there were three journals whose primary focus was the effect of emotion on perception and one of those journals focused entirely on the effect of emotions on perception. There were literally thousands of research articles and a well-developed depth of understanding of tunnel vision and tunnel hearing in high-stress encounters, and this firearms instructor was unaware of it and so was the judge. So I vowed that I would build a bridge between academic research and law enforcement.

Let's discuss some of the most common reasons that officers are crucified after shootings, and you've done research in a lot of these. One of the most common is: He only had a knife. What kinds of research have you done on edged weapon attacks? And does the Tueller Rule, the 21-foot sphere of danger, really apply?

We have assessed the speed with which novices can run, can sprint toward something. And when you use Dennis Tueller's formula of time, distance, and motion with our research population, the distance a subject can sprint toward an officer before the officer can draw from a Level 2 holster and point and fire one or two rounds is 31 feet. Many of the subjects we tested were much more fit than the population that Tueller tested, and so we got different results.

But I want to qualify things. We need to look at threat, intent, and opportunity, and those elements have to be met. So that doesn't mean the little old lady in a walker with a butter knife is a threat because she's within 31 feet.

What we have looked at is the performance element of assault and types of assault that individuals do when they're trying to mortally injure, seriously injure, or kill a law enforcement officer. In fact, our very next study is the threat potential of a prone subject who has a gun in his or her waistband or chest area.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Marcelo @ 5/30/2013 5:27 AM

I fully appreciate and understand what Bill is saying. For those who have had to make similar life and death decisions they know how fast and deadly the incident can develop and they are aware that it is not only skill that counts in a high stress hostage situation. Psychology, the officer's mindset and his reading of the suspect's mind and body language come into play in a very large way. i was fortunate to have had training in the U.S. that emphasized just that I praise God and my training that he two hostages and my officers walked away unharmed. Unfortunately for the three hostage takers they did not. As my instructor emphasized to, there are basically three lives a stake in the situation. That of the hostage, the responding officer and the suspect.We want them all to walk way from the incident. However the reality is that the survival of the suspect is the lowest priority because he is the threat. The highest priority for survival is the hostage because he/she did not want to be there in the first place. He/she is simply a pawn. The responding officer of course knows the risk he is taking. I wish Dr. Lewinsky more power in his quest. I pray that people who have not gone through such life and death situations would refrain from passing judgment on the officers who had to put their lives on the line to protect the citizens. I thank you for featuring him on Police Magazine Online.

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