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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

That brings us to another common concern: The public and the press believe the bad guy is harmless when he's surrendering and prone. What does your research say?

Our studies indicate that if a prone subject lying on his stomach has a gun in his waistband then he can draw and fire that weapon at an officer in one third of a second.

The average officer pulling a short-stroke light-poundage weapon like a Glock can pull that trigger in .13 seconds responding to a simple stimulus such as a light going on. Where the officer has to make some sort of judgment about what is happening, the officer's response could be out to about half a second.

Now, if a subject can begin to spin and complete the movement and fire in just under a third of a second, that means two bullets could be coming either at the cover or contact officer before that cover officer can shoot back.

I've seen so many newspapers bury officers for shooting somebody in the back. And what they never seem to realize is that people are moving in a gunfight.

Right, isn't that a big mystery? My God, people are shooting and turning and running away. And as they're running away, they're continuing to shoot. So what is the big issue of being shot in the back?

The press and the public get their knowledge about officer-involved shootings from Hollywood. In the old cowboy movies, Gene Autry allegedly never shot anyone in the back, but every time he shot somebody who was riding a horse away from him, they fell off the horse when he shot them because...Well, he shot them in the back.

There's this cowboy ethic-actually a made up Hollywood ethic-that pervades our culture that shooting someone in the back is perceived as a cowardly act. But we understand from dynamics that if not the most common then one of the most common types of shooting that officers get involved in is with a subject who has a gun, is fleeing at some angle away from the officer, and is shooting back toward the officer.

Even while turning and firing at the officer, the subject is covering five-and-a-half feet with every stride, and every stride will take a quarter of a second. The officer is firing at a cadence of a quarter second a round, the subject is traveling five-and-a-half feet in between each of those shots, and we're talking really quick: Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! The subject is traveling, striding, five-and-a-half feet in between each of those rounds, and his body is in a different position and different alignment by the time he's struck.

The average time for someone to turn from having a gun pointed at an officer to being on that 90-degree plane and facing directly away from the officer is somewhere around 14- to 16 one-hundredths of a second. The average time frame for a head rotation is 15- to 18 one-hundredths of a second. That means, theoretically, an officer firing at a cadence of a quarter second a round can shoot at the subject in the front and the next shot a quarter second later will hit that subject directly in the back of the head.

Because of the nature of most officer-involved shootings, the officer has to wait until the subject acts in order to react. That lag time can have deadly consequences for the officer. How do we minimize it?

We put eye scan equipment on officers so we could see exactly what they were looking at. Then we tested each officer seven times. Five times at random intervals, they had a gun pointed at them. Two times at random intervals, we thrust a cell phone at them exactly the way we pointed the gun at them.

The elite officers, knowing how the threat would unfold, knowing where it would unfold, and knowing how, were way ahead of the tracking motion of the subject as the subject was acting out the assault. And given that, they saw the weapon much sooner than our novices. They had a better detection of whether or not it was a gun or cell phone, and they only fired on the cell phone one out of five times. It was presented as quickly and in the same manner as a gun would. So that's totally amazing to us because the novices had almost a 70-percent hit rate on the cell phone.

It's not just a lag time issue. It's what the brain and eye are searching out and what they're detecting in this assailant. So it's how they're reading it, and that gives the seasoned officer-if they're alert to the cues-a much greater potential for reaction.

We're looking at how we can teach officers good scanning-information scanning skills, and pre-event assessment skills. So we're really very interested in that and moving toward that area in our research.

Wayne Gretzky was a great hockey player because he read the pattern of play in the hockey game really well. When you can read something, your reaction is then primed and more appropriate. And you're less likely to be caught with lag time and behind the reaction curve.

But most of us learn how to read "the game" by experience. Let's take for example veteran drivers, people who really do anticipate the dangers as they're driving. They learn that by repeatedly seeing the patterns of how other people drive. So how do you teach that anticipation to new officers without the years of experience?

There may be a gap in training. (Laughs.) Our concern in law enforcement has been on the use of the tool with judgment elements being taught in a classroom situation. The next stage has been the use of simulators and some role-playing situations. This is a very expensive part of training, but it may be the most important element. When we look at judgment and decision-making, there's absolutely no question that the brain of an officer, the skills of an officer, are enhanced, enriched, and most effective if they get placed in training situations that challenge them at a similar level to the kinds of situations they will meet on the street.

How does being tired affect an officer's memory of a use-of-force incident?

Fatigue has a profound effect on performance and memory. And that's often a factor in the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

Let me give you an example. You're an officer working a shift, it's a 10-hour shift. You're going to get up two to three hours before going to work, depending on your drive. So by the end of your shift, you've already been up at least 12 hours. If you've got six hours or less of sleep, you're already operating significantly impaired by the time you start your shift. But let's assume you were well rested before your shift.

OK, so you get involved in a shooting incident. And for purposes of illustration, let's make it hour number nine of your shift. You're going to be isolated for some period of time while the forensic investigation is done. You're also going to do a walk-through with your attorney. That's going to be somewhere around three to four hours after the incident. So 12 hours being up now becomes 15, 16, 17 hours up. We know that by the time you get to 18 plus hours that you are operating cognitively just as your blood alcohol is .08.

Now under those conditions, your department is going to do an interview that may be the important interview of your life and maybe the most important interview that the department does that year. They are going to do it on someone who is cognitively impaired. And I can tell you there are departments in this country that have interviewed officers 34 hours after they've gotten up to go to work.

And they've kept them awake that entire time?

They worked a double shift, got involved in a shooting on the second shift, and were interviewed somewhere around six hours after.

Some people consider sleep deprivation "torture" when it's used on terrorists in Guantanamo.

And that's happened to officers in this country. And the question becomes: Given this fatigue level, how can the officer provide the most complete and accurate response as possible that are helpful to the investigator and that actually report accurately and completely what the officer experiences?

How would you change the way law enforcement use-of-force investigations are conducted in this country?

There's a polarity out there on investigating officer-involved shootings. And the polarity has to do with whether or not you want to grasp the officer's state of mind at the time or you want the most complete and accurate report an officer can provide about what happened during the incident.

Fundamentally, investigators should be trained in the behavioral sciences so they can understand what an officer is saying, how and why they're reporting what they report, the nature of the questions to ask, how to ask those questions in a way that most effectively mines the officer's memory vs. answering the investigator's questions.

Is there something you want to research that you can't figure out how to scientifically test yet?

Yeah, I think we're building toward eventually testing decision-making models in law enforcement. And we're not there yet. Those experiments are going to be very expensive. We really want to take a look at how cops are making decisions and how they compare with other professions on decision-making.

What would it take to do that?

Oh, I estimate somewhere around a month-and-a-half of research time, about $150,000 to $200,000 and about nine months of time to analyze the data. We will also need a very willing police department.

What's the return on investment on that? What would law enforcement gain?

What we'd gain is more insight into how to teach effective decision-making for officers. Ultimately, society and officers would be safer. Departments should have fewer losses because officers are making better judgments. And I don't know if that necessarily results in fewer losses but, theoretically, it should. And we should have a profound effect on training and a much better understanding of errors in decision-making and ways to correct them.

Here's the problem though; everyone is cutting back on their training budgets.

Oh, yeah, there's no question about it. It's ironic, it seems like the pocket that funds training never talks to the pocket that funds civil suits. It's an interesting problem in the area.

Well, you are offering our readers four hours of free training at POLICE-TREXPO West on March 31. What are you planning to talk about during your keynote?

I'm looking at presenting an overview of our research from our latest studies and an overview of our research, starting with the mechanics of behavior and looking to perception, some elements of decision-making, attention, and memory. I'll be covering the whole range of human performance in deadly force encounters.

Dr. Bill Lewinski gave the keynote address at POLICE-TREXPO West. Listen to the POLICE Magazine podcast with him.

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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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