Photo: Yuda Chen

Photo: Yuda Chen

Vehicle stops present a constellation of known and unknown safety hazards for patrol officers, such as armed parolees, pursuit-ready felons, and intoxicated subjects. An officer approaching a vehicle can be met with any number of unpredictable reponses.

As a result, how the officer communicates and responds to the dynamic situation can make all the difference.

Through its research, the Force Science Institute has helped law enforcement officers better understand the dynamics of officer-involved shootings, edged-weapon attacks, and hundreds of other topics.

The institute has completed a new study on vehicle stop safety and will offer specific pointers on how officers can better protect themselves from sudden shooting attacks.

Using 94 officers from 17 agencies, the institute's research team conducted several test scenarios to determine how officers react when confronted with an unexpected threat; how impulsive responses compare to training and personal performance expectations; how a sudden high-stress confrontation affects memory; what might best discourage an assault; and what would be the most efficient and safest response to a potentially deadly attack.

"We've gathered a great deal of information that has never been collected before, and we are analyzing it now," said Dr. Bill Lewinski, the institute's executive director. "Before long, we hope to offer some major insights into how officers can make themselves less vulnerable during one of the most commonplace yet most dangerous law enforcement activities—confronting a motorist for a traffic violation."

To complete the study, the institute enlisted trainers from the Hillsboro (Ore.) Police Department led by Sgt. Craig Allen to coordinate volunteers from Oregon and Washington departments. Participating officers included both genders and a variety of ranks and experience levels.

The officers weren't told what the research exercise would actually consist of. Instead, they were told they would be videotaped during a traffic stop scenario. The scenario was repeated several times with only slight variation. Each participant was armed with a blank-firing training gun and advised to "respond verbally and tactically as they would naturally.

First up was a vehicle set-up inside a large, inactive Hillsboro warehouse. A patrol car was parked behind a red Ford Taurus occupied by a male driver who was role-played by Scott Buhrmaster, the institute's vice president of operations. The officers were told that the Ford had been stopped for speeding 10 mph over the limit.

A whistle was then blown and the volunteer being tested began advancing from the rear of the violator vehicle to one of several taped lines radiating out on the floor from directly below the vehicle's "B-pillar" door post on the driver or passenger side. Toeing the assigned line, the officer would be positioned at a particular angle relative to the car and driver. "All angles at which officers customarily stand on both side of the vehicle in real life were covered," Lewinski said.

Each officer advanced three times to converse with the driver. The first two times, the violator declared that he was a sovereign citizen and therefore not subject to the officer's authority. He produced a flurry of official-looking documents from the Sovereign Nation and vehemently argued for a minute that the officer had no right to stop him or to enforce any law against him.

"On the first approach, the officers were pretty much on red alert, not knowing what to expect," Buhrmaster told Force Science News. "The second time up, they seemed to be mostly thinking about all the confusing, extremist paperwork I'd given them and how to deal with it."

On the third approach, about 15 seconds into the contentious dialogue, the driver whipped a pistol or revolver from beside his right thigh and blasted full-charge blank rounds at the officer as fast as he could. "With few exceptions, he shot every single one before they could move and he continued to shoot at them as they continued to move," Lewinski said.

"All were caught completely by surprise," Buhrmaster says. And their reactions ran the gamut of reflexive responses. Some froze in place. Some put their hands up. Some tried to lunge through the open window to grab the gun. Some dropped to a knee before firing back. Some back-peddled into what would have been a traffic lane on a real roadway. Some scrambled away along the side of the car.

Their actions were captured by two cameras—one at the front of the Ford and the other positioned to record an aerial view with a microphone planted inside the vehicle.

Researchers are now analyzing the videos "to identify any dominant patterns of attempted disengagement and to detect any major differences of vulnerability between the various angles," Lewinski says. "The initial impression is that the officers overwhelmingly remained in the suspect's field of fire even while trying to retreat from the initial assault and in some cases exposed themselves to the additional potential danger of oncoming traffic."

After the traffic-stop scenario, half of the officer volunteers went to another data station, where they participated in a movement-timing test. "We wanted to see how quickly officers can get below the window level of a car, where an attacking driver has difficulty readily seeing and targeting them," Lewinski said.

The volunteers were timed in moving down from a standing position to where their head was below window level; moving down and retreating; and moving down, retreating, and returning fire.

Multiple means of getting low were tested—ducking, dropping, dipping, and squatting. Once averages are computed, he explains, the researchers may be able to advise which variation is practical for officers to quickly get themselves out of a driver's zone of fire.

Before a final debriefing, Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a faculty member of the certification course in Force Science Analysis, probed all the participants regarding their memories of the attack scenario.

She asked that they describe in writing everything they could remember happening "before, during, and after the assault as fully and in as much detail as possible." In addition, officers responded to specific questions about the driver's words and actions before and after launching the attack, as well as what they themselves had said and done.

"Their responses will be compared to the video and audio recordings to gauge the reliability of memory under sudden stress," Lewinski said.

Among other things on a three-page questionnaire officers completed, they were asked to sketch the path of travel they used to disengage, estimate the distance they traveled trying to get away, and note "the precise physical point where your disengagement ended." Some officers were told to draw on a sheet of paper with only the outlines of the two cars printed on it. For others, the cars were imposed on a grid of foot-square boxes.

"We'll see if having a precisely scaled grid of the scene as a contextual reference helps increase the accuracy of their drawings," Lewinski said. "If so, this might be a valuable aid to investigators trying to reconstruct a shooting event."

As part of the final phase of the exercise, participating officers were asked whether they had even considered the possibility that someone would try to shoot them during a vehicle stop. If so, had they planned a tactical response and had they actually practiced this reaction mentally or physically on their own or during training?

Comparing these answers to the videotapes will allow researchers to determine how closely the officers' expectations and training matched their actual performance during the scenario, Lewinski said.

The participants met with Artwohl to discuss their experience through the three trials, the reality of how quickly an assault can unfold, and to review footage of their reaction during the shooting trial.

"Preliminarily, I'd say that very few officers actually practice disengaging from a deadly attack on a traffic stop," Lewinski said. "They think about it and visualize it but they don't physically practice it."

As a part of analyzing the wealth of data from the Hillsboro tests, a research team at Minnesota State University-Mankato will study the "commands and persuasion techniques" officers used during their interaction with the resistant driver. Their findings will supplement an earlier institute study on the nature and effectiveness of commands given under stress.

Lewinski predicts that full findings from the new research will be available before the end of this summer, along with recommendations for training and performance. He is reluctant to discuss specifics until the data has been thoroughly mined, but he does note that an officer's best protection on a vehicle stop may be to get full view of a driver's hands before advancing toward the window for contact—an old concept but apparently one that bears continual reinforcement.

"In each Hillsboro scenario, the driver kept his right hand down by his thigh every time that an officer came up to deal with him," Lewinski says. "The officers couldn't see the hand from their vantage point, yet the majority did not direct him to make it visible. They saw it for the first time when he pointed the gun at them and fired."

The Force Science Institute studies human dynamics in high-stress, rapidly unfolding force encounters. The institute produces a twice-monthly e-newsletter.

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