Newtown shooting: Why observation training is critical

Observation and cognitive skills are the most important assets a law enforcement officer or security professional can possess

On the Sunday morning following the Sandy Hook school massacre, I watched Face The Nation. At the end of the show, the names and pictures of the children whose lives were so violently taken were slowly displayed on the screen.

As a parent, I have been grief stricken since first hearing about the tragedy, but seeing the pictures of the small innocent faces of the children drove home the individuality of each child and the insanity of what happened.

It brought tears to my eyes and sickened my stomach. I cannot imagine the grief the parents must be living with now and for the rest of their lives created by one deranged individual. 

What Can be Done?
Searching to find answers and, more importantly, solutions to this complex and insidious problem, I suspect the investigation will reveal clues that were present in the behaviors of the perpetrator.

As we watch and listen to the acts of terror and violence that have played out across our nation, we all must ask, “What can be done?”

What can law enforcement do? What can the mental health community do? Many reporters and pundits have jumped to the conclusion that gun control and legislation is the answer.

With estimates of more than 310 million weapons already in our society and with our Second Amendment, some form of gun control could be part of the solution, but it certainly is not the answer to this very complex problem.

Six years ago, after returning from a counterterrorism training mission in Israel, I committed all of my energies and resources to research and develop training for law enforcement and security professionals to increase observation skills.

At the heart of my decision and passion toward this mission, I recognized skills practiced by the Israelis that could be implemented in the U.S. Therefore, my training focuses on methods to improve observation skills.

Behavioral Assessment
The Israelis have learned to recognize that behavior profiling is the key to recognizing and identifying not only the potential of terrorist activity, but criminality and violence.

Unfortunately, in our country we have made the word “profiling” synonymous with stereotyping.

Due to political correctness, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater in our efforts to avoid civil rights violations based on racial, ethnic, gender, age or religious stereotyping of individuals.

Yes, profiling if equated with stereotyping is wrong, illegal, and not useful, but behavioral assessment is a valuable tool.

To demonstrate the ineffectiveness of stereotyping, I show a slide with pictures of individuals representing a wide variety from each of the aforementioned groups in Rapid Threat Recognition classes. Participants are asked to look at the pictures and tell me who they believe presents the greatest threat.

All the people in the slide represent various stereotypes including a picture of a cherubic looking 8-year-old boy who was involved in a school act of violence where he threatened his classmates and had to be handcuffed and restrained by the police.

Although few behavioral clues, if any, can be derived from a single picture, the point of the exercise is to show that stereotyping does not provide value in threat detection.

What is valuable are behavioral clues that individuals display. These clues, if detected and further investigated, may lead to the probability of a future act of terrorism, criminality, or violence.

Observation and Cognitive Skills
When I began my mission, I was determined to develop a program to enhance skills to recognize and assess behaviors. I quickly realized that increasing observation and critical thinking skills are the key and foundation to see and learn behaviors.

In other words, we need to rapidly observe and access the totality of circumstances as we study behaviors. When researching this area, it became apparent that there was little or no training available.

An important point that must be recognized: if you can’t see it… you can’t deal with it! Therefore, observation and cognitive skills are the most important assets a law enforcement officer or security professional can possess.

It is estimated that approximately 80 percent of what we perceive comes to us through vision.

A long held false assumption is that individuals joining law enforcement or professional security have some innate capacity to observe unfolding situations faster and better than anyone else. In fact, the term “trained observer” has been bantered around these professions for years. Yet, where is the training?

Training is the Key
Over the past several years, breakthroughs in neuro- and brain science, sports medicine, and the research I have conducted have proven that observation skills can be increased.

Using a series of exercises that flash numbers and objects in progressively faster microseconds, the brain develops new neural connections. With practice, participants begin to see and process information with increasing speed. The ability to tell the difference between a cell phone, a wallet, a tool, and a handgun fast and with accuracy can make the difference in a wrongful shooting, saving your life or the lives of others.

In the Sandy Hook school shooting, imagine if the innocent fellow who was spotted wearing camo pants and a dark jacket was carrying an object when officers approached and they mistook it for a gun.

What if an officer had stopped the perpetrator for a traffic violation during the five-mile drive to the school? In such rapidly evolving and dynamic situations as an active shooter, officers have to rely on instinctive abilities. Training is the key to develop how an officer will react. Rapid threat recognition is critical.

Of course, increasing these skills is not the be all and end all to solve the complex problems of terrorism or violence. Nor is the ability to rapidly assess behaviors, but this is the ground work of critical and essential training that can and will make police officers more effective in protecting their own lives and the lives of the people in the communities they have sworn to protect.

What if just one aberrant behavior might have been detected before these acts of violence?

What if such a clue was investigated and acted upon with any of the deranged individuals involved in these heinous mass murders?

What if — when observing strange or aberrant behaviors — they could be articulated properly and brought to the attention of the mental health community?

What if we had a mental health community that had the ability to effectively deal with persons displaying aberrant behaviors? These and the answers to such questions like this could bring viable solutions to prevent such acts.

More than ever, I am convinced that observation training needs to become part of every law enforcement (and security) officer’s skillset. I ask your assistance to help me achieve this important mission to promote observation and critical thinking training.  

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