Research on visual focus in law enforcement

Attentional control can positively influence police officers’ emotional regulation and improve tactical decision-making


Originally published on the Force Science Institute websiteRepublished here with permission.

By Lewis “Von” Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM

Research has found that attentional control, including recognizing and visually focusing on relevant information, is a key to successful athletic performance in complex and dynamic competitions.

Researchers have found that “elite” officers focused their vision at the right place, at the right time, and for a longer duration than the less experienced officers.
Researchers have found that “elite” officers focused their vision at the right place, at the right time, and for a longer duration than the less experienced officers. (Getty Images)

Similarly, research has found that attentional control can positively influence police officers’ emotional regulation and improve tactical decision-making. Without an insightful understanding of an event and relevant attentional control, officers may pay attention to irrelevant cues, delaying their decisions as they ineffectively scan, seeking to understand and predict the evolution of an encounter.

Past Force Science research, conducted alongside Dr. Joan Vickers, Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, found that the “elite” officers focused their vision at the right place, at the right time, and for a longer duration than the less experienced officers. Because of their “game knowledge,” they had an idea of what, where, when and how critical events would unfold. “Rookie” officers in that study were slower to focus on relevant cues, slower to respond to threats, and less accurate in their judgment and shooting performance.

If an officer’s ability to maintain optimal arousal states and effectively respond to threats is influenced by their ability to recognize and focus on critical visual information, can we expect that officers with a particular type of experience will outperform their less experienced colleagues?  Would it be possible to train officers to quickly identify and focus on critical information and make more accurate and effective decisions?  Force Science researchers have begun to answer these questions.

Force Science, East Carolina University, and Montclair State University

To continue research into the influence of visual focus on performance, Force Science reached out to Dr. Nick Murray, a professor at East Carolina University and the director of the ECU Visual Motor Lab (VML).  Dr. Murray, with the help of his graduate students, routinely examines how visual attention and processing can influence mental workload, arousal and motor behavior.

Dr. Murray joined Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director and senior researcher at Force Science, and Dr. Robert Horn, Associate Professor, Exercise Science and Physical Education, Montclair State University.  Together, these researchers investigated how years and type of experience might influence visual scan patterns in active-duty police officers engaged in a complex, dynamic, and highly threatening encounter.

The Mesa Study

In what has become known as the “Mesa Study” (conducted in Mesa, AZ), researchers (with the assistance of the Mesa Police Department – Arizona and Hillsboro Police Department – Oregon) observed 56 police officers responding to a 5- to 7-minute training scenario. This realistic scenario involved a simulated automobile crash that evolved into a critical incident after the officers’ emergency response and attempted intervention.

Participant officers wore heart rate monitors, body cameras and specialized glasses that tracked their eye movements.

With these specialized glasses, researchers were able to document what officers were looking at (i.e., potential threats, witnesses and involved participants, vehicles, distractors, etc.) and measured where and the duration and relevance of the officers’ fixation (when they looked and how relevant was the information at which they were looking).

Following a careful analysis of the research data, multiple journal articles are expected to be published detailing important findings from the study. In the meantime, Dr. Murray was selected to present some of the findings at the 2022 annual North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity conference in Waikoloa, Hawaii. A second presentation by Dr. Rob Horn and Dr. Murray is scheduled for the 2022 annual Society for Police and Criminal Psychology conference next month in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

As readers wait for the official findings to be published in scientific journal articles and Force Science News, we can share some important observations. First, the data fell into two clusters. The first cluster was those with a “low relevant scan rate,” meaning participants focused early and longer on the critical cues and players. The second group had a more rapid and random scan rate, indicating they were attempting to understand what was happening and how it might evolve. Years of police experience did not appear to factor in the officer’s performance, but their training experience definitely was.

Both groups had a significant arousal response, with pulses consistently up to 170 to 180 beats per minute during periods of intense conflict. Notably, participants with additional tactical training seemed to have increased processing efficiency and more relevant and effective attentional control. Their emotional arousal appeared to energize them and facilitated more accurate and effective understanding and performance.

Participants with a high scan rate and a high pulse attempted to figure out a rapidly evolving and dynamic encounter they couldn’t control, predict, or anticipate. Their high pulse rate and arousal were connected to impaired performance. For example, in the incident, at some point, the assailant procured a simulation handgun loaded with simulation ammunition and shot directly at them.

Eighty-five percent of those with a low scan rate were better positioned tactically and appropriately returned gunfire. Fifty percent of those with a high scan rate did not return gunfire. Both groups had high arousal rates, but in the group with better training and more efficient and effective performance, the arousal appeared to facilitate overall performance. In the group with less experience, the arousal level was consistent with their inability to read, control, or predict the evolution of the event and their impaired performance.

Force Science has previously written about the myth that pulse rates are a reliable performance indicator.   In this research, using “three lead heart monitors” and a realistic, dynamic encounter, very high pulse levels are associated with both effective and ineffective performance (but in different ways and for different reasons).

Force Science has also written about police training, in which a chasm often exists between training to understand the rules (taught in a classroom and tested in a multiple-choice exam) and training to use tools in real-world scenarios effectively (e.g., weapons, tactics, persuasion methodology).

This study reinforces the need to close that chasm with clinical training that prepares officers to make more timely, effective, and legally justified decisions. Dr. Nick Murray reinforces this point by saying, “this work highlights the importance of visuomotor skills in tactical training and strengthens the need for realistic, dynamic training programs that improve the transfer of learning to real-world situations.”

NEXT: Curb-sitting: Evidence-based tactic or illusion of safety?


About the author

With nearly 30 years in the criminal justice profession, Lewis “Von” Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM, worked as a civilian police officer, attorney, educator and author. Von is an Attorney II for Lexipol, the executive editor of Force Science News and co-owner of Von Kliem Consulting, LLC, where he trains and consults on constitutional policing, use of force analysis, crisis communications and trauma-informed interviewing. The views and opinions expressed in this article represent the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Lexipol.  

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