Could wearable devices save police officers' lives and careers?

If supervisors could see an officer’s biometric response in real-time during high-stress calls such as a traffic stop or pursuit, intervention could occur without delay


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

In the 2019 motion picture "Ad Astra," Brad Pitt stars as an astronaut in a distant future where space exploration has evolved to the point of colonization on faraway planets such as Mars. NASA has become U.S. Space Command and astronauts are frequently tasked with missions involving physical danger, requiring sudden alert thinking and fine motor skills. Prior to each mission deployment, Pitt’s character must check in at an automated station where he attaches biometric sensors before answering a series of audible questions to a computer software system. This system measures the astronaut’s responses and determines if he or she is “fit” enough for their mission. At one point, Pitt’s character fails the test and is instructed to report to a “calming room” until he is fit enough to deploy. In this future, characteristics such as maintaining a slow heart rate and calmness during missions come at a premium.

Now imagine a future in which you’ve become the chief of police of a mid-size law enforcement agency following a series of highly publicized and scrutinized use of force incidents involving your police officers. Self-assessment of policy and training is required, and your experience in police work and leadership has prepared you for this challenge. Just as you are getting accustomed to answering difficult questions from the community, media and city leadership, you receive a visit from investigators from the Department of Justice who tell you they have initiated an independent investigation.

The appointed investigator sits down and presents you with a court order. You see the investigator is holding a case that contains what looks like wristwatches and sensor pads. The investigator explains the devices are to be issued to your police officers to be worn during their shifts to capture biometric data. The court order states the biometric data will be used to highlight if and how your police officers are fit for duty.

Is body armor the most important wearable we will deploy in the next 10 years, or will wearable devices provide a similar level of protection for the officer’s life and career?
Is body armor the most important wearable we will deploy in the next 10 years, or will wearable devices provide a similar level of protection for the officer’s life and career? (Getty Images)

Included with the devices are citations of recent studies of officer-involved shootings where the officer’s biometric data showed they were suffering from fatigue coupled with high cortisol levels and adrenalin during instances of poor decision-making. In this near-term future, would your police department be prepared to respond to this level of examination? What measures have we taken today to address these same concerns to ensure physical and emotional success for our officers? How could we leverage evolving technology to support us tomorrow? Is body armor the most important wearable we will deploy in the next 10 years, or will wearable devices provide a similar level of protection for the officer’s life and career?   

A history of unhealthy police officers

The structure of shift work, fatigue and overall stress greatly impact an officer’s ability to perform on the job and to survive the career long-term. The University of Buffalo conducted a study of more than 400 police officers that included clinical examinations of lifestyle and psychological factors. Wearable devices measured the quantity and quality of sleep cycles. [1] Initial results from the study showed officers over age 40 had a higher 10-year risk of a coronary event compared to average national standards; 72% of female officers and 43% of male officers, had higher-than-recommended cholesterol levels; and police officers as a group had higher-than-average pulse rates and diastolic blood pressure. This study found police officers far more susceptible to hypertension (51.8%), leading to earlier mortality resulting from high rates for arteriosclerotic heart disease, digestive cancers, cancers of the lymphatic and hematopoietic tissues, brain cancer and esophageal cancer.

In addition to the chronic stresses of the job, recent instances of police use of force and widespread civil unrest create added pressures as officers are tasked with maintaining public trust as criticism from the public becomes more intense. The eight-second video on the internet capturing a traffic stop can go viral and then be used by the public to define an officer’s moral background. New transparency laws allow previously confidential information involving use of force or conduct to now be published in the Sunday newspaper with the officer’s name. The stress often leads to substance abuse, as police are nearly three times as likely to suffer from addiction than the public. [2]

There are proven benefits of implementing wellness programs to address not only job stress but physical and mental fitness to prepare for job performance. In 2018, the IACP recognized 15 police agencies with model wellness programs that recommitted to and reinvested in established programs while also conceiving innovative new ones. [3] For example, the San Antonio Police Department had more than 2,000 cadets, officers and supervisors go through its Performance Recovery Optimization course. This course teaches officers to deal with the negative impact of stress on memory and fine motor skills to influence performance on the job. The Columbia (South Carolina) Police Department implemented a Fit for Duty wellness planning program that customizes fitness goals to achieve better overall health and on-the-job performance. The program has had 150 officers participate with 54 of those achieving their fitness goals.

The success of these programs requires the participation of officers who work in a culture that has generally been modeled after the military. This means officers will often take on a soldier mentality and view mental health and well-being as being overly sentimental and saccharine. [3]

Rather than hoping an officer might self-report stress or fatigue, what if we could be more proactive? If a device could tell if you were suffering from stress, fatigue or sickness before you even realized it at all, how valuable would that be? Is it possible to create a baseline of health for police officers using wearables and biometric data? If that information became readily accessible through technology, how could law enforcement adapt to benefit from it?

These are questions we could be facing within the next decade as the new generation of police officers are already getting accustomed to this technology today in unexpected areas.


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Police performance: Developing a culture of accountability

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Wearables in the post-COVID world

About one in five Americans use a wearable fitness tracking device. [4] As we become accustomed to relying on wearables, the COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted possible long-term benefits. The medical industry has identified the necessity to move away from episodic healthcare to be more of a constant monitoring environment. [5] One of the primary issues of the pandemic was the lack of testing to quickly identify those infected. Researchers have turned to wearable technology and biometric data as a possible solution.

In April 2020, Stanford University announced a partnership with Fitbit on a project aimed to detect early signs of viral infection through biometric data from wearable devices. “I feel confident based on our former study that we’ll be able to detect some signal of infection based off of the wearables’ data,” said Michael Snyder, Ph.D., professor and chair of genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine. “And I’m hopeful that as our study picks up, we may even have the granularity to anticipate the severity of viral infection based on smart device data. This tool may end up being a plus for both diagnosis and for prognosis.” [6]

One indicator of the likely growth of wearables is economic. By current estimates, in the next 25 years, we should see wearable technology prosper at a global cost savings of about $200 billion in the health care sector. [5] This cost savings is not only for the end-user patients. Operating costs for hospitals are expected to be reduced by 16% in the next five years due to wearable technology. [5]

The rapid growth of using biometric data is not limited to the healthcare industry. The retail industry is capitalizing on the use of biometric data from customers. In one example, Amazon has patented technology for Alexa-type systems to measure the tone of voice, customer coughs and even level of stress or fatigue. Walmart recently filed a patent to measure a shopper's heart rate, palm temperature, grip force, and walking speed from their shopping cart handle to determine if the customer needs assistance based on their measured agitated level. [7] This level of care not only helps people identify their own fatigue or illness but also protects others in the retail environment. As they are seen as “caring,” Walmart and others should see profit rise versus competitors who could be seen as less concerned about their patrons.

These examples illustrate the accessibility and value of biometric data in varying industries. In a way, Walmart and Amazon are indoctrinating society to the use of biometrics to improve their overall experience and creating personalized expectations.  This, coupled with the healthcare industry innovating wearable medical care, identifies a clear trend in which employees will expect wearables to be used to impact their own work experience.

As this level of accessibility to biometrics becomes prevalent, and studies continue to highlight the unhealthy culture of police work, it is feasible to see the benefits of implementing a program of wearable technology to use biometrics to impact police officers’ health and well-being. This would mean having healthier police officers on the street. But the impact on job performance could be the deciding factor.

So what if we’re stressed?

Stress is comprised of two chemicals – adrenaline and cortisol. Stress does not necessarily need to impair police officers’ ability to perform. During a critical incident, stress can assist in becoming focused and alert. However, job stress over a duration of time can be problematic.

There is sufficient data to correlate the relationship of an officer’s performance to their job stress and physical fitness. In 2017, Walden University conducted a study to explore the relationship between police officer’s job stress and job performance. [8] During the study, researchers measured police officer’s job performance in part to statistical analysis; such as the number of arrests, citations, reports completed and citizen complaints. Those officers also completed surveys that revealed job stress following into four classifications:

  • Stress extrinsic to the organization
  • Occupational stress that is job/task-related
  • Personal stress
  • Organizational stress.

The results indicated approximately 80% of the variance in police officers’ job performance is explained by job stress. The study also showed a positive relationship between physical exercise and an officer’s job performance. In short, an officer who employs physical fitness is far more prepared to deal with job stress resulting in positive performance.

Two studies both cite shift work and extended hours in their research of police officer stress. [1, 8] A study by the University of New South Wales in Australia found that after 17 hours of continuous wakefulness, an individual experiences a decrease in performance equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent. After 24 hours, the performance decrease is equal to a 0.10 percent BAC. [9] This data alone strongly indicates the police need to reconsider how long their officers work each day, not only for their own safety but for those in their communities.

With studies like these, it is becoming more established in our understanding that rested and healthy police officers perform better on the job. At the same time, the evolution of wearable technology to capture biometrics will make it easier to identify “who is rested” and “who is not.” This will evolve into “who can do the job right now.” The next generation of police officers may already be apt to prioritize their own wellness at a greater importance than previous generations.

A new era of officer wellness

Accessing biometric data for police officers should first be considered as an officer wellness tool. The culture of law enforcement will be forced to experience a paradigm shift. The impact of working long hours on minimal rest and poor diets will become unacceptable once wearables can easily measure fitness levels through biometric response.

There are, though limited, requirements on police officers to set personal or professional fitness goals related to their work. However, more agencies are prioritizing fitness by offering opportunities through on-duty workout programs or by other creative means. For example, the City of Reno partnered with a professional nutritionist to create a program for police officers suffering from a high risk of cardiovascular disease. [10] During the program, 15 police officers received direction on a low-carb/paleo diet and were counseled on sleep and exercise for three months, which resulted in a reduction of risk factors for those officers.  

The next generation of the workforce values an organization's commitment to professional development and technology. [11] The expansion of wellness programs to include fitness and nutrition considerations aligns with this trend and highlights the prioritization of overall health for police officers to do the job. Given as much as 20% of the population already use smartwatches and similar fitness devices [4], the future generation of police officers will value staying informed and managing their personal health and wellbeing. The trend of wearables could not only address your fitness but could even go so far as to tell you how to be a better-trained police officer.

Personalized training

Biometrics for individual officers can also be used to enhance training and act as an early intervention system for organizations. 

Most early intervention programs have a reactive function that is measured over the course of time and evaluation. However, if officers and supervisors could see in real-time an officer’s biometric response during a traffic stop or pursuit, then intervention can occur without delay. Further review of specific situations with officers and their biometric reactions could provide insight on possible opportunities to address in training. A recent study of 12 police officers in a training exercise concluded that objective physiological measures of heart rate and pupil size may help to explain why performance sometimes deteriorates under varying levels of stress. [12]

The emerging innovation of wearables will create an opportunity to introduce a program in a controlled environment such as during training for police officers. Current out-of-the-box wearable products now offer a wide spectrum of measurements to include: 

  • Tracking emotions and providing well-being advice
  • Monitoring anxiety levels in individuals on the autistic spectrum
  • Highlighting poor posture and breathing in order to help the wearer avoid stress. [13]

Once outfitted with wearables, officers could volunteer to participate in a pilot program during training scenarios to capture this biometric data to better understand their internal responses during stress experienced in training. This level of analysis would create individualized training priorities that officers could identify and address. The potential of having access to this biometric data offers a truly proactive and preventative solution that can set officers up for short- and long-term success.

The final evolution of biometrics could result in real-time use on-duty. The next generation of body-worn cameras allows supervisors to monitor officers in real-time. Imagine overlaying the officer’s biometric readings over what we are watching at the moment. Officers often refer to the “feeling in your gut” as a precursor to traumatic events unfolding. The body-worn camera is limited in perspective; an officer’s intuition and biometric response to a situation can be more precise depicting the appropriate stress. Wearable technology will allow us to capture those moments through biometrics.

For example, as stress increases to dangerous levels as an officer is engaged in a code 3 response, a supervisor could intervene, which could result in drastic reductions in vehicle collisions. Should we fail to implement a program to utilize this data for our benefit to support training and officer wellness, could it be eventually imposed on us from external pressure?

The future of fitness for duty

Just as law enforcement agencies had to adjust operations and policy for the advent of body-worn camera technology, they should expect the same for biometrics, measuring an officer’s fitness for duty and wearable technology. 

Ensuring police officers are physically and psychologically fit for duty is part of leadership’s responsibility. Requiring a fitness for duty examination (FFDE) may be necessary to confirm an officer is still capable of performing their job duties. In Brownfield v. City of Yakima (2010), a federal circuit court upheld the validity of a police chief’s order for an FFDE prior to documented evidence suggesting performance issues, noting, “Police officers are likely to encounter extremely stressful and dangerous situations during the course of their work. When a police department has good reason to doubt an officer’s ability to respond to these situations in an appropriate manner, an FFDE is consistent with the business necessity.” [14]

However, there are still constraints on when fitness evaluations can be required and the scope of the evaluation. The important takeaway is police officers’ duties are recognized to be distinctive.

The Court pointed out that officers are engaged in “extremely stressful and dangerous situations” and are placed “in positions where they can do tremendous harm if they act irrationally.” [14] Similar to "Ad Astra’s" depiction of Brad Pitt’s requirement to a pre-test before deployment, should a wearable program be considered as a perpetual fitness for duty examination that can be examined at any time? The introduction of a wearable/biometric program will be sensitive and requires dialog. With the movement toward transparency and police reform, how do we make certain a wearable program supports officer wellness and health, and that they will wear the devices?

As the technology evolves, so must the safeguards on how this technology is used. Staff must work with legal consultants to formulate guidelines on how biometric information from officers is captured and stored, and for what specific purposes. They will also need to address issues of medical data privacy, discovery in criminal and civil litigation, and a transition to a future where the officer’s conduct, physical and mental state, are factors to be considered in critical incidents. These initial guidelines should be grounded in employee wellness and training purposes, and not necessarily related to performance measures and/or discipline.

As important as your vest?

The trends are clear. Officer wellness will continue to be a priority as we learn more about how job stress impacts police officers’ health and performance. Scrutiny of police officer performance will continue as information becomes readily available through increased transparency laws and access to video, which is widespread through social media and the internet.

Biometrics and wearable technology will grow exponentially and influence almost every industry to include the retail and medical fields. Ultimately, the technology and community expectation will become inevitable and we’ll be forced to act. But today exists an opportunity to influence these trends to leverage this technology to benefit police officers and improve their ability to survive this career into the future. 

NEXT: Improving personnel performance through evaluations and training

References

1. Violanti JM. (2013). Life Expectancy in Police Officers: A Comparison with the U.S. General Population.

2. Cidambi I. (March 30, 2018). Police and Addiction

3. International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2018). Practices of Modern Policing: Officer Safety and Wellness.

4. Vogels EA. (Jan. 9, 2020). About one-in-five Americans use a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Retrieved from

5. Pando A. (May 2, 2019). Wearable Health Technologies and Their Impact On the Health Industry.

6. Stanford University (April 14, 2020). Stanford Medicine scientists hope to use data from wearable devices to predict illness, including COVID-19

7. Webb A. (May 2019). Who Owns Your Biometric Data? It's Probably Not You What a world driven by biometrics will bring.

8. Chikwem C. (2017). The Relationship of Job Stress to Job Performance in Police Officers. Walden University. 

9. Williamson AM, Feyer AM. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. 

10. Vrotsos G. (Nov. 17, 2018). How to implement a department-wide health, fitness program. 

11. Fromm J. (July 3, 2018). Gen Z in The Workforce: How to Recruit and Retain Youth Generations

12. Bertilsson J, et al. (2019). Towards systematic and objective evaluation of police officer performance in stressful situations. Police Practice and Research.

13. Aetna International. (2020). Fitbits of the Future: What’s next for Biometric Data in Health? 

14. Mayer MJ, Corey DM. (2016). Current issues in psychological fitness-for-duty evaluations for law enforcement officers: Legal and practice implications. In C. L. Mitchell & E. Dorian (Eds.), Police psychology and its growing impact on modern law enforcement, pp. 93-117. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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