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Police1 webinar Q&A: Speakers address improving police decision-making under stress

Answering key questions from attendees during this Police1 learning event

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By Police1 Staff

Extreme stress can cause our brains to switch to the “fight or flight” mode to optimize our chances of survival. This switch also leads to deficits in cognition (decision-making and working memory), motor performance (reaction time) and overall perception of the environment (tunnel vision).

In a webinar, sponsored by VirTra, Harvard-trained neuroscientist and CEO of NeuroSmart Inc., Melis Yilmaz Balban paired up with retired officer and human factors psychology court-certified expert David Blake to discuss the importance of agencies providing awareness training on human capabilities and limitations while operating under stressful situations and incorporating evidence-based training methods that are intended to increase performance in the field.

Here’s what attendees had to say about this online learning event:

  • “Insightful ideas on how to develop training to help think clearly during high-stress situations.”
  • “Really appreciated the discussions regarding neurobiology and how that ultimately has an effect on an officer’s ability to perform executive decision-making tasks.”
  • “Very good information related to how to improve training in order to recreate not just stress, but the right kind of stress.”
  • “I am excited for the future of police training having a neurobiological approach. I am a believer that we should be teaching this starting in the academy and throughout an officer’s career. Listening to the speakers discuss quality simulation training is exciting.”

To view the webinar on-demand, click here.

Here we provide answers to some of the questions addressed during the live event, as well as other questions we couldn’t address due to time limitations.

As studies have shown that the executive function continues to develop into adulthood, should policing consider age in hiring practices?

Melis: That is a good question. I have seen young officers being more vulnerable to making rushed/irrational decisions. They are also very open to self-improvement and using new technologies. Given this, my recommendation would be to take age into consideration during training and make sure younger and less experienced officers get self-regulation training.

David: Not my area of expertise, but studies do indicate the human brain is not fully developed until age 25. I believe that this should be explored as it may have an impact on performance variables specific to law enforcement.

My experience is that the police training I was exposed to over my career focused on the “worst-case scenario” thus planting the seed that all potential encounters activate the sympathetic nervous system. Over a career, can this be detrimental to an officer’s emotional mental and physical health, let alone the concerns with our response to citizen encounters?

David: I believe that we can create a level of over-reactivity based on every scenario, every video and every training being associated with threat and use of force. Others have talked about this to some degree but I don’t know of any direct empirical evidence that police training is inappropriate or incorrect in this regard. Considering how little stress-based training police receive – it might be something to look into.

Melis: Great question. I think exposing officers to stressful situations repeatedly in training is not helpful and can be detrimental if it is not coupled with training on how to self-regulate. It’s definitely risky. So stress inoculation training should be coupled with a debrief on how stressed they were and what they did to self-regulate on and off duty.

Can we regulate our physiology via breath control?

Melis: Controlled breathing exercises are a proven method to lower sympathetic nervous system activity and anxiety. Preliminary data from ongoing research suggests 5 minutes a day of practice of exhaling prolonged breathing can lower physiological reactivity and improve mood. Mindful controlled breathing can also be used to lower physiology on the way to a call.

How do we focus hiring on “optimal responders?”

Melis: I think more research is needed on how stress regulation skills can be used in police hiring practices to determine the appropriate cut-off for hiring. Since this is a learnable skill, I think measuring the “optimality” of response is more useful in training, particularly in young officers whose brains are still open to learning. For more experienced officers it could be used to perhaps force them to renew their training and make sure they don’t shift into the chronic “red zone” over the years.

If you are in a high-threat/stress situation, is it not logical that de-escalation techniques have failed and you are already at maximum escalation? In other words, de-escalation goes to the bottom of priority and the preservation of life goes up.

David: Not necessarily. There are so many variables here. Context is important as is individual perception and trait anxiety.

Melis: I agree with David. It could be but each situation is unique and different. Context is everything. In the vast majority of scenarios I have seen, there is room for de-escalation. The key is to be able to make that decision.

What does the role of “emotional intelligence” play in perception and actions related to stressful situations? Sometimes individuals can’t define why they had a feeling/hunch but they’ve been exposed to a similar situation using that basis for the response to the stress/threat.

Melis: The “hunch” is typically a physical sensation that the brain has associated with a threat or salient condition from past experience. When a similar situation is re-experienced, the physical sensation comes back to remind the brain this is something to pay attention to. Every situation is different though. So I would urge officers to pay attention to hunch but treat it as just one source of information because every situation is different.

Would the training for these kinds of events vary based on the department or are they all most the same type?

David: I think all training requirements should be based on evidence of a need. Intuition tells us that some departments may need to vary training based on their own specific issues including economic and staffing limitations. However, in regard to use of force, the underlying academic and motor skills are similar across the nation.

Does age and/or experience impact the threat response continuum for perceived threats?

Melis: It sure does, but there needs to be more research to understand how exactly it does. It is not a simple formula, as different people handle stress differently over time. Some are better to process stressful events and recover from them and learn from them. Some are more vulnerable to chronic stress and likely to make more errors with more experience.

If an elevated heart rate doesn’t help replicate stress in a training environment, what can trainers do to better replicate real-life conditions?

David: We should be attempting to immerse our students in the training environment by making it as realistic as possible. Radio traffic, lights, sirens and working through problems to their natural conclusion are helpful ideas.

Melis: I agree with David. It is creating a realistic scenario and environment. Having real consequences of training outcomes (plastic ammunition or technologies that deliver noxious stimuli as feedback) could also be a motivator.

It seems that much emphasis has to be placed on the “vigilant zone” with field training officers in the actual theater. It requires local knowledge and constant community liaison to understand the cultural norms and behavior patterns of the various areas of society, so as to help reduce “habitual” behaviors of officers going automatically to “fight” (not flight) mode. Is this assessment correct?

Melis: Great point. I would agree that knowing cultural norms and behavioral patterns in the community is tremendously helpful in accurately judging threat levels.

Any suggestions for trainers if they do not have access to simulator training, especially if the majority of a training course is outside?

David: I would suggest live actors and the methods of reality-based training as taught by Ken Murray.

Melis: I would just add tools to monitor physiology during live actor training could be very useful.

Has there been any exploration into the use of smartwatches with an auditory signal to indicate that an officer is starting to get into a higher threat level?

Melis: Not that I know of but this is exactly what we are developing in NeuroSmart Inc.

Even if an individual stress profile can be identified, would that shield the officer from legal liability if a use of force error was made?

David: Unknown, but I speculate that it would not “shield” them. An expert can only try to educate the trier of fact if allowed to bring this type of information into the courtroom. The trier-of-fact will weigh the information they receive and make a determination.

So physical exercise and breathing exercises can help you have more executive control in a high-stress event? And then after a high-stress event, why can your memory be fuzzy or sometimes wrong?

Melis: Yes, regular exercise and breathing exercises lower sympathetic tone and help with stress and anxiety regulation. During a high-perceived threat encounter, working memory is inhibited and the brain is not able to process and record incoming new information. This is why it is difficult to remember this later.

David: I fully agree with Melis and would also add that the focus of attention is also important. Information that is not consciously attended to will not be available for memory recall.

What books do you recommend?

Melis: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD.

To view the on-demand webinar, click here.