New study: Expert vs. novice use-of-force decision-making

Research findings may help trainers more rapidly educate recruits to make better use-of-force decisions


This article is reprinted with permission from the Calibre Report by Calibre Press. To subscribe, email editor@calibrepress.com. 

By Charles Remsberg

New research has revealed specific differences in how “expert” officers think compared to novices in dealing with contentious confrontations – and these findings may help trainers more rapidly educate recruits to make better use-of-force decisions.

Research findings can help trainers shortcut the learning process with “more effective and targeted training.” (Photo/PoliceOne)
Research findings can help trainers shortcut the learning process with “more effective and targeted training.” (Photo/PoliceOne)

The research – limited but revealing – was led by Dr. Laura Mangels, a sociologist at the University of California-Berkeley. Her team found that experienced cops were far better at identifying “mitigation opportunities” that might defuse conflict in a variety of scenarios, while soon-to-hit-the-streets recruits tended to focus predominately on establishing “physical control” at the expense of other, non-force considerations.

The study was published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology and can be accessed there in full, free of charge.

Here are the highlights and practical implications:

“Simple Methods”

Mangels writes that her group used “relatively simple methods” to “explicitly identify” a basic standard of “expert knowledge.” Expertise is important, she explains, because “expert judgment tends to be more effective, efficient and accurate than that of novices.”

First tested were 42 working-officer volunteers deemed to be experts by command personnel, based on their reputation, time on the job, achievement in specialty assignments and experience as UOF/firearms/DT instructors. These subjects, predominantly males, were recruited from a municipal department of 12,000 sworn. Most held a college degree and on average had 17 years of service in law enforcement.

Subsequently, 36 novices who lacked “operational experience” completed the same experiment. These subjects, again mostly males, were students in the final week of a 26-week recruit-training academy conducted by a metropolitan PD with some 700 commissioned officers. More recruits than experts were military veterans (31% vs. 8%) but were far less likely to have higher educations (34% vs. 89%).

Each of these 78 officers watched the same five different body camera videos of real-life hazardous encounters in different U.S. states. These included recordings of a menacing, knife-wielding man on a disturbance call who wants cops to kill him; an FI stop of resistant suspected gangbangers; a suspected shoplifter who suddenly produces a hidden gun; a possibly suicidal subject with a blade he won’t relinquish; and a hostile third-party at a domestic who gets into a cursing and shoving match with responding officers.

For the experiment, each video was paused at certain “decision points” and participants selected from sets of “closed-ended” multiple-choice options and/or typed out “open-ended” narrative responses to address three questions:

  • If you were handling this situation, “describe specifically what you would do in the next few seconds;”
  • Until the video stopped, what “cues” do you recall “seeing, hearing, or paying attention to? List the three most important and describe their significance;”
  • “Based on all of the information available to you at this moment, how would you describe what is happening right now?”

Participants were also asked about other particulars, such as the levels and nature of threats, resistance and uses of force they saw in the video; the “relevance of factors they may have considered” in determining the appropriate officer response; “opportunities for force mitigation” (including time, cover, and distance); and the availability of backup.

Her team, Mangels explains, sought to understand the volunteers’ “perceptions (what they saw and heard), judgments (how they made sense of the situation), and decisions as they watched the scenarios unfold….

“At any given decision point, there are many different courses of action that are possible, but there may only be few that are advisable, appropriate, and feasible…. If an officer has an inaccurate ‘read’ of the situation, they are less likely to select an appropriate course of action.”

Some of the test subjects took more than two hours to complete the exercise and thoroughly record insights into their thinking processes.

Significant Differences

The differences between responses of experienced officers and recruits were pronounced. Among the key findings the term reports in this initial paper:

Expert officers were significantly “more likely to emphasize force mitigation” in dealing with the scenario challenges. On average, Mangels reports, experts scored between 13% and 40% “higher than their novice counterparts” in noting “the importance of force mitigation opportunities.”

Among other things, the researchers counted the frequency with which the tested subjects used certain relevant words in their written responses. “Verbal” for instance, “emerged as one of the top 10 words mentioned by experts,” suggesting an emphasis on de-escalation efforts, while that word was “not mentioned frequently enough by novices to make their top ten” list.

In contrast, “novices used the word ‘control’ at a much higher rate,” putting it in their top 10. In fact, their most frequent word groupings were “gain control of suspect” and “carotid control hold.”

In analyzing the narrative responses to one scenario, the researchers found that “one of the top single words” used by experts was “Jerry” – the first name of the suspect. “The fact that experts [were] significantly more likely to refer to the suspect by using his name suggests that they [were] emphasizing verbal de-escalation techniques” more than did novices, the study surmises.

Experts seemed to be “more aware of opportunities for backup” as an important factor in a scenario. Compared to recruits, experienced officers “scored, on average, 13% to 20% higher in their consideration of backup,” the study reports. In particular, they showed a “heightened sensitivity” to the presence of backup “when evaluating the appropriate level of force for a given scenario.”

Experts also showed a greater consciousness of time and distance as relevant factors in confrontations. Their written responses displayed “a strong relative bias” favoring these concepts.

The recruits achieved their best score in a count of the word “cover” in their narratives. They mentioned that critical word more often than the experienced officers, 115 times to 76, although it was not in either group’s top ten.

In summary, Mangels writes, “with greater awareness” of time, distance, opportunities for backup and mitigation possibilities, “experts are more likely to emphasize verbal strategies for engaging with citizens. This stands in direct contrast to novices, who instead prioritize gaining physical control.”

Training Impact

The researchers believe their findings can help trainers shortcut the learning process with “more effective and targeted training.” Typically, Mangels writes, “expert knowledge is gained over thousands of hours of experience.” But with “key components” of expert thinking and decision-making explicitly identified, special emphasis on these critical police skills “can be specifically targeted in training.” This can “accelerate novice learning to bring them more rapidly in line with expert reasoning on the use of force.”

Recruits, she believes, “need a broader conception of ‘control’ than is generally taught in police academies or field training programs; they need a conception that places an emphasis on attention to verbal engagement, distance, time, and cover over an emphasis on physical control.”

The use of video-based exercises similar to those administered in this study can be an ideal tool, Mangels says, for “addressing aspects of tactical decision-making not normally addressed in training.”

Dr. Mangels can be reached at laura.mangels@gmail.com.

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