Research: Stress, training and the objective reasonableness standard
While consistent training can significantly improve outcomes, a flawless performance is improbable given the limits of human performance under stress
The question before our communities and courts is how reasonable officers can be expected to perform under stress. Here’s what we learned.
First, while consistent training can significantly improve outcomes, a flawless performance is improbable given the limits of human performance under stress. That said, we observed several behaviors that were highly associated with positive performance. These behaviors included assessing the situation, accurately interpreting threat cues, competence with intervention options, effective de-escalation, and maintaining tactical advantages (e.g., time, distance, cover, concealment).
I was able to discuss the full study with Von Kliem, Director of Consulting at Force Science.
Von observed, “You made an important observation in the full study where you highlighted that perceptual and cognitive adaptations to stress may not be helpful in certain aspects of performance – like situational awareness – but may be beneficial for other aspects, like officer safety. We recognize that tunnel vision for example is something we all experience whether we are under stress or not. It may help us focus on important information for survival, but it can be at the cost of missing out on other, sometimes equally important, details. These research-based observations are valuable as we still have attorneys and academics arguing that tunnel-vision either doesn’t apply to police or is just a convenient excuse that allows officers to lie about their use-of-force decisions.”
Dr. Bill Lewinski, Executive Director of Force Science, remarked, “This study advanced some important research into human performance, particularly officer performance, under stress. The section on Training and Experience Under Stress deserves careful attention. Your team observed that when an officer evaluates a threat based on a quick diagnosis of the situation – like a suspect’s movements, body position, speed, and similarity to past dangerous conduct – the officer might then respond to the presentation of a cellphone as though it were a firearm. Although these types of responses are fast and often involve the most reasonable and expected types of decision-making during force encounters, they are imperfect. What law enforcement and the courts might call a reasonable mistake-of-fact, our communities may just see as an error. Your study highlights the prevalence of these types of reasonable but imperfect judgments made under stress.”
This study advances the study of officer performance under stress and provides an excellent primer on the psychophysiological threat response and considerations for evidence-based training. The full peer-reviewed article can be accessed here.
Email questions, comments and recommendations for further research in this area to Dr. Baldwin.
1. Klinger D, Brunson R. (2009.) Police officers’ perceptual distortions during lethal force situations: informing the reasonableness standard. Crimino. Public Policy, 8, 117–140.
2. Baldwin S, Bennell C, Blaskovits B, Brown A, Jenkins B, Lawrence C, McGale H, Semple T, Andersen JP (2022.) A Reasonable Officer: Examining the Relationships Among Stress, Training, and Performance in a Highly Realistic Lethal Force Scenario. Front. Psychol, 12:759132.
3. Baldwin S, Bennell C, Andersen JP, Semple T, Jenkins B. (2019.) Stress-activity mapping: physiological responses during general duty police encounters. Front. Psychol, 10:2216.
4. Artwohl, A. (2008.) Perceptual and memory distortion during officer-involved shootings. FBI Law Enforcement Bull, 71:18–24.
About the author
Lead researcher Simon Baldwin has a Ph.D. in psychology at Canada’s Carleton University (Police Research Lab) and is the manager of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Operational Research Unit. He is a graduate of the Advanced Force Science Specialist Course and was joined in this study by Dr. Craig Bennell, Dr. Judith Andersen and retired partnering Force Science instructor Chris Lawrence.