A Force Science research team recently conducted unique tests with police volunteers to determine how long officers can typically endure in all-out fights with suspects and how a desperate struggle can affect memory. The results are expected to have important legal implications regarding the use of force.
Administered under the guidance of Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, the tests involved 52 officer volunteers from the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Police Service in Canada. A detailed report on findings should be completed in about 3 months, Lewinski told Force Science News.
Lewinski had been contemplating research into officers’ capacity for sustaining a physical fight-for-life since he was consulted months ago in a case in which a West Coast cop was overpowered and handcuffed by a violent EDP. He decided to push ahead with the project after Cmdr. Jeffry Johnson of Long Beach (CA) PD published an article questioning just how long the average officer can fight to control a combative suspect before succumbing to fatigue.
During a certification class in Force Science Analysis, trainers attending from Winnipeg volunteered their academy facilities and assistance, so Lewinski decided to conduct the research there across 3 long days earlier this month.
The testing, funded by FSI, was “very simple yet complex,” Lewinski says. “The goal was to see how long it took an officer to drive himself or herself to exhaustion and to measure the physiological and cognitive consequences.”
First the street officers who volunteered to participate — male and female, with a spread of ages and experience — were divided into subjects who would initially be “exerted” and a control group.
During an introductory briefing by Patricia Thiem, the Institute’s chief operating officer, all were given a crime report to read. This included details about the MO and descriptions of an armed robbery crew that had attacked a bank, an armored car, a jewelry store, and possibly a private residence — later, the officers would learn that this information was part of a memory assessment.
One pair at a time, a control subject and an exerter next went to a gym, where both were fitted with heart monitors and the exerter also was equipped with a VO2 mask to measure oxygen consumption and gas exchange. The activity there was supervised and monitored by Justin Dixon, an exercise physiologist with the London (England) Metropolitan Police.
The exerter was told to beat full-force on a 300-lb. water bag with fists, palms, elbows, and knees until he or she no longer had enough energy to continue or until told to stop because the officer’s cadence had become so slow and weak as to be ineffective. The control subject stood by and observed the process, which was timed and videotaped by two high-definition cameras.
Once maxed out on hitting, the exerter then had to sprint upstairs and outside to a trailer positioned nearby. En route, the subject passed by a male (Cst. Dave Blocksidge of the London Metro Police) wearing a “shockingly bright” European rugby shirt and holding a bright yellow cordless drill — another stimulus for which memory would later be tested, although the participant did not know that at the time.
Upon entering the trailer, the volunteer was confronted by an angry and profane occupant, role-played by Lt. Lee Edwards of Minneapolis PD who has portrayed bad guys in previous Force Science experiments. Edwards verbally berated the test subject for 5 seconds, with an array of weapons, ranging from knives and pistols to an automatic rifle, plainly visible in the immediate surroundings.
Once the exerter left the trailer, the control partner went through the same gauntlet, then was brought back to the gym for his or her own fight-to-exhaustion turn at the heavy bag.
Blood & Memory
After a three-minute rest, Dixon drew blood samples from participants to measure the lactic acid levels produced by their exertion. Memory tests were also administered by Dr. Lorraine Hope, a leading memory researcher and cognitive psychologist from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom.
Participants were tested to see how much — if anything — they could accurately recall about the initial crime report descriptions, the struggle against the heavy bag, the male worker encountered on their run from the gym, and the confrontation with the suspect in the trailer, among other things.
Finally, the test subjects were debriefed by PoliceOne Columnist Scott Buhrmaster, vice president of operations for FSI, and awarded certificates of appreciation for their participation.
In the months ahead, the data gathered will be meticulously analyzed at Force Science headquarters in Mankato (Minn.) and at Dr. Hope’s facilities in England.
“In the end,” says Lewinski, “we should have some important base-line measurements of how long a typical officer can maintain an intense physical struggle before reaching a point where his muscles simply no longer are capable of responding. Once exhausted, of course, an officer is perilously vulnerable.
“Knowing how long it is likely to take to reach that point may help guide and explain an officer’s decision to escalate the use of force to end a physical struggle against a powerful and persistent suspect. And the fact that exhaustion appears to occur in a very short period of time should remind officers of the importance of pre-contact assessment and tactical decision-making.
“The findings may also influence the expectations regarding officers’ memories in use-of-force investigations. To what extent does the intensity and physiological effects of a protracted fight impact the ability to remember important details of what happened before, during, and after an encounter? We hope to provide fresh documentation that extreme stress does adversely affect memory.”
With the volunteers’ permission, a production crew from the Canadian Discovery Channel filmed some portions of the testing, which will be televised on a date yet to be announced.
Also present and assisting with the testing were: Bill Everett, a Minnesota police attorney and charter member of FSI’s national advisory board; Christa Redmann, a researcher from the FSI staff; Long Beach’s Cmdr. Johnson; and a coordinating team from the Winnipeg academy, Sgt. Jason Anderson and constables Steve Davies, Sami Haddad, and Julio Berzenji.
After the testing, Lewinski conducted a special 4-hr. session on Force Science research for the command staff and investigators from Winnipeg Police Service, in appreciation of the department’s cooperation and support.
“The commitment, dedication, and all-out effort by everyone involved was a credit to the law enforcement profession,” Lewinski says. “The results will potentially benefit officers world-wide.”’’
You can contact The Force Science Institute with questions about this study by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.