What new gaze pattern findings mean for your training
Part two of a two-part series
By Force Science Research Center
Part one of this series reported significant new findings from the Force Science Research Center about how an officer's “gaze pattern” in evaluating a potential assailant affects his or her ability to win a gunfight. The research reveals that “elite,” highly experienced officers are better able to quickly and accurately read visual threat cues, focus sooner and longer on where a possible attacker will present a weapon, and draw and fire faster to defeat an assault, compared to less experienced and less successful officers. Part two addresses the training implications of this research.
First, a clarification...
Some readers concluded from part one that the Force Science Research Center “endorses” so-called point shooting, where a handgun's muzzle is positioned toward the target and the gun is fired without significant reference to the sights.
That assumption apparently was drawn from one of the important discoveries of the gaze-pattern study, which was conducted in the United Kingdom by Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSRC's executive director, and Dr. Joan Vickers, a visual tracking expert at the University of Calgary in Canada.
The researchers found that just before firing in an armed confrontation rookies tended to look away from their target and search for their sights for reassurance of their aim, thereby, in Lewinski's words, “pulling themselves out of the gunfight at a critical moment and negatively affecting their accuracy, their speed of response, and their awareness of what the suspect was doing.”
Most of the highly experienced officers in the study, in contrast, concentrated their visual focus on the target/suspect, catching only a fast glimpse of their sights in their peripheral vision and relying primarily on “an unconscious kinesthetic sense to know that their gun is up and positioned properly.”
“This should not be interpreted as sanctioning or promoting any training method in shooting, especially under life-threatening high stress, becomes problematic, and in this which the sights are ignored,” Lewinski emphasizes. “It's true that point shooting can be effective at short distances and probably is instinctively used by many officers in responding to close encounters. But at greater distances, the accuracy of just pointing and study officers were responding to a lethal threat that was 15-20 feet away.
“The rookies had successfully completed firearms training that emphasized traditional sight alignment, but they had no actual street experience. The elite officers began their careers with that same training. But at the time of the study, they were members of a specialized SWAT cadre with years of hard-core street experience. They train constantly and consistently win international competitions.
“Through innumerable repetitions they have developed a highly accurate feel--a strong kinesthetic sense--for raising their gun to a proper alignment without consciously thinking about it or making a pronounced visual or attentional shift to it. If you ran a laser beam from their eye to the target, it would shine right through their sights.
“Careful sight alignment was an important step in starting them toward that point of excellence. Experience and intensive training are ultimately what brought them there. Over a long time, they were able to transition from one emphasis to another. Yet even at their exceptional performance level, referencing the sights in some manner, however fleetingly or peripherally, was still part of their response in the type of rapidly unfolding encounter designed for this study.”
As to the training implications of the gaze-pattern study...
More specifics may be known in one to two years when a new study soon to be launched in England is completed. That research, Lewinski says, will attempt to identify scientifically which teaching methods are most effective for addressing individual student needs and aptitudes so that trainees can more quickly and confidently acquire elite-level use-of-force skills, including firearms performance.
“That study will explore how to fit teaching styles to the individual learning styles of trainees, how much and what kind of training most rapidly and lastingly influences behavior, how to maximize benefits in restricted teaching time, and so on,” Lewinski says. “We will then be able to set standards based on the science of human performance, rather than on tradition, trainer suppositions and preferences, and lawmakers' dictates, which will be a major breakthrough.”
Meanwhile, Lewinski says, there are important lessons to be drawn immediately from the gaze study so far as instructors, investigators, and individual officers are concerned.
For those departments that have not yet joined the 21st century, the message is clearer than ever: It is time to move beyond conventional “qualification” firearms training.
“We are not teaching officers to shoot accurately at the speed of a gunfight before they graduate from academy training,” Lewinski declares. Much more instruction and practice is needed to prepare them to deal with rapidly unfolding, dynamic, high-threat encounters.”
In the recent study, he explains, “the elite officers were able to read danger cues early on and anticipate the suspect's actions ahead of time so they could stay ahead of the fight. They knew where a gun was likely to appear and were focused there before it did. So they were able to get protective rounds off sooner than the suspect and sooner than the rookies.
“That anticipatory skill can only be developed through experience. At the training level, that means extensive experience with dynamic force-on-force encounters and realistic simulations in which you learn by 'being there' over and over again in a wide variety of encounters what to expect and how to look for and recognize danger cues.”
At the same time, repetitive exposure to weapon manipulation at gunfight speed is critical. “There needs to be a much better level of pure shooting skill developed than most departments teach at this point,” Lewinski says. “A gun is a tool, and officers need to be so practiced with it that the mechanics of using it become automatic and unconscious. That frees up more time and attention for decision-making and for concentration on the adversary's behavior.”
In the study, for instance, the superior mechanical skill and anticipation of danger exhibited by the elite officers allowed them to expend more time and stronger concentration on the suspect's shooting hand when he spun toward them in the encounter. As a result, they scored significantly better at correctly identifying a cell phone vs. a gun in his hand and tailoring their responses accordingly than did the novice officers.
Training to a gunfight level may well require more time and money than is currently allotted, Lewinski concedes. But departments should ask themselves a tough question, he says: “What level of liability are you willing to accept with your training?” And they must acknowledge that “meeting some current state qualification standard does not in itself mean that officers are going to be successful on the street and make great decisions and deliver great performance when the chips are down and lives are on the line. Any department owes nothing less than the best training for its officers.”
The sophisticated eye-tracking device used in the study revealed an important finding for investigators. As the testing scenario unfolded, the visual field of expert shooters and rookies alike narrowed significantly. At the moment of firing, the elites tended to have full concentration on the suspect's weapon. Many of the novices, because they were searching for their sights, did not even see the suspect himself when they pulled the trigger.
“What is not given attention cannot be remembered,” Lewinski says, “and investigators need to stay conscious of this. There may be much about the gunfight environment, including details about the suspect's behavior, that an involved officer simply cannot remember because it didn't register on his narrowly focused brain. And that should not be equated with his being evasive or deceptive.
“The more an investigator pushes an officer to elicit facts that the officer doesn't know, the more likely the officer will 'guesstimate' in an effort to satisfy the questioner and the higher the probability of error and inconsistency.
“Investigators should probe with their questioning only to the extent that officers are comfortable in responding. Their being unable to remember everything should not diminish their credibility in any way.”
For officers. “So far as line officers are concerned, the study presents a challenge of personal commitment,” Lewinski says. “What the study proves is pretty straightforward: Your success in an armed confrontation is likely to be determined by your training and experience.
“Is the training provided by your department sufficient to convince you that you can perform accurately at the speed of a gunfight when your life depends on it?
“If not, what are you doing on your own to bridge that gap?”
Force Science Research Center thanks Sgt. Craig Stapp, a technical advisor to FSRC and firearms training supervisor for Tempe (AZ) PD, for consultation on this article. Another FSRC technical advisor, Ron Avery, president of the Practical Shooting Academy, is has authored an article for PoliceOne, on how the eye and brain work together to ensure accuracy in shooting. Dr. Lewinski wishes to thank the National Police Federation of England and Wales, which co-funded the gaze pattern study with the FSRC.