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Lessons learned from lethal force encounters, Part 2

Researched by Darrell L. Ross, Ph.D.
Professor & Chair, The Dept. of Law Enforcement & Justice Administration
Western Illinois University

From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline

In Part 1, highlights of the research of 125 officers in 87 lethal force incidents were presented. In every incident I had access to all of the documents generated as a result of the legal action and I conducted over three-hours of focus interviews with each officer. Of these legal actions 34% were litigated in court, with a 100% prevailing outcome and in 52% summary judgment was granted by the court. In 93% of the incidents it was the first occasion that the officer discharged his weapon and 93% of the suspects died.

Scene evidence of the shootings and officer interviews support that officers appeared to experience fewer perceptual distortions than what has been reported in prior studies. Part II of provides a discussion on how these officers were able to perform optimally under stress when confronted with a lethal force encounter.

Officer Training

The level of training and experience of the officers are central to understanding how they were so successful in performing well under extreme stress and making reasonable decisions under extreme time pressures (2 seconds or less ). Beyond the 11 years of law enforcement experience, the officers received an average of 80 hours of firearms training while attending the police academy. Additionally: 100% have been trained in night time shooting (65% of the incidents were at night); 100% have been trained to shoot from varying positions; 75% have gone through scenario training more than on 2 occasions; 75% trained in instinctive shooting; and 85% had regular Simunitions training. The officers have also received in-service training on a regular basis as follows: FATS/PRISM training at least twice; 75% received updated instinctive shooting; 75% continued scenario/Simunitions training; 70% received monthly training; 100% attended annual qualification; 40% attended quarterly qualification; and 40% had been through “Street Survival” training. About 55% of the officers had formal training on body language activity and about 45% had formal training in mental imagery.


These findings underscore the fact it is not that the officers were just “trained” in how to respond to lethal force encounters, but rather it is the type and the frequency or degree of the training that is important in being successful in the field and in court. First, the officers were not neophytes, rather they were seasoned veterans. Combined with their training was their ability, from experience, to “read” body language/behaviors of the suspects. Second, even when experiencing time and sensory distortions such as: physiological factors, visual noise, and distortions of cognition, and emotion, the officers were able to form appropriate decisions for using lethal force based on two critical components: anticipation and perception.

Forming a workable perception of a situation involves numerous components of the brain. Not to over-simply the process, generally perception assists in interpreting and organizing environmental sensory information. But perception also encompasses anticipation. Anticipation is the forerunner of perception and assists in: assessing/recognizing contextual and environmental cues, predicting, enhancing situational awareness, enhancing preparatory actions, planning, and responses. Research suggests that anticipation leads perception so that a person can match experience with the environment, focus on the task at hand, process information quickly, make decisions, and connect the mind and body to form options in responding physically.

This research emphatically supports that these officers appropriately integrated anticipation and perception in decision making within seconds. There was no paralysis of analysis. In each incident the situation was dynamic, tense, and unfolding rapidly. There were over 80 variables which were contained within 13 general categories of pattern recognition that emerged from the suspect, the circumstance, and the environment in which the officers had to process. Anticipation assisted officers in forming initial impressions even when they received limited dispatched information, or because they had responded to the location in the past, or from dealing with the person previously, and/or from recognizing comments or behaviors from suspects who acted in certain manners in previous contacts. For example, the officers were able to read, recognize, and assess body positioning of the suspect as well as cue into facial gestures, head and eye movements, upper body movements, hand actions/positioning, and suspect behaviors. Despite reactionary time impairments, the officers were keenly attuned to potential danger signals (assault cues) from the suspects within the environment in which they were operating and in the context of the circumstances which heightened their alertness. These factors assisted in enhancing the officer’s anticipation and perception of danger in optimal decision making. Recall that 55% had unholstered their weapons prior to making a final decision to shoot. Mental rehearsal by the officers was also an important factor as most of the officers revealed that they had “rehearsed the scenario in their mind many times.”

The officers exhibited situational awareness and demonstrated the ability to multi-task under time pressure by scanning the environment, using their radio, giving on average 3 commands, listened to suspect comments and partner commands, observing the behaviors of the suspect, and viewing the position of other officers. They were able to screen out visual noise (additional visual information) and irrelevant peripheral distractions, while processing threatening cues /behaviors through the process of anticipation and perception.

Contrary to former theories, a “decision tree” or “sequential steps” to shoot in self-defense was not followed by the officers in these incidents. With the multitude of contextual factors occurring simultaneously, the officers’ decision making process aligned best with elements contained in the “Recognition-Primed Model” (Klien, 1998). This model explains how a person can multi-task, use experience and training to assess a dynamic and chaotic situation, recognize cue/patterns of the situation, in selecting a course of action, all under time pressures. The model integrates anticipation and perception in decision making within the context of the circumstance and operational environment, accounting for variations of the circumstance. It also aligns with “transitional decision making” which accounts for an officer adjusting or “transitioning” from one set of activities to another in response to shifts within a circumstance. For example, an officer may be involved in a lengthy vehicle pursuit, when the suspect abruptly stops, exits the vehicle and begins firing at the officer. Within seconds, the officer is forced to adjust or transition from driving a vehicle to using lethal force.

Training Recommendations

In order to optimally perform under stress, training should match reality, and be provided on a frequent basis. While the officers experienced the same perceptual distortions as revealed in previous research, they did not experience the same level of severity because of their experience and exposure to regular training. Training, practice, and experience leads to less severity of symptoms associated with perceptual distortions.

The goal of training is to create expertise and trainers and administrators should strive to keep officers in the mode of training. Training in lethal force should go beyond mere qualification (although useful). The training should be designed to place the officer in the environment and context in which the officer will actually perform the skill in order to enhance peak performance.
Training should be directed at threat cues assessment, patterns of suspect behaviors recognition, contextual cues, and decision making. The underlying principle is that the type of training and the frequency of training is the key to success in the field. The following formula depicts this ideology:

T (t x f) +E+A+P = R
            C + E

The numerator depicts that it is not enough to “just to provide training” on an irregular basis. The “type” (t) of training must be carefully designed to reflect environmental cues and be provided on a “frequent” (f) and regular basis. Training coupled with the officer’s experience (E) helps to enhance an officer’s ability to properly anticipate (A) and form workable perceptions (P). The denominator advocates that the training should be conducted within varying confrontational circumstances (C) and within varying environments (E). All of this leads to proper response (R) by the officer.

A majority of these officers experienced scenario-based training on a frequent and regular basis, which maximized their successful performance in the field. Training should be frequent to keep officers in the mode of training. The brain needs ongoing upgrades to keep it current, fresh, and stimulated. Providing ongoing training in this high profile and high liability area increases officer safety, proper decision making, and skill performance.

Scenario-based reality training which foster stress inoculation components is recommended in order to enhance officer expertise. Such training underscores the training formula discussed above. Scenarios designed for the officers to problem solve, recognize threat cues, behavioral pattern recognition which incorporates factors of anticipation and perception should be developed which include time pressures and reactionary time principles is suggested. The scenarios should be structured to incorporate multi-tasking of officers and transitional decision making which forces the officer to adjust to varying dimensions of the circumstances. It also allows the officer to cognitively process the scenario activities, experience varying physiological and psychological distortions, and work through them in order to maximize their performance in the field. To achieve proficiency and acute skill development in lethal force decision making, officers should practice in the environment in which they will use the skills.

Scenario training must be well structured with sound learning objectives and achievable outcomes. They require prior planning, role players who understand how to properly perform, proper safety equipment, and constructive feedback. Video taping of the scenarios is recommended. Agency trainers should use agency situations to the make the training specific to the circumstances that officers commonly encounter. Traffic stop circumstances are a good place to start. Coupled with scenario-based training, officers should be exposed to or continue to train with FATS-like technology to also increase skill development.

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