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Training a brain for a car chase

by Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Reprinted for PoliceOne members with permission of MN Public Radio

This high-speed police chase ended when the police car crashed into a tree. A recent study examines how police officers react during high-speed chases. (Photo by Simon Baker/Getty Images)

Many people are concerned about the dangers of police chases. But until now there's never been a study about what happens to a police officer's brain during a chase. Research at Minnesota State University, Mankato raises questions about whether police training for chases is adequate.

Mankato, Minn.- To study how an officer's brain functions under stress, Jonathan Page, a psychology professor at MSU Mankato, designed a test that involved a series of beeps -- low, medium, and high.

"And those two, the medium and high, are fairly close to each other," he says.

Page's test examines cognitive ability while multi-tasking with sight and sound. That could be while driving a police car or listening to public radio on a Monday morning.

During the test, subjects were asked to count the number of high tones. They couldn't use their fingers.

As they were driving, they were asked to notice where the cars were around them, and perhaps the color of the next light. Where are the pedestrians? How about slick spots on the road, or maybe an ambulance coming up behind? These are the sorts of things a good pursuit driver would notice while following another car.

Jonathan Page

Page conducted this research for the London Bobbies, better known as the Metropolitan Police Force. It hired the MSU Mankato's Force Science Research Center, which studies police behavior on the job.

The London police hired the center to examine how much training an officer needs to be safe in high-speed chases. Currently, a London officer must have six weeks of driver's training before he can pursue another driver.

Page found that a new officer who hasn't been through pursuit training wasn't able to pay attention to the beeps at all. In a mock high-speed chase, his heart raced, his eyes were glued to the car in front of him, and he had little idea what was happening around him. Page says that's typical of a human's fight-or-flight response.

"When you come under stress, in order to survive the brain does several things -- like increasing heart rate, blood flow, releases hormones like adrenaline and things like that," he says. "But to do all that, it takes away from just your average cognitive processes that you can do when there is no stress."

Page is still crunching the numbers on physiological response. Final results won't be available until August.

But Dr. Bill Lewinski, the executive director of the Force Center, says preliminary research replicates what B.F. Skinner found decades ago -- higher stress can mean higher performance, but it also can mean limited perception.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, Force Science Research Center

Inexperienced drivers were less aware of their surroundings, and a bigger danger to their fellow drivers. Lewinski says the findings aren't limited to London, or high-speed chases.

"I was just looking at a report on a shooting today, a shooting that took place in Houston, Texas," Lewinski says. "The officer saw this gun come across, raised his gun and fired. When he was asked what was the person doing, what did you see? He said, 'I don't know. After I raised my gun it was kind of like a silhouette.'"

Lewinski says too much stress can mean an officer loses control, or reverts to instinctive behaviors that could get him in trouble.

He says one example is when an officer is faced with a perpetrator standing with a gun just a few feet away. Lewinski says typically, that shooter will aim for the head. And he says how an officer reacts is key to his survival.

"Most officers die at five to eight feet," he says. "And they die trying to get their gun up and shoot to save their life, so they're making an effort, and they're dying in the process. Is there something we can do to help officers in that situation survive?"

Practice with instruction, like the sort London officers get for six weeks, help them make fewer mistakes on the job. But how much training is enough is another question, as is what type? Lewinski says his center is trying to find out. He says scientific research on police behavior hasn't been done before.

"If most officers die going for their gun, maybe we should teach them to move first and then draw their gun so they put the bad guy behind the reactionary curve," says Lewinski. "Except, what level of training is necessary to do that? Because officers who have been taught when the gun comes up toward them, still go for their gun without moving."

Lewinski thinks law enforcement could take a cue from other professions.

"Even the medical field, with their level of training, makes mistakes. But they've worked really hard to minimize those mistakes. In law enforcement we let the officers make the mistakes. So we rely on experience. And the officer either sinks or swims," says Lewinski.

In Minnesota, to become a police officer a trainee must go through a peace officer training program, usually at a college or university. The minimum requirement for pursuit driving is two days.

Paul Monteen, standards coordinator for the Peace Officer Standard Training Board, says the MSU Mankato training program only provides those two days. Monteen says you can never have too much training.

"In a perfect world, I would probably train people the same number of hours that I expect them to work. Because I believe you will do on the street what you are trained to do, and what you practice," Monteen says.

He adds that Minnesota's training is adequate. Officers usually attend additional training programs on the job, but the amount of training varies from department to department.

Monteen adds that training opportunities are plentiful, but they're also expensive -- in part because the department has to find a replacement officer. Monteen says most officers train their entire lives for a situation they'll encounter just once, like a chase or a shootout.

Lewinski says he's trying to get a handle on how to make that training effective for those once-in-a-lifetime encounters.

About the author:

Sea Stachura is the Rochester bureau reporter for Minnesota Public Radio. She has worked for print and radio outlets across the Midwest and nationally. She holds an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.

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