Authorised Firearms Officers: Decision Making and Expertise. Author: Laura Boulton

Any use of lethal force by police officers lies at the extreme edge of policing activity. There is a fine line between the use of necessary force to achieve legitimate police objectives and the use of excessive force. When an officer uses force that may be considered excessive, public approval for police authority is shaken. This can be seen in incidents such as the shooting of Harry Stanley, Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Duggan, which attracted widespread public attention, evaluation and criticism. Therefore, the performance of police firearms teams must be efficient and accurate at all times.

However, there are a wide range of physiological, psychological and cognitive factors that impact the way Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) perform, many of which are often not taken into account while planning tactical operations and/or during the investigations that follow. External (e.g. suspect aggression, location of suspects, victims or officers, visual and physical cover and potential hazards) and internal (e.g. physiological arousal) factors interact with an AFO’s perception and appraisal of an environment, which in turn determines their tactical decision making.

Identifying the cognitive processes underlying tactical decision making is vital for reducing risk through improved training and facilitating the public’s attitudes toward the legitimacy of the police and criminal justice system. Despite its critical role, very little research has been conducted into British police decision-making involving the use of firearms. This knowledge gap reflects difficulties gaining access to police samples, as well as challenges in the collection and analysis of police data that is both ecologically valid and scientifically objective. Although some studies have attempted to establish models of police decision making during firearms incidents, these are mostly developed within routinely armed police forces (e.g. USA) and therefore almost certainly lack ecological validity to non-routinely armed forces (e.g. UK). In order to address this gap we conducted a study to examine the impact expertise has on police use of force decisions during armed confrontations within a British firearms context.

For our study, the tactical decision making processes of expert Specialised Firearms Officers (SFOs) and novice Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) during armed confrontations were compared using Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) interview methods. A total of 23 British firearms officers were interviewed about their decision making during a personally experience armed confrontation. This included 12 expert SFOs and 11 novice AFOs. The average age of the expert SFOs was 46, and the average their length of service as a firearms officer was 17 years. The average of the novice AFOs was 32 and their average length of service as a firearms officer was 23 months. All interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded for patterns and themes.

The incidents described by both expert SFOs and novice AFOs could be broadly split into three general phases; (i) pre-arrival, (ii) arrival/contact (active involvement of tactical performance and/or contact with a suspect), and (iii) post-incident procedures. In general, expert SFO decisional processes were not consistently distinct across the phases in a linear manner, but instead were applied flexibly throughout the armed confrontation. Expert SFO decision making was adaptive to circumstantial demands either leading to an establishment of control or to a ‘tipping point’ of struggle for dominance that initiated defensive behaviours. Compared to the flexible experience based decisions of expert SFOs, novice AFOs reported a more sequential and linear process of decision making. Flexibility and adaptation to time pressured changes was considered to be the distinguishing feature of expertise in this context.

“it won’t go according to textbook […] that’s what we train for on a regular basis and we’re able to adapt”

SFOs are proposed to have adaptive expertise, which consists of the ability to; (i) understand when and why particular procedures are (in)appropriate, (ii) recognise shifts in the situation that necessitate adaptability, (iii) respond to situational cues which indicate the prioritisation of speed and/or accuracy, and (iv) implement rapid, accurate and contextually appropriate tactical changes. Expert SFOs understood the interactions between the cues and the unfolding incident, and responded by quickly and intuitively adapting appropriately.

“because of your training and your experience it just kicks in to think, ‘well you know what, no-one’s there, I’ll go there and do my job there’’

In contrast, novice AFOs preferred to stick with standard operating procedures for as long as possible (even when doing so inhibited the progress of the incident), only adapting their tactical actions if faced with an immediate threat to own life (in which case, defensive behaviours took over), or when doing so was verified by a more senior/experienced officer.

“until you become more proficient in the tactic, er, don’t really think outside the box”

The comparative results of both CTAs highlight adaptive flexibility to be associated with firearms expertise and therefore, it is suggested that police firearms training could enforce adaptive expertise more strongly to enhance AFO flexibility to changing task demands under high stress conditions. Therefore, in order to promote adaptive expertise, it is recommended that the development of mental models, sense making skills to recognise conflict between mental models and current situational cues, and the ability to revise or reject mental models in response to situational assessment is enforced.

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