Psychophysiological demand and Communication: Implications for Police Officers/ Persons In Crisis Encounters and Training. Author: Dr Camie Condon

In September of 2013, the emotionally distraught Sammy Yatim was fatally shot by Toronto Police Cst. James Forcillo while aboard a Toronto Transit street car. Video surveillance of the event reveals images of Yatim wielding a knife in one hand while exposing himself with the other. All passengers on the street car were able to exit safely, however Yatim was non-compliant with officer commands and ultimately Yatim was fired upon by Cst. Forcillo. The shooting resulted in criminal charges being laid against the officer and an eventual guilty finding by a jury in January, 2016.

While Mr. Yatims death is an unmitigated tragedy it should be noted that the use of force in any encounter between police and the public is relatively rare and occurs in less than 1% of police/citizen incidents (Butler, 2009; Butler & Hall, 2008; Adams, 2004). Never-the-less Yatim’s death, (along with the previous deaths of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Kilbingatis and Michael Eligon during police/crisis encounters), triggered an inquiry into police use of lethal force against persons in crisis in Canada; headed up by Justice Frank Iacobucci (2014). The result of that inquiry called for the “extensive review of police training, recruitment, and use of force guidelines.” Specifically Justice Iacobucci called for increased training on a “spectrum of de-escalation” techniques “that includes verbal de-escalation” (Independent Review, 2014). Iacobucci also noted that officers should be “trained to stop shouting (ineffective) … commands and attempt different defusing communications strategies”.

Though police training in defensive tactics and use of force already includes training on verbal de-escalation techniques, Iacobucci has indicated that practices currently in place are insufficient. To overhaul use of force training procedures, including de-escalation techniques, with the goal of reduced risk of injury or death, will require an in-depth examination of the effectiveness of different methods and tools along with a comprehensive understanding of how officers function under significant psychophysiological demand associated with crisis encounters.

To date there has been no empirical evaluation of the effectiveness of the specific use of force options and a modicum of research has been conducted on the effectiveness of de-escalation techniques, particularly those focusing on communication styles (Morabito et. al., 2012; Boreum & Franz, 2010). There is a small body of research that has examined the effectiveness of Crisis Intervention teams (CIT) in reducing the number of use of force interactions with persons in crisis (Bonfine,, 2014; Morabito, et. al., 2012; Compton et. al., 2008). CIT training provides officers with specialized education on identifying persons suffering with mental illness or in crisis and how to employ various de-escalation techniques. However, research pointing to a relatively small reduction in use of force by these teams examined the responses by CIT trained officers to persons in crisis demeanor and not the efficacy of specific techniques; in particular verbal and non-verbal commands.

Literature reviews on police encounters with persons in crisis repeatedly point to the significant concern over the “unpredictability and potential for violence” present during these interactions (Morabito, et. al, 2012). Additionally officers regularly report that responding to persons in crisis is “outside their expertise” and they feel “ill prepared to provide the necessary services” (Reuland & Draper, 2009). The precariousness of these situations can place significant psychophysiological demand creating challenges for decision making cognitive processes. For these reasons officers rely heavily on repetitive task training (procedural memory) to employ the most basic tasks, including some defensive and use of force tactics, one form in particular are tactical commands.

Officers routinely rehearse tactical communication – short command statements – spoken loudly and clearly (e.g. “Stop. Police.” , “Don’t move” and/or “Drop the weapon”) . These are used to illicit control of events and/or persons and are purposefully concise in structure for the ease of production by the officer and comprehension by the citizen. Simplistic language is easily automated and subsumed into procedural memory. The benefit of repetitive training of simple commands is that recall of this type of language is nearly effortless when under heightened arousal. Unfortunately, a person in crisis may not be in a position to comprehend or follow these commands for a variety of reasons resulting in non-compliant behaviors. Iacobucci notes that when officers encounter atypical non-compliance they should be trained to stop repeating the same command and attempt a different line of communication. This requires that the officer move from automated behaviors to adaptive and flexible decision making yet this may not be an easy transition when under the psychophysiological demand associated with crisis encounters.

Researchers in the Tactical Decision Making Research Group (TDMRG) at The University of Liverpool have examined the effects psychophysiological demand and arousal on officers during defensive tactics training and simulated armed confrontations. The researchers have and found that increased demand not only produces substantial shifts in working memory functions that affect decision making, strategizing and recall but also presents significant challenges to verbal communication (Bolton; 2015, Zaiser, 2015; Staller, 2015; Roberts, 2012). In particular, individuals have reported greater difficulty in producing and comprehending complex language when experiencing strong negative emotions (Burbridge, et al., 2005). A growing number of controlled empirical studies, including work done by researchers in the TDMRG, support the idea that negative emotions can impair language processing functions by eliciting a stress response, including autonomic and/or other aspects of arousal (e.g., increased heart rate, or skin conductance) (Buchanan et. al., 2014, Burbridge, et. al., 2005; Gray, 2002; Gray, 2001).

In two separate studies conducted by Roberts (2012) and Condon (2015) each demonstrated that engaging officers in scenario training significantly increased autonomic arousal (increased heart rates and temperature) while simultaneously impacting functions associated with higher order decision making and language processing. In the study conducted by Condon (2015), results pre and post scenario testing, found that Canadian officers operating under a priming condition of fear of a pain penalty had increased the total number of random words produced in a set period of time, post scenario while physiological measures were highest. The random production of words is a task associated with automated skills and requires little cognitive effort. Simultaneously, the same officers, post scenario, decreased in the ability to switch from one subcategory of grouped words to another. The process of switching subcategories is considered a relatively effortful process and requires higher order cognitive processing which is also associated with cognitive flexibility.

Roberts, (2012) demonstrated similar results involving UK Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) engaged in scenarios replicating threat to officer safety. The scenarios included building searches, hostages and the use of Nico ‘9 bang’ distraction devices. Across all participants, in conjunction with measured increases of autonomic arousal, officers again demonstrated increased random word production post scenario. If fact total word scores during this scenario testing were well above average, yet subcategory switch scores were significantly lower than pre-scenario.

In both instances the increased random word production demonstrates that automated process remained robust under psychophysiological demand whereas the complex effortful processes were less available. Simplistic language production, similar to that of tactical commands, is typically unaffected by psychophysiological demand and its automaticity frees up cognitive resources critical for more complex decision making e.g. increased situational awareness and  complex task completion. However, it is clearly evident that officers, under certain conditions, may rigidly apply procedural tactics when the encounter requires action other than mechanical behaviors like those noted by Iacobucci.

In an attempt to identify the cognitive processes vital to transitioning from automated to conceptual decision making Boulton (2016) highlighted that ‘expert’ AFOs demonstrated increased cognitive flexibility in contrast to ‘novice’ AFOs. Boulton found experts with extensive experience readily utilized trained, automated behaviors particularly when they perceived control of the encounter was achievable. Expert officers noted that they deferred to the trained behaviors because they required little monitoring, were efficient and freed up their ability to pay attention to various other environmental cues. The significant distinction for the expert officers was their ability to identify when the trained operational tactics were unsuccessful and successfully transitioned to non-rehearsed conceptual decisional processes (cognitive flexibility). This was in contrast to the novice officers who rigidly applied standard training tactics even when they were aware of their ineffectiveness. Boulton’s work was able to identify that this ability to assess and switch approaches was most commonly attributed to the officers’ personal confidence and trust in their intuitive decision making, whereas novice officers sought verification by more experienced colleagues before decision implementation. The ability to understand and recognize needed shifts in behavior and decision making is crucial in highly uncertain encounters, particularly when engaging with persons in crisis.

Revision to use of force protocols will need to demonstrate an understanding of psychophysiological arousal and the effect it has on communication and decision making. The research being done by the TDMRG demonstrates that use of well-rehearsed protocols like that of tactical communication can be a coping mechanism for managing the effect of increased psychophysiological demand. However, it has also been demonstrated that an amalgamation of automated actions and cognitive flexibility is achievable, as noted by Boulton the hallmarks of flexibility and adaptive decision making rely on the ability to easily employ automated procedures while maintaining the ability to adapt and change course in ambiguous and challenging encounters.

This brief summary of a small portion of research being conducted by TDMRG has important implications for police services evaluating training protocols and examining best practices for crisis encounters. Any training that is subsequently developed will need to go beyond repetitive practice and strict reliance on procedural memory that is commonly used in annual police training. There is considerable room for further research in these areas including how training can best incorporate the necessary automated skills with the un-rehearsed conceptual decision making needed in ambiguous and/or uncertain encounters. Staller & Zaiser (2015) have begun investigating new perspectives on police training practices that incorporate automated skills and abstract decision making training in non-traditional formats.

With the increased public and political pressures for police transparency and evidenced based practices, further research like that conducted by the TDMRG is beneficial and much needed.

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