Dr Boulton’s thesis abstract

In order to protect the safety of the public, the performance of police firearms teams must be efficient and accurate as mistakes can have devastating consequences for incident resolution and impact on long-term public perceptions of policing (Kavanagh, 2006; McDonald et al., 2003). Identifying the cognitive processes underlying tactical decision making and how these processes can be influenced by expertise is vital for two purposes; (i) reducing risk through improved training, and (ii) facilitating the public’s attitudes and behaviours toward the legitimacy of the Police and justice system (Friedrich, 1980; Garner, Maxwell & Heraux, 2002). Despite its critical role in effective Policing, very little research has been conducted into British armed Police decision making. This thesis begins to address this gap by examining how expertise influences the tactical decision making of British Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs).

A mixed methods approach was taken within a police field setting to provide a body of work with both high reliability and ecological validity. As this area of study is still under-researched, a qualitative exploration of AFOs’ own perspectives on tactical decision making during an armed confrontation was used to provide valuable and original routes for further quantitative exploration. These subsequent quantitative studies examined the relationship between expertise and physiological arousal, executive function, time, impulsivity, and decision making style.

Physiological arousal was measured to assess the level of demand that AFOs were operating under during simulated armed confrontations and to promote discussion of physiological and cognitive adaptations. The results demonstrated an increase in AFOs’ physiological arousal, which suggests that simulated armed confrontations induce increased demand and result in adaptive defensive responses.

The demand placed on AFOs during simulated armed confrontations appeared to induce a shift in cognitive function toward enhanced visual processing at the expense of phonological processing. The literature suggests these cognitive adaptations may represent defensive behaviours that place AFOs in the optimum state to deal with a perceived threat. The executive functioning of AFOs during simulated armed confrontations was measured longitudinally to assess whether these effects changed with developing expertise. Since the suppressing of inappropriate actions is reliant on executive functioning, executive changes may impact behavioural regulation and judgment. Changes in baseline individual differences of decision making style, impulsivity, inhibition, and time perception/perspective across varying levels of firearms experience were also examined. The results of quantitative cognitive testing suggests that expertise is not reflected in the baseline differences of traits or in the differences of physiological and cognitive executive functioning effects during simulated armed confrontations over time, but rather is exemplified by the reactive and adaptive response to dynamic threat under increased demand.

This research has produced a hypothetical model which considers AFOs’ self-reported perspectives in light of integrated research from a number of different fields (i.e. defensive behaviours, working memory and executive functioning, neuropsychology, and decisional paradigms) in order to build a strong theoretical framework of AFO tactical decision making during an armed confrontation. The qualitative and quantitative examination of expertise revealed that whilst all AFOs were found to use the same processes of reasoning based on the functioning of the same associated neural regions, experts appeared to be more flexible in the use of these processes in adaptive response to situational changes. These results begin to identify the key features of expertise within this specific environment (adaptive flexibility) and in doing so has both theoretical and practical implications for the acceleration of expertise acquisition in AFOs.