The Houston Police Officers’ Union (HPOU) strives to provide officers with the best defense possible in response to use of force incidents. Toward that goal, HPOU cosponsored a two-day training conference highlighting research into the the dynamics of human behavior during life-threatening, high-stress, rapidly unfolding force encounters.
Force Science Institute Executive Director, Dr. Bill Lewinski, and attorney and former police officer, Bill Everett, led a review of their research, demonstrations, and experiments into the speed of assaults, the physiological and psychological responses that affect officer reaction time, the sensory distortions in vision and hearing, and the memory recall issues during life and death encounters. The instructors debunked myths perpetuated by Hollywood that fuel misconceptions about deadly force encounters and detailed the real dynamics of armed encounters.
Lewinsky examines officers’ use of force like a crash reconstruction specialist breaks down the why and how of an accident.
Lewinski’s research documents why assailants can be shot in the back, why fleeing suspects can still be a threat to officers, why the locations of shell casings does not always define the officer’s position during a shooting, and why officers make questionable decisions and errors.
Force Science has measured officer stride length in full duty gear to analyze how fast an officer can move. They evaluated how fatigue affects officers’ performance and decision-making skills. Their traffic stop study demonstrated how quickly a driver can present a firearm, officers’ responses, and best tactics for surviving these assaults.
HPOU President Ray Hunt found the training “eye-opening,” especially information presented on how quickly shots can be fired (4 per second with a semi-auto) and how fleeing suspects can remain threats to officer safety.
“If shooting teams have not seen this science, it can be detrimental to officers because inaccurate facts can be drawn.” Hunt cited the example of how people wait for autopsy reports to see if suspects were shot in the back. “This training shows you cannot simply rely on autopsy reports to determine which direction someone was facing. Just because a person has shots to the back doesn’t mean the person wasn’t shooting at the officer.”
“If the training helps investigators more accurately determine what is involved in officer shootings,” Hunt said. “then it is well worth the investment made by the board.”
Three attorneys from the legal team attended the conference including Bob Armbruster. Armbruster and legal assistant Lynette Coles were responsible for setting up the training and for making the conference a success.
The training provides the HPOU legal team with additional tools for their toolbox. “The training gives us scientific basis to explain officers’ behaviors and reactions during stressful situations,” Armbruster said. He plans to use the information to educate those involved in shooting and use of force investigations and court proceedings. “We knew that officers experience certain reactions during stressful situations like auditory distortions and tunnel vision. This training gives us the why.”
Four members of the Citizen Review Board attended the conference. They also found the information eye-opening and an excellent reminder about the hazards and dangers officers face.
HPD Legal also sent officers to the training.
Homicide Investigators Attend
HPD Homicide Captain Dwayne Ready attended the conference and sent two investigators from each of his eight squads.
Ready found the research informative and helpful in understanding the dynamics of what officers are going through in regard to vision distortions and timing of reactions.
He alluded to a presentation that showed how and why an officer may recall that he retreated to a certain point, but in reality the officer ended up in a different location. The training demonstrates how the brain can perceive things differently during the stress of an armed encounter.
Ready felt the training was “good information for anyone sitting in judgment of officers’ actions be it prosecutors, grand jury members, administrative staff, police executives, and jurors. It is important for people to understand what is happening in those critical moments.”
Hailed as Groundbreaking Training
Brett Ligon, Montgomery County District Attorney, cosponsored the training along with the Montgomery and Randall County Sheriff’s Offices.
In a day and age where officer involved shootings and use of force incidents are at the forefront of media reporting and court proceedings, Ligon could not pass up the opportunity to bring the training to the Houston/Montgomery County area. Ten of his attorneys from the public integrity and trial bureaus attended the conference along with investigators.
Ligon found the discussion on brain blueprinting and schema a “bell pole moment.” Officers react from their blueprinting and citizens react from their blueprinting.
“Many of the shootings we see are a result of resisting or fighting cops. We see a generation of people who don’t have respect for officers and tend to be fighting them.” Ligon said this was because they have been taught that officers are a threat. “Blueprinting puts people on a tragic collision course for a deadly force encounter.”
Ligon believes the concept of blueprinting needs to be added not only to officer training, but to train citizens as well to change their mindset and how they interact with officers.
Ligon thinks Lewinski’s research is in its infancy. He felt like he was court side watching the future of where law enforcement training must trend.
Retired HPD Officer and Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) Commissioner Joe Pennington agrees with Ligon. Pennington called the training “amazing scientific revelations” that he wished had been around 40 years ago when he started his career. “With the national war on policing coming to a crescendo, we have to integrate these practices and tactical responses into our training.”
Lewinski Advocates Improvements to Officer Training
Boosting officer skill levels, according to Lewinski, will require a different type of training that increases performance and eliminates tactical and decision-making errors.
“We need to look at training through a new pair of glasses,” Lewinsky stated in an interview on Day 1 of the conference.
Training and investigations must focus on the understanding of the human being in a time of crisis. This applies to both officers and civilians no matter who is using force.
If given free reign to revamp academy training, Lewinski has three wishes:
1) More extensive training in basic psychomotor skills such as shooting and empty-hand control. If these skills are not basic when officers employs them, then officers will not have the cognitive resources necessary to focus on other issues, and their attention will have to be paid to the application of the skill. “We want officers to make better decisions on using force, but we can’t do that until force skills that they have are operational at an unconscious level,” Lewinski said.
Lewinski points out that shooting skills have to go beyond the range and empty-hand training must include active resistance.
2) Learning how to better read people, understand the dynamics of human performance, and how to read verbal and nonverbal cues. Lewinski states that many bad decisions are a result of poor situational awareness. He says, “we must get better at training judgment skills.”
3) More training in the functional elements of communications with focus on defusing and persuasion. Lewinski wants officers to have more conscious awareness of what they are saying when they are saying it and more emphasis on training in salesmanship.
Officers need to learn how to “sell” compliance.
Perils of Video
Lewinsky issued a warning that video from dash and body cameras has limitations. Video is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional reality. He cautioned that video cannot capture what the officer perceives, what the officer sees peripherally, or the resistance the officer feels.
Frame-by-frame examination of video is a must since important action/evidence can be lost between frames.
Training Will Benefit Houston Officers
HPD Homicide Sergeant Brian Harris best summed up the training conference and its impact on investigations with this insight: “Split-second decisions by officers using deadly force are typically dissected by detectives over days or weeks. As detectives, we are often asked to explain all the ‘whys.’ This course gives us a rational and reasonable way to help answer those questions.”
For information on the Force Science Institute and to subscribe to their free e-newsletter, officers can refer to their website at: www.forcescience.org.