Today's political and social realities are putting an increasingly intense spotlight on police performance in the field, particularly relating to use-of-force decisions and de-escalation. In addition, policing roles have been rapidly evolving to include new threats to officer and public safety in the form of terrorism and escalating school and community violence. The result is that police agencies are being called on to provide more effective training to their officers.
An evidence-based method
Evidence-based police training means that there's scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of that training in meeting desired goals. Police organizations and the Government of Canada have outlined specific goals for policing. The first is to improve officer decision-making when applying use-of-force techniques and de-escalation strategies. The second goal is to prevent operational stress injuries (OSI) by promoting mental and physical resilience among police officers.
Our team of researchers have worked in collaboration with police, including the Peel Regional Police, the Toronto Police Emergency Task Force, the Illinois State Police and the Finnish National Police, to address these goals for policing. From our work with police, we've developed the International Performance Resilience and Efficiency Program (iPREP), an evidence-based method of police training.
Although resilience — the ability to cope during and recover from stressful situations — is a common term, used in many contexts, we found that no research had been done to scientifically understand what resilience is among police. Police officers have a unique role among first responders. They face repeated stress, work in unpredictable and time-sensitive situations, and must act according to the specific provincial and departmental policies. Training programs for police officers should be developed in collaboration with police to address that unique role.
To define police resilience, our research team gathered thousands of hours of psychological, biological and performance data on police in North America and Europe. We studied police officers at every level of training, from recruits to federal special intervention units, and monitored them both during training and in active-duty encounters. The research found that officers have psychological and biological patterns that indicate both risk and resilience, and that these patterns can be measured. The risk and resilience patterns became evident when officers were monitored under stressful situations. Each individual has a unique pattern, which means that training to improve resilience needs to address the individual needs of each officer.
How stress affects resilience
When a person encounters a threatening situation, they experience a surge of natural chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals allow the body to respond quickly. When this biological threat response is moderate, it enhances performance through more accurate vision, hearing, motor control, and response time. However, when the threat response is severe, the response can negatively affect performance by creating distortions in thinking, vision and hearing, and by increasing motor control problems, which can result in slower reaction times.
Stress impacted people at every level of skill, not just recruits. Severe threat responses that are extended or frequently repeated can significantly raise the risk for physical and mental health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and anxiety disorders. The good news is that the negative impact of stress on performance and health wasn't inevitable. Training can address individual patterns of stress and improve performance.
Our research found that, regardless of experience or expertise level, officers didn't often connect their psychological and physical reactions to their performance. A critical component of this training is to illustrate this connection in a way that's individualized and relatable, and to provide concrete strategies to improve performance and resilience.
Training to improve performance
Thorough reviews of police training trends in North America have shown that, for the most part, training is traditionally focused on tools and tactics, without addressing the psychological and physical factors that a police officer brings to each encounter. However, a tool is only as effective as the individual using it. The research supports a paradigm shift in police training, one that directly addresses risk patterns for individual officers and supports the learning of resilient patterns.
The iPREP method of training was designed based on objective psychological and biological data, and on evidence-based scientific methods of maximizing student learning and skills. Reality-based training — such as responding to a school shooting in progress at an empty school using actors and simulated weapons — is essential to develop the behavioural responses and skills that police officers need to improve performance and foster resilience.
This method of training teaches officers about biological awareness (bio-awareness) since psychological and physical reactions in the body arise from biological responses to the environment. Mental and physical states don't happen independently and both must be addressed in reality-based training.
Any behaviour or skill performed during stressful situations needs to become an automatic response for an officer, something that can be done without thought. The iPREP training follows the method for teaching automatic responses: progressive, realistic training that uses individual bio-awareness and provides tools to regulate stress responses.
Using this method, police instructors can address the individual needs of an officer while still teaching in a group setting. The research shows that it's not only the content of the program that's important but also the way in which it's delivered. The program includes a train-the-trainers component that provides concrete teaching methods that use-of-force instructors can apply to make the most of student learning.
A number of scientific studies measuring the effectiveness of the iPREP method have found that this training significantly improves situational awareness and control over biological threat responses, and improves the accuracy of use-of-force decisions.
The training fosters both physical and psychological resilience to stress. Physical benefits include improving cardiovascular and stress-chemical responses. Psychological benefits include reducing distress, enhancing confidence in abilities and recognizing psychological responses that need the attention of a mental health professional. These benefits have positive implications for long-term health and the prevention of OSI.
The program was designed to integrate into existing training programs at police organizations (annual use-of-force recertification, for example). The training leverages the skills of expert instructors already employed by police agencies, working with them to apply the iPREP method in their instruction sessions. Our research has found that the skills and delivery method (reality-based training context) achieves buy-in from officers because it's tailored to their unique needs and experiences as police officers.
Research shows that there is no evidence-based replacement for reality-based training. In a study comparing technology-delivered training with reality-based training and active duty encounters, the data found that technology-delivered training didn't mimic or prepare officers for real-world encounters as did reality-based training.
Research shows that the iPrep program meets the goals set out by police agencies and the federal government. This evidence-based method improves officer decision-making about applying use-of-force techniques and de-escalation strategies and enhances officer resilience. It can also be used to identify risk for OSI early, leaving room for prevention and early intervention.
The training makes the abstract concepts of resilience and optimal performance concrete and applicable to police officers. It's been tailored to policing through research, collaboration and testing. Evidence shows that this accredited program is a practical and accessible tool for improving police resiliency and performance.
Healthy Minds, Safe Communities: Report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, House of Commons, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session (October, 2016).
Andersen, J.P., & Gustafsberg, H. (2016). A training method to improve police use of force decision making: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Police Emergency Response.
Morrison, G.B., & Garner, T.K. (2011). Latitude in deadly force training: Progress or problem? Police Practice and Research, 12(4), 341-361.
Andersen, J.P., Pitel, M., Weerasinghe, A., & Papazoglou, K. (2016). Highly realistic scenario based training simulates the psychophysiology of real world use of force encounters: Implications for improved police Officer Performance. Journal of Law Enforcement.
Andersen, J.P., Dorai, M., Papazoglou, K., & Arnetz, B. B. (2016). Diurnal and reactivity measures of cortisol in response to intensive resilience and tactical training among special forces police. Journal of Occupational and Emergency Medicine.
Andersen, J.P, Papazoglou, K., Koskelainen, M., Nyman, M., Gustafsberg, H., & Arnetz, B.B. (2015). Applying resilience promotion training among Special Forces police officers. Journal of Police Emergency Response.
Andersen, J.P., Gustafsberg, H., Collins, P. I., & Poplawski, S (in preparation). Enhancing police situational awareness and use of force decision making: The International Performance Resilience and Efficiency Program.