Implementing New Training Techniques to Assist Making Decisions

Police reform has been a topic of great debate and contention for years. However, one can argue that the discussion for national police reform lacks credibility as change is typically brought up by pundits who do not understand the dangers and situations police officers face daily. They have never had someone physically attack them or physically threaten their lives. These pundits have never had the experience of walking up to car not knowing what the person inside the car’s intentions was. Those most vocal about reform, for the vast part, have never had to exercise caution and use the least amount of force possible to control another human being to make an arrest.

Included in this group who are the loudest for police reform are media pundits, activists, and shockingly some scholars. This is contradictory to what one would commonly assume as academics and law enforcement have a long, progressive, and prosperous history together. As you will see later in the article, psychology is a significant factor in solving crimes and supporting the police with the use of valuable data and research. Law enforcement needs academia to further assist in discovering the origins of and the reason for crime. Together, scholars and law enforcement professionals can continue to collaborate with each other to better the entire profession.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the world of academia has been divided on the issue of police reform Some scholars, with the help of mass media promotion, have switched their focus to reforming police operations or officers themselves. The media, wishing to further their narratives, are far too eager to get a professor from an Ivy League school with no real-life experience, to back up claims against law enforcement officers with contrived and theoretical academic articles, without considering the experiences of the officers themselves. This not only contributes to the declining popularity of law enforcement within society but also puts the police officers themselves in danger. Many could argue, the media’s approach has done nothing but hurt society as more force is necessitated to control more willfully resisting suspects who are ‘fighting the system’ due to the perceptions they now have by watching the news.

Academic theories are sound in a perfect and theoretical world, however in the real world, on the streets of America, the chances of those arguments working as anticipated are incredibly slim. The reason a scholar’s approaches do not work in real-life is that they do not account for variables in their research during a “routine interaction.” The research and experiments that are conducted to reach theories or hypothesis are done in controlled environments. The streets are the most “uncontrolled environment” known. A street encounter is impossible to replicate because there are too many variables and unknowns.

However, looking at the underlining question of, does law enforcement need reform? The simple answer is comprehensive reform, is not needed; however, the profession can work to improve some of their training practices to prepare officers for the field better. Media and scholars will never be able to understand the complexities that are involved in policing the streets of America. No experiment or statistic will show how an encounter should be handled or predict how one is going to end. But there are certain things law enforcement can do to improve their training practices.

Stress as a Primer

Studies from around the world have found that stress has a massive impact on law enforcement officers. These studies have shown stress causes sleep disorders which directly impact cognitive functions in police officers as well as being a direct cause of absenteeism and other general health factors. Stress was directly related to the early retirement of officer’s, and one police psychologist even deemed the emotional environment of a cop’s job as an “biological rollercoaster” due to the difficulties during calls. It has been said that the average cop will be exposed to a dozen up to one thousand traumatic events during their entire career.

There has been extensive research on stress in high-risk emotional situations and the possibility of stressors directly affecting decision-making by humans. If you have been a cop for longer than a week, you do not need a Ph.D. to tell you how your body will react when a stressful event occurs. When the fight or flight response kicks in, and your blood moves from your limbs to protect your organs, and your breathing becomes labored. These physiological responses have a direct affect on your cognitive abilities.

If these responses our bodies go through are the primary concern for poor decision-making, then let’s “reform” not only decision-making training but also the organizational stress that police face from the administration. Law enforcement needs to lower stress of officers in the field so that decision-making can become clearer. None of us have control over these internal body operations, they automatically happen. It is another variable that scholars do not take into account when judging law enforcement. One-way scholars have argued to improve police dealing with “stress” is by way of resilience; training officers on how to cope, mentally, with stress.


Exposure is a crucial factor in developing decision-making abilities under stress. Some scholar’s lack of exposure affects their ability to account for variables while researching essential and impactful topics. The same can be said for police during high-stress situations, as lack of exposure to certain circumstances can cause misjudgments. In my search for credible research on exposure training for stressful decision-making, there was not an abundance of studies and research available. I know certain aspects of the military use exposure-based training, and even most law enforcement use it to an extent with scenarios. A great example of law enforcement and exposure training is pepper spray and taser training. Have you ever asked why you must get sprayed or tasered to become certified? The answers are almost always, so you know what the effects are – exposure. If you are a cop, have you seen a difference in your body’s response since your rookie year when responding to “routine” or “in-progress” call? For example, a rookie officer responding to a domestic argument call where there is a report of a weapon will have a significantly different physiological response compared to a ten-year veteran who has responded to similar calls a hundred times before. They both will know the risk and be prepared for the scene; however, the veteran officer will likely be more in control of both their physiological responses and cognitive functions than the rookie. The veteran’s heart-rate will probably be slower, less adrenaline, and their tunnel vision will be much less significant than an officer who has not been exposed to that call as often.

My theory, which is based on my experience as a police officer and secondary research, is exposing people to certain situations more often will lessen the stressors on their cognitive and physiological responses, allowing for better decision-making. This area is where change or “reform” can occur for law enforcement and improve decision-making abilities. Based on my research, there is some evidence of police officers making poor impactful decisions in the field. This evidence is based on police paying out millions in settlements (often unwarranted), and the release of a vast number of videos where a decision to use force was improper but not unjustified. When a decision is made, I will try not to be too technical here, things in your brain must connect, messages must be encoded and sent, communication must occur. A lot of things occur inside the brain that contribute to that decision being made. The physiological responses (heart-rate, blood flow, tunnel vision, breathing, etc.) impact, or think of it as a barrier to your brain’s ability to perform these tasks correctly and timely.

In the past few years, there have been a lot of videos that went viral showing initial decisions made by law enforcement during stressful situations that were mediocre at best. These decisions come directly from cognitive functions and are affected by physiological responses. Even though the outcome may have been correct or justified, it could have been preventable. Some instances, for example, include an officer’s first decision as a response to resistance of an unarmed person being to draw their weapon. What typically is asked is why did they draw their weapon in the first place? A well-developed and trained officer will be able to handle themselves when (not if) things turn bad. Unfortunately, all officers at one point will face a critical situation where they must make impactful and crucial decisions. With the proper training and mental guidance, officers will be more than prepared to meet these challenges. It is also vital that police critics do not judge every police interaction the same. Every interaction has different variables, aspects, environments, etc. that need to be taken into context and judged by how a reasonable officer, not civilian, would have used force.

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– Matthew Day