Evidence-based police training to improve performance, decision making and resilience
May 6, 2020 By Judith P. Andersen and Steven Poplawski
iPREP: Developed through research, tested by frontline officers, used internationally by law enforcement agencies
Traditionally, police training has been focused primarily on learning skills to manage external factors that are encountered on the job. What is needed is a paradigm shift in regards to training police officers. Decades of research in psychology, learning and performance has provided evidence that if trainees learn how to manage internal processes, such as the modulation of stress physiology, cognition and emotion, they will be much better prepared to learn skills for external threats, and perform better on the job.1 The good news is, scientifically supported, evidence-based techniques exist that assist in learning to modulate internal processes.2 These techniques have been successfully applied to police officers.3,4
Developing an evidence-based method of police training
Evidence-based law enforcement training means that there is scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of that training in meeting desired outcome goals. Police organizations and the federal government of Canada5 have outlined specific goals for policing, including the following:
- First, to improve officer decision-making about applying use of force techniques and de-escalation strategies.
- Second, to prevent operational stress injuries (OSI) by promoting mental and physical resilience among police officers. Professional researchers have worked in collaboration with large police agencies and expert police trainers in North America and Europe to specifically address the goals outlined for policing.
Although a common term, there are many definitions of resilience and the word is often used to mean different things. Officers face repeated stress, work in unpredictable and time sensitive situations, and must act according to the specific provincial and departmental policies. Work in this area shows that the unique role of law enforcement officers impacts the way resilience is defined among police, and needs to guide program and training developments for police.
In order to define resilience specific to police, research first focused on gathering thousands of hours of psychological, biological, and performance data on police in North America and Europe. Officers at every level of training have been studied, from recruits to federal level tactical teams, and they have been monitored — both during training and active duty. The current research shows officers display measureable psychological and biological patterns of risk and resilience. Taken together, this comprehensive data indicates that each individual has a unique pattern, which means that training to improve resilience needs to address the individual needs of each officer.
Stress, resilience and performance
When a person encounters a stressful 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, hearing, and increasing motor control problems, which can result in slower reaction times. Stress impacts officers at every level, not just recruits in training. Severe threat responses that are extended or frequently repeated can significantly raise the risk for physical and mental health conditions. The good news is that the negative impact of stress on performance and health was not inevitable. When training practices addressing internal physiology are applied, individual patterns of stress and performance can improve.
Research found that, regardless of experience or expertise level, officers didn’t often connect their psychological and physical reactions with their performance.4 Therefore, a critical component of resilience training is to illustrate this connection in a way that is individualized and relatable, and provide concrete strategies to improve performance and resilience.
Improving performance and resilience through training
On-site reviews of police training in North America have shown that, for the most part, training is focused on external tools and tactics, without addressing the psychological and physical factors that a police officer brings to each encounter.6 However, tools and practices are only as effective as the individual using them. Current research supports a paradigm shift in police training, one that directly addresses risk patterns for individual officers, and supports the learning of resilient patterns.
In response to this need, a modern method of training was designed using objective psychological and biological data, evidence-based scientific methods of maximizing student learning and application of physiological skills. This training is anchored in the practice of reality-based scenarios, which is essential to the development of the behavioural responses and skills that improve performance and foster resilience in front-line officers.1 This accredited training is called International Performance Resilience and efficiency Program (iPREP).3
iPREP teaches officers about biological awareness, addressing psychological and physical reactions in the body that arise from biological responses to the environment. In training, it is important to recognize that mental and physical states do not happen independently and both must be addressed in reality-based training. Any behaviour or skill that is performed during stressful situations needs to become an automatic response for that officer, something that can be performed without thought. Training must focus on creating real performance opportunities for officers, so that the application of the training can be properly assessed.
Moving forward, progressive and modern training should incorporate individual bio-awareness and provide tools to regulate stress responses as needed. Law enforcement trainers will be equipped to address the individual needs of an officer while still teaching in a group setting. Research supports that it is not only the content of the program that is important but also the way in which it is delivered.
Scientific studies supporting bio-awareness training
A number of scientific studies measuring the effectiveness of bio-awareness training have been completed.3,4 It has been found that this training significantly improves situational awareness, control over biological threat responses, and improves the accuracy of use of force decisions over the long term. Research shows that this approach to training fosters both physical and psychological resilience to stress. Physical benefits include improved cardiovascular and stress chemical responses. Psychological benefits include reduction of distress, enhanced confidence in abilities, and the recognition 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.
Implementation of bio-awareness training
The iPREP training approach was designed to integrate into existing reality-based training programs at police organizations (use of force annual recertification, for example). Leveraging the skills of expert instructors already employed by police organizations, working with them to achieve greater success by applying the methods of bio awareness in their instruction sessions. Research shows that there is no evidence-based replacement for reality-based training.1 In a study comparing technology-delivered training with reality-based training and active duty encounters, the data showed that technology-delivered training did not mimic or prepare officers for realities of real world encounters as did reality-based training.7
Modern training programs and research need to meet the goals set out by police organizations and the federal government. Specifically, an evidence-based method of improving officer decision-making about applying use of force techniques and de-escalation strategies while also enhancing officer resilience.
Modern training practices can modify the abstract concepts of resilience and optimal performance into concrete and applicable practices for police officers. Training can then be tailored specifically to law enforcement through research, expert collaboration, and program assessment. Evidence to date shows that bio awareness training is both a practical and accessible tool for improving police resiliency and performance.
- Din Nota, P. M., Huhta, J. (2019). Complex Motor Learning and Police Training: Applied, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01797
- Lehrer PM. Heart rate variability biofeedback and other psychophysiological procedures as important elements in psychotherapy. Int J Psychophysiol. 2018;131:89-95.
- Andersen JP, Di Nota PM, Beston B, et al. Reducing Lethal Force Errors by Modulating Police Physiology. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2018;60(10):867-874.
- Andersen JP, Gustafsberg H. A Training Method to Improve Police Use of Force Decision Making: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Sage Open. 2016;6(2).
- Healthy Minds, Safe Communities: Report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, House of Commons, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session (October, 2016).
- Morrison, G. B., & Garner, T. K. (2011). Latitude in deadly force training: Progress or problem? Police Practice and Research, 12(4), 341-361. doi: 10.1080/15614263.2011.563968
- 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. Open Access: ISSN: 2161-0231, Volume 5(4).
Judith P. Andersen, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She is the director of the Health, Adaptation, Research on Trauma (HART) Lab. Andersen studies the psychophysiology of stress and related health and occupational issues. Andersen’s research has informed the development of an intervention (iPREP) to enhance health and occupational effectiveness among public safety personnel by modulating autonomic nervous system reactivity to stress. More information at: https://hartlab.net/.
Steven Poplawski, BA., is a retired senior constable and Ontario use of force instructor. As the director of Step Training Inc., Poplawski conducts training in areas of de-escalation, communication, validation, facilitation and resilience for municipal officers and staff, police agencies (internationally), public service and the education professionals. More information at www.steptraininginc.com.
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