Decision in Crisis

Camie Condon
December 22, 2016
By Camie Condon
In September of 2013, an emotionally distraught Sammy Yatim was fatally shot by Toronto police constable James Forcillo while aboard a Toronto Transit Commission streetcar. Video surveillance of the event reveals images of Yatim threatening other passengers while wielding a knife in one hand and exposing himself with the other. After all passengers and the driver fled the streetcar safely, Yatim remained on board alone until the police arrived. He was non-compliant with officer commands to drop the knife and was shot multiple times by the officer and died of his injuries. The shooting resulted in criminal charges being laid against the officer and an eventual finding of guilt on one count of second-degree murder.

While Yatim’s death is an unmitigated tragedy it should be noted that the use of force in any encounter between police and the public is relatively rare, occurring in less than one per cent of incidents. Nevertheless Yatim’s death triggered public outcry and inquiries into lethal force against persons in crisis; one headed by retired Justice Frank Iacobucci in 2014 and the second in 2016 by the Ontario Ombudsman. Both reports called for the “extensive review of police training, recruitment and use of force guidelines.” Specifically Iacobucci stated the current situation calls for increased training on a “spectrum of de-escalation” techniques “that includes verbal de-escalation.”
Iacobucci also noted that officers should be “trained to stop shouting (ineffective)… commands and attempt different defusing communications strategies.”

Effectiveness of options
To date there has been no empirical evaluation specifically examining the effectiveness of force options and only a modicum of research on the efficacy of de-escalation techniques, particularly those focusing on communication styles.
There is a small body of research examining Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) are successful in reducing the number of use of force interactions with persons in crisis, but the results indicate that reductions are relatively small. The focus of the research has primarily examined the demeanour of the person in crisis and not the efficacy of specific de-escalation techniques.

Though police defensive tactics and use of force training includes verbal de-escalation techniques, Iacobucci has indicated that practices currently in place are “insufficient.” Overhauling training procedures, including deescalation techniques, with the goal of reducing risk of injury or death will require in-depth examination of the effectiveness of different methods, language and tools. To be of any value it must be done in concert with a comprehensive understanding of how officers function under the significant psychophysiological demands that occur during crisis encounters.

The demand
Officers have repeatedly voiced concern over the “unpredictability and potential for violence” during crisis encounters, while also reporting feeling “ill prepared to provide the necessary services.” The precariousness of these encounters can lead to significant psychophysiological demand and autonomic arousal for the officers; commonly experienced through increased heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and various auditory and visual exclusions.

Psychophysiological demand also creates challenges for cognitive processes and decision making so officers rely heavily on their repetitive task training (procedural memory) to do the most basic tasks, including some defensive and use of force tactics and tactical commands.

Repetitive rehearsal of tactical communication – short command statements spoken loudly and clearly (e.g., “Police, don’t move,” “Stop resisting,” and/or “Drop the weapon”) is standard training practice. The benefit of repetitive training is that recall for this type of language is nearly effortless when under heightened arousal, offering some explanation to why officers continually repeat it. It has also been argued that short and clear loudly spoken commands will not only ensure the suspect will hear and understand the officer but also draw the attention of bystanders who may later be able to attest to the officers warnings.

Unfortunately, a person in crisis may not comprehend or follow these commands for a variety of reasons. Iacobucci notes that when officers encounter atypical non-compliance they should be trained to stop repeating the same command and attempt a different line of communication. Herein lays the difficulty. Switching commands or changing tactics requires an officer to move from automated behaviours to adaptive and flexible decision making. This transition becomes more complicated to engage in when under stress.

Researchers in the Tactical Decision Making Research Group (TDMRG) at the University of Liverpool have examined the effects of psychophysiological demand and arousal on officers during defensive tactics training and simulated armed confrontations. They found that increased demand produces substantial shifts in working memory functions, which govern decision making, strategizing and recall. Specifically, they found increased demand on decision making centres also presents significant challenges to verbal communication; outlining that negative emotions impair language production by eliciting a stress response, (i.e., autonomic arousal). In particular, officers involved in high arousal scenario training reported greater difficulty in producing and comprehending complex language when experiencing strong negative emotions, e.g. threat of potential violence.

Research with Canadian officers engaging in annual firearms scenario training found that when (falsely) told they would be role playing with Simunition, officers increased the total number of random words post scenario while physiological measures were highest. Random words represent automated language that results from repetitive use and therefore requires little cognitive effort to produce. Simultaneously, the same officers, again post scenario, decreased in the ability to switch from subcategories of grouped words. Switching subcategories represents complex cognitive functioning because it requires memory recall and strategizing. Switches are comparable to moving (switching) from a string of similarly structured words (cat, car, cantaloupe, etc.) to a dissimilar string (cat, car, cantaloupe, destitute, delay, delicious, etc.)

The process of switching subcategories is considered higher-order cognitive processing. That’s because it requires decision making centres to identify that one string of similar words can no longer be easily retrieved from memory and switch (cognitive flexibility) to another, easily retrieved string of words in order to continue producing speech. (see Graph 1).

Similar results were observed with UK Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) engaged in scenarios replicating threats to officer safety. The scenarios included building searches, hostages and using Nico ‘9 bang’ distraction devices. Across all participants, in conjunction with measured increases of autonomic arousal, officers again increased random word production post scenario. In fact, total word scores during this scenario testing were well above average yet subcategory switch scores were significantly lower than pre-scenario. (see Graph 2).

In both instances the increased random word production demonstrates that automated processes remained robust despite the increased psychophysiological demand, whereas the complex processes were less available. Well-rehearsed skills like that of tactical commands are typically unaffected by psychophysiological demand.

The automatic aspect of overlearned skills frees up cognitive resources critical for complex decision making (e.g., increased situational awareness and complex task completion). However, it is clearly evident that officers, under certain conditions, may rigidly apply procedural tactics when the encounter requires actions other than mechanical behaviours.

Decision making demands confidence
In an effort to determine why some decision makers can flex while others remain rigid, TDMRG researcher Laura Bolton noted that personal confidence is strongly related to flexible and adaptive decision making. Experienced (more than five years) AFOs demonstrated a distinct increase in the cognitive flexibility compared to those of the ‘novice’ AFOs.

The experienced AFOs readily utilized trained, automated behaviours, particularly when they perceived control of the encounter was achievable, but when they found those ineffective they easily and confidently transitioned to non-rehearsed decision making. Novice AFOs did not display this cognitive flexibility when automated behaviours were ineffective.

Experienced AFOs attributed their confidence to recognizing and transitioning from ineffectual procedural tactics to more conceptual strategies to routinely engaging in training that encouraged abstract decision making. Further, adaptive decision making was positively correlated with an officer responding quickly to varying situational cues and effectively coping with the physical changes associated with arousal.

The experienced AFOs indicated that training and operating in all positions of the firearms team, creating mental models (prearrival) of possible actions and generating a large number of potential outcomes increased their confidence and responses.

What is evidenced in this research is that using well-rehearsed protocols such as tactical communication can be a reliable technique for managing the effects of increased psychophysiological demand. Likewise, transitioning to atypical decision making can reduce the ineffectual use of procedural tactics. Finally, the two can be successfully combined, however, decisions and actions outside of well-rehearsed procedures can be difficult to employ due to the negative impact of high arousal. Yet, as demonstrated by experienced AFOs, improved decisional confidence seemingly reduces the rigid and repetitive application of standard tactics.

Greater exposure to unpredictable situations within the confines of a training environment offers the opportunity to make decisions outside of the usual tactics, thus allowing the officer to store a greater number of mental models and the ability to confidently adapt in challenging encounters.

Recent inquires have suggested revamping how officers communicate during crisis encounters. Policy-makers and trainers would do well to stop and consider if proposed revisions to use of force protocols address the complexities of psychophysical demand and the ability to make decisions in a crisis.

There is considerable room for further research into effective training tactics, including how training can best incorporate automated skills with the conceptual decision making needed in unpredictable street level encounters. With increased public/ political pressures for police transparency and evidenced based practices, any changes to training will need to be well informed by sound and practical research.

Camie Condon PhD is a course developer, instructor and advisor to the Wilfrid Laurier Policing BA Program, in Waterloo, ON. Contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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