Sticker Shock or The Price is Right?

When the department budget gets stretched, what's the first thing to get cut? That's right--training, especially high-cost, staff-intensive training. Simulation training, particularly when it involves weapons, is arguably the highest-cost, most staff-intensive training departments typically do. Any weapons-involved scenario requires extreme attention to safety, with multiple instructors serving as safety officer, scenario leader, and so on. Officers normally go through the simulations singly or in pairs, making the time cost of the training high as well (and producing ripple effects because beats need to be covered when officers are training, and that may require overtime). If dedicated training weapons and ammunition (e.g. Simunition™ or Air-Soft™) are used, the cost rises even further. No wonder departments often balk at requiring simulation training. All that money could be used for so many other needed expenses--overtime, equipment, crime data analysis, to name just a few.

But now there is solid evidence that simulation training can help prevent another huge expense: damage awards from lawsuits alleging racial bias in officer-involved shootings. Recent research reported in the June 2 edition of the New York Times shows that properly trained officers are less likely than community members to allow racial bias to influence their decision whether to shoot a suspect. The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, documents a cleverly designed experiment involving police officers and community members.

What They Did

Here's how it worked (I'll spare you the statistical analysis). The researchers tested three groups: 124 Denver police officers, 135 civilians from the Denver area, and 113 officers from across the country (recruited from those attending a training seminar). They constructed a video game in which the viewer would see several background scenes, such as streets, parks, apartment building exteriors, etc. presented sequentially as a slide show. Then a figure would appear in front of the last background viewed. This figure would be either a white or black male, holding an object. The object could be a gun (several different types and colors of handguns were used) or a non-gun object, such as a cell phone, wallet, or soda can.

Fifty men (half of them white and half black) were photographed holding an object in five poses. The researchers then chose two images of each man for use in the game, one holding a gun and one holding something else, providing a total of 100 images, evenly divided between white and black and between threatening and not.

Participants were instructed to press a "shoot" button if the man was holding a gun and a "don't shoot" button if he was holding something else. They got ten points for a correct shoot response, but were penalized 20 points for shooting an unarmed person. They got five points for a correct don't-shoot response, but were penalized 40 points for failing to shoot an armed person--on the assumption that if they failed to stop the threat, the armed person would shoot them. If the participant failed to make either choice in the allotted time (less than a second), he or she was penalized ten points.

As the participant went through the 100 trials in the game, his or her responses were timed. By combining timing with the number of correct responses and separately calculating results for white and black "suspects," researchers could determine the influence of racial bias on two things: how well participants could discriminate between armed and unarmed figures, and how readily they made the decision to shoot.

What They Found

The results were fascinating.

First, both officer groups were quicker than the civilians to identify when the figure was holding a weapon. Well, I should hope so! We are trained observers, right? (Well, for some things. I can be astoundingly oblivious of things like re-arranged furniture.) Somewhat like the phenomenon of buying a new car and suddenly seeing that model everywhere, officers are trained to look for weapons, so when they're there, we see them more readily than an untrained civilian.

Second, all groups--officers and civilians alike--took slightly longer to correctly identify white, armed men and black, unarmed men than the reverse. This effect held true regardless of the participant's own race, and reflects the fact that whether we like it or not, we are all affected by the stereotypical images in our environment. Police are not immune to cultural effects. At the same time, the response time showed no greater lag time for one participant group over the other in this measurement.

Third--and this result should have you on your feet cheering--while the three groups showed no bias in favor of shooting or not shooting when the suspect was white, the civilian group was much more likely than the police to shoot when the suspect was black. In other words, while the increased time to identify non-stereotypical suspects (e.g. armed white men) showed that both officers and civilians were roughly equally influenced by racial stereotypes, the officers were less likely to allow bias to affect their deadly-force decision-making. In fact, for the national group of officers there was no statistically significant difference at all in how likely they were to shoot with black or white suspects. As the researchers put it,

"Community members showed a clear tendency to favor the shoot response for Black targets... Police, however, showed no bias in their criteria. Moreover, they showed greater discriminability [ability to tell if the subject was armed] and a less trigger-happy orientation in general."

What accounts for these differences? The researchers put it squarely down to training. Now here's the part that has me standing up and cheering. The researchers surveyed the officers about the kinds of training they had received, and found that both lower response time and a lesser tendency to choose a shoot response were

"...correlated with training in simulated building searches. In this type of training, officers interact with actors, some of whom attack the trainee using weapons equipped with nonlethal ammunition. Police with more extensive training in these encounters were better able to discriminate between armed and unarmed targets, regardless of the race of the target...and they tended to set a higher overall criterion in the task...reflecting a greater reluctance to shoot."

Here's the icing on the cake. They continued by saying, "no other type of training (e.g. classroom training, firing range, interactive video training) predicted performance in the game."

What It Means for Police

So science backs up what we intuitively know: scenario-based training works--and it works better than other kinds of training. Simulation training involves all three learning domains--cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. You can learn cognitive information in a classroom or by reading a book. You can learn psychomotor skills in a gym or on the firing range. But you need the complexity and context that simulations provide to learn judgment--which is what affective learning is all about. And, as it happens, judgment is also what policing is all about. What other job can you think of that puts an entry-level worker in the position of exercising such wide discretion with so much autonomy?

You know the saying: "Good decisions come from experience. And experience comes from bad decisions." It the world of law enforcement, a bad shooting decision carries a high price indeed. Jury awards of several million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit are not uncommon. The cost is not only monetary, of course; lives are shattered, careers are ruined, and community relations impaired. By comparison, the cost of simulation training seems pretty reasonable.

The research cited addressed only deadly-force decision-making (partly because it is easier to measure), but it stands to reason that simulation training would also help eliminate bias in other situations as well, such as handling a domestic involving gay partners, or a traffic stop of a car full of black teenagers. It doesn't take a gun to make a mishandled call costly for an officer or department.

The next time your training budget is squeezed, remember that science is on your side. Simulation training is not a luxury--it's a necessity.