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WSU study: Two things hinder split-second decisions by police

Samantha Malott Moscow-Pullman Daily News

In a study of 80 police officers, researchers at Washington State University found fatigue significantly affects reactions and decision making, and 96 percent of the officers were implicitly biased about black Americans and weapons.

In those officers, though, the reaction time to shoot at a black man in a simulation was 1.32 seconds, while it was only 1.09 seconds to shoot a white man, said Dr. Lois James, an assistant professor at the WSU College of Nursing and researcher at the Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane.

Consistently the data showed there seems to be something that is making the officer be a bit more hesitant with the black man, which is now being referred to as “counter bias” or “reverse racism,” she said at a presentation in Pullman on Monday. Given the negative news coverage of law enforcement in the U.S. right now, the officer is fully aware that they are guilty until proven innocent and it makes for a very uncomfortable situation for them, she said.

“Law enforcement is facing an absolute crisis,” she said.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing emphasized repairing relationships between law enforcement and their communities and the International Association of Chiefs of Police are calling for training that will desensitize officers to racial influences, she said.

James and fellow researcher at the center, Dr. Stephen James, have proposed “counter bias training” by creating a portable simulator such as the ones they use in their research. It would put officers through repeated scenarios to decondition them to race and allow them to make decisions based solely on the threat and weapon in front of them, she said.

James said the study also found the race or ethnicity of civilians did not predict how the scenario would end. For example, the officers treated civilians in street clothes the same as those in business clothing, she said.

However, when the actor was more aggressive in the simulation, it was much more likely to end in deadly force, she said.

Effects of fatigue

Dr. Stephen James also tested for what effects fatigue and prolonged night-shift work have on an officer’s reactions and decision making.

The data clearly showed the officers who worked the night shift were quicker to fire weapons, had faster reaction times to shoot first and fired more shots, compared to those on day shifts, Stephen said. Similar findings were also found in officers who were tired, he said.

That is great if they are really being threatened, but not when darkness or fatigue cloud their judgment, and it is actually a wallet the civilian is reaching for, he said.

The 80 officers tested, with an average of 14 and a half years on the job, included both individuals who had rested for 72 hours since their last shift and those coming in immediately after getting off work, he said.

It is a tough job to be a cop, not only because of the negative outlook by the nation right now, but physically and emotionally, he said. Shift work and chronic stress can have lasting effects.

“Because society is 24/7, it has to be policed 24/7,” he said.

There are officers who have been on night shifts for 10 years and that is extremely damaging to the body, he said.

Being awake for 24 hours straight has the same effects on an individual as if they were to blow a .10 blood alcohol content, and 17 to 19 hours awake is the same as a .05 BAC, he said.

Alcohol affects the prefrontal lobe of the brain where the higher decision making occurs, and fatigue does the same thing, he said. When fatigued, it is hard for the brain to take in information in a complex and stressful situation and make sound judgments, he said. It can also diminish short-term memory abilities.

In the simulations they are not only testing reaction times and decision making skills, but brain functions, as well.

Quality of life

“We are really looking at what is going on inside these officers when they are making these decisions,” he said.

Fatigue also affects the officer’s quality of life, Stephen said. It can lead to increased arguments, decreased affection and increased strain and dysfunction at home, which will affect how they treat people when they come in to work, he said.

Being a police officer alone, separate from age, gender or other factors, doubles the risk for suicide, he said.

Stephen also said more police officers die from vehicle crashes than gunshots or stabbings. The cockpit of a vehicle is not the place for the amount of technology they have up there, and there is no such thing as multitasking, he said.

The number of crashes go up with distraction and even more so with distraction and fatigue, he said.

An individual’s status characteristics influence their treatment in the justice system, and race is the demographic that arguably has the most profound effect, James said. Police are not the only ones at fault, but they are the first to get involved, Dr. Lois James said.

According to surveys, relations between the community and law enforcement are as bad as they were in the 1970s when there were still lynchings happening, she said. Whether or not an officer has racial bias, and there are some who do and some who don’t, officers have inherited a lot of history, and there is a lot of work to be done, she said.

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