University of Calgary

University of Calgary

February 07, 2012 09:30 ET

University of Calgary: The Quiet Eye in life or death situations

University of Calgary research helping to train police officers

CALGARY, ALBERTA--(Marketwire - Feb. 7, 2012) - The person at the table turns suddenly, and the police officer has a split second decision to make - shoot or hold fire. Is that a gun or a cell phone the man is holding?

The realistic situation above was played out in a Calgary police training exercise, but the decision making process mimics a real-life scenario very closely. University of Calgary research, by Kinesiology investigator Joan Vickers PhD, is helping law enforcement trainers understand why some officers are able to determine the threat level - and respond effectively under all the conditions they face in the line of duty.

The experiment was part of a larger piece of research that Vickers conducted along with international police psychology expert Bill Lewinski PhD. The investigators did a trial run with the assistance of the Calgary Police Service, before doing the study in a large international city where, for the past twenty years, the SWAT officers are known for dealing effectively with street violence and terrorist attacks. The study compared the reactions of veteran officers and less experienced, rookie officers. The study used Vicker's Quiet Eye method of accurately recording where a subject looks and for how long during specific phases of the shooting action. The Quiet Eye is defined as the precise location where an individual fixes their gaze before executing a critical movement. It has been studied in many sports and professional activities including hockey, basketball, biathlon and surgery.

Analysis of the data showed there were three important results. First, 65 per cent of the rookie officers shot the "assailant" during the cell phone trials (compared to just 18 per cent of the elite) revealing significant differences in their ability to detect critical information and make the right decision when under extreme stress. The rookies shooting accuracy was also low, 54 per cent compared to 75 per cent for elite officers. However, when Vickers analyzed how long it took each group to draw, aim and fire there were no significant differences - suggesting the primary limitation was not in their physical ability to handle the weapon but in their cognitive ability to maintain focus and concentration when under fire.

Second, when Vickers analyzed the eye movements of the two groups one result accounted for pretty well everything that happened. During the final 700 milliseconds, when the rookies should have maintained a long duration quiet eye on the assailant before firing, they made a saccade back to the sights on their own gun in an effort to aim as they were initially taught and fired before they had regained sight of the assailant. Saccades are rapid, ballistic eye movements during which information is suppressed. In contrast, the elite officers fixated on the assailant as he turned, establishing a longer duration quiet eye before firing, or inhibiting the shot during the cell phone trials.

Thirdly, the researchers found that the gaze control used by the elite officers is very similar to elite, Olympic level shooters. Although they too are taught initially to look down at the sights of their gun first and then up at the target, during their evolution to elite status they change their gaze and focus of attention in a fashion similar to the elite police officers.

In fact Vicker's biathlon research is what first caught the attention of Calgary Police Officer Darren Leggatt who was heavily involved in developing training strategies for new recruits. "We have always been very proactive in looking at the latest research to provide our recruits with the best information available," says Leggatt. "We were looking at high performance sport research and were intrigued with Dr. Vickers quiet eye research, but the light really came on when we read her biathlon study. Here's a significantly challenging sport, that places all sorts of physical demands on the athlete in terms of skiing and then they have to stop, slow down and deliver accurate rounds from a firearm. The need for fast and accurate shooting under these extreme physical conditions is conceptually the same as what happens in law enforcement. To be honest we were kind of slapping ourselves that we didn't immediately realize these studies were happening in our own back yard!"

Leggatt along with fellow training officers helped Vickers to set up a trial of the shooter decision-making paradigm, and began to consider the implications of how Quiet Eye could help to make Calgary recruits better decision makers. "When faced with a deadly force situation, as a human being, you know your life is in jeopardy," says Leggatt, "there are countless studies about how the body reacts in these situations - where there's an immediate adrenalin dump and an immediate evacuation of blood from the extremities to power the body for fight or flight. The studies done on the visual systems remarked on a state called tunnel vision - but Joan has taken this one step further and shown where people actually focus their gaze in these situations and that some officers are better than others at focusing their attention on what is really crucial in a life-or-death situation."

The results have already caused many police departments to look at how they are training their new recruits, says Vickers. The next step is a study in which one group of rookies is taught in the traditional way and the other uses the newer method.

What: Media availability to demonstrate and discuss Quiet Eye research in the field of police training.

When: Tuesday, February 7, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Where: Calgary Police Service Firing Range, (6702, 11 St NE, Calgary) please see attached map, or click on this link: Reporters will be escorted from the gate to the firing range building.

Who: Joan Vickers, Faculty of Kinesiology researcher

Duty Insp. Darren Leggatt, Real Time Operations Center, Calgary Police Service

Sgt. Dave Sweeting, Firearms Training Unit, Calgary Police Service

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