Why Neuroscience is the Key to Officer Safety

Think about your brain as doing things in three stages:

  1. Perceive: your brain is built to gather and take in information from the environment
  2. Process: your brain works with the information gathered to make sense of your world
  3. Perform: your brain then does something – decides/acts/behaves – with that processed information to engage with the world

Traditional law enforcement training focuses on stage 3: performance.

As an officer in training, you were told what was expected of you. You were told several things you should always do and a few things you should never do when interacting with the public. Your training clarified what was and was not allowable under the law. The proper use of the tools on your duty belt was explained.

But how much instruction did you receive on the most important tool you have at your disposal, your brain?

Outside of the horror stories of vapor lock, tunnel vision, and false memories – examples of when the brain fails to function properly – did you receive any structured training on how to increase perception and optimize brain processing to avoid these negative outcomes?

Neuroscience informs us about stages 1-2 and instructs us on how to optimize the brain. It’s crucial to understand, the first two stages are critical to you as a law enforcement officer.

Driving as an analogy

Driver Education courses focus on keeping the car on the road, between the lines (stage 3). Rules of the road are taught, do’s and don’ts explained, meanings of signs, markers, and road paint described. No time is spent teaching the new driver how to fine-tune their car’s engine to run faster and more efficiently (stages 1-2). That’s not the purpose of driver education. Keeping an automobile operating at its absolute optimal level is not a requirement for the driving public, and it’s not even necessary.

But keeping a car operating at its absolute optimal level is necessary and important for a NASCAR driver. Not only does the NASCAR driver need to be sure the car meets the rules of racing (stage 3), but the driver’s car needs to be operating at its best (stages 1-2). The engine needs to be fine-tuned for speed so that the driver can gain every mile per hour available and for efficiency to squeeze in an extra lap or two before having to refuel. Ignoring the mechanics of the car would leave the driver on the track’s side, engine blown, out of the race.

Most people are like the average driver in this analogy; their job only requires stage 3 training. Being told what is expected and how to perform is enough. But like NASCAR drivers, the stakes are higher for law enforcement officers. Keeping your brain functioning at an optimal level is necessary for your safety.

Just like putting an average car through the paces of a NASCAR race would blow its engine, putting an untrained brain through acute stress wreaks havoc on brain functioning. The brain’s “blown engine” is tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, time distortions, misperceptions, and false memories. For you, as a law enforcement officer, training stages 1-2 are just as important to your safety as training stage 3.

To be clear, traditional training that focuses on officer performance (stage 3) is necessary. As a law enforcement officer, you need to know what you should and should not do and what you can and cannot do under the law. It is important that you understand best practices and know what options are available to you.

But if you ignore stages 1 and 2, failing to train to increase perception and optimize brain processing, cognitive functioning will be disrupted during high-stress encounters. When cognitive processes sputter and fail, the information you learned during stage 3 training may not be available to you. To be safe and remain in control during a critical incident, you must increase perception and optimize brain processing.

Here are two real-life research examples of optimizing the brain:

Example 1: Increased Perception (Stage 1)

In a high-stress room clearing scenario, 89% of officers with brain training noticed a pipe bomb on top of a bathroom mirror. Only 5% of the officers without brain training noticed the pipe bomb.

Example 2: Optimized Processing (Stage 2)

During use-of-force scenarios, officers with brain training were 35% more likely to use cover than officers without. Of those that went to cover, officers with brain training went 17.1 seconds sooner on average.

Think about the impact brain training would have on your safety if you were 18 times more likely to identify a threat, as in example 1, or were more likely to quickly move to cover during a critical incident, as in example 2.

Now you understand why neuroscience is the key to officer safety.

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