University of Alabama researchers trying to learn how police officers react to ‘shoot, don’t shoot’ situations

Officers wear caps with electrodes during research
Officers wear caps with electrodes during research

Trying to to learn how police officers react to “shoot, don’t shoot” situations, researchers at the University of Alabama are measuring brain waves during virtual reality police training.

According to a report on the school’s website, for the past year, researchers Rick Houser, Dan Fonseca and Ryan Cook have used a mobile electroencephalogram, or EEG, amplifier to measure the brain activity of three law enforcement officers to determine which regions of the brain are active during simulations of potentially high-threat situations.

Preliminary EEG findings, combined with an algorithm used to calculate the sources within the brain, show that one of the five brain waves, in this case the “beta” wave most often associated with thinking, has the highest activity in certain brain regions.

“Preliminary analyses show that officers may activate more beta or thinking brain waves in the right temporal-parietal junction in making decisions associated with responding to high threat situations. The right temporal-parietal junction is associated with predicting intentions of others, consistent with a major theory in psychology – ‘Theory of Mind.’ An officer who is able to understand the intentions of others may be more effective in making these high decisions and consequently lower the risk of shooting a community member, particularly those who are unarmed or an accidental shooting,” Houser said in the report.

According to the article, the researchers measure the effectiveness of verbal commands used to de-escalate situations. They note the commands and the time as it relates to the EEG and rely on two seasoned officers to evaluate the responses and establish reliability.

Per terms of the agreement between the researchers and the law enforcement agency, the researchers cannot reveal the identities of the officers participating in the study nor the agency to which they’re attached. Data is collected at the law enforcement agency, which owns and uses the VR simulator in existing training procedures.

Houser, Fonseca and Cook have additional data to analyze, but they hope to secure funding to continue the research at a larger scale, which would yield a larger sample size and eventually see them acquire the space and technology to conduct training sessions on campus.

“There are always officers and first-responders who will make decisions under duress that are not typical of most people – we call them ‘MacGyvers,’ We don’t know what it is or why, but how they handle that just isn’t typical of people in those fields. We want to encapsulate that knowledge in order to improve training of officers and positively affect the hiring process,” Fonseca said in the report.

Larry Gierer: 706-571-8581, @lagierer