Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Hidden, the blog Tour. Police shootings and the Psychology of Threat Assessment

I am pleased today to be taking part in the blog tour for Emma Kavanagh's new novel Hidden. Emma has an impressive resume. A PhD in psychology and a career as a police and military psychologist, she's trained armed police officers, military personnel and command staff how to react in stressful and high pressured situations. Hidden is the literary result of this wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience.

The blurb reads as follows:


A gunman is stalking the wards of a local hospital. He's unidentified and dangerous, and has to be located. Urgently. 

Police Firearms Officer Aden McCarthy is tasked with tracking him down. Still troubled by the shooting of a schoolboy, Aden is determined to make amends by finding the gunman - before it's too late.


To psychologist Imogen, hospital should be a place of healing and safety - both for her, and her young niece who's been recently admitted. She's heard about the gunman, but he has little to do with her. Or has he?

As time ticks down, no one knows who the gunman's next target will be. But he's there. Hiding in plain sight. Far closer than anyone thinks...

So over to Emma for this insight into police shootings and in particular the issue of Threat Perception.

Psychology of Police Shootings - Threat Perception

The world of the firearms police officer is a fast moving one that can demand swift judgements made in less than ideal circumstances. Those judgements, made in the heat of the moment, will go on to be scrutinised for months, often years to come. If the choice the officer made - to shoot or not to shoot - proves to be the correct one, they will often still face a barrage of media and public criticism. If it proves to be incorrect, they may face prison. 

In Hidden, Aden has been faced with a choice. Should he shoot? For him, unlike others, the answer was no, and the repercussions of that decision have haunted him. 

So what makes some firearms officers see danger where others do not? 

The first thing that we have to understand is the speed of these situations, the challenge that puts on our mental processes. An incident can go from standard to critical within the space of seconds. That means that the officer’s mental processing has to work just as fast. 

In order to achieve this, a number of things happen to the cognitive processes of the officer. Their ability to think critically and rationally has been reduced by the stress response. Instead they are relying on past experiences and training to guide them. They will use mental shortcuts, relying on what they already know about the world to understand the threat that is posed. Does this person look dangerous? Can I see an obvious weapon? They will use stereotypes, information that they already have. This is all well and good when the perpetrator is as they appear to be. However, research has shown that in critical incidents in which the threat came from a woman, officers were more likely to fail to shoot, such scenarios being more likely to result in officer death. 

When a suspect has a history of carrying a firearm, the officer tasked with responding to them in a high stress situation will be going in with a certain expectation, a higher sense of the danger posed to their own life. That means that their perceptions will be skewed towards the detection of a gun. Our perceptions are not perfect. Sometimes we see what we think we are going to see. And in some of these cases, this can result in an office pulling the trigger in the full belief that they are being faced with a weapon when they are not. 

Identifying small features - is that a real gun or a toy gun? - becomes next to impossible in the time frames involved. Live fire exercises have shown that the best of officers will struggle to make such distinctions, even when their lives are not in danger. Imagine how much more difficult these identifications become when the officer is in a real life critical incident. 

The decisions firearms officers make happen quickly, sometimes in the dark, sometimes in the rain, usually when their stress response is high. In the huge majority of situations, these highly trained officers get it right, a testament to their skill and their ability to remain calm when faced with imminent danger. 

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