Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile are just a few of the Black Americans killed by police in recent years whose deaths spurred widespread protests about police tactics.

For some observers, the killings can be traced to a few problem officers driven by racial bias or a disregard for policies. For others, poor regulations, inadequate policies, and lax oversight open a window for misconduct. But is it also possible that the cognitive demands of policing and the need to react quickly under stress may lead to hasty and potentially flawed decisions?

University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s Oeindrila Dube, University of Chicago Crime Lab’s Sandy Jo MacArthur, and Chicago Booth’s Anuj K. Shah tested that idea by designing a new kind of officer training, one that led to a dramatic drop in the use of force.

The researchers cite the work of Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, who differentiates between two types of thought, as described in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In stressful situations, police officers are likely to default to what Kahneman terms System 1 thinking, which is quick and intuitive but can lead to devastating mistakes. Dube, MacArthur, and Shah suggest that with training, officers can learn to rely on System 2 thinking, which is more deliberative. For example, in System 1 thinking, an officer might misinterpret something shiny in someone’s hand as a weapon, while in System 2 thinking the officer might pause to consider other interpretations, such as it being a cell phone.

“Given how big the problem is, we said, ‘Well, what else can we do about this?’” Shah says. Their proposal draws on research Shah was involved in that taught disadvantaged teens how to pause in moments of conflict, question their assumptions, and try to look at the situation from different perspectives. “That’s something that everybody can benefit from,” he says. “And certainly officers.” (For more, read “A Powerful Tool for At-Risk Youth.”)

Seeing a situation differently

Training police officers to consider alternate ways of interpreting situations they encounter led to less use of force and fewer discretionary arrests, without compromising officer safety, the research finds. 

The researchers developed a training program they named Situational Decision-Making, or Sit-D. The program teaches officers strategies to recognize stressful situations, identify cognitive shortcuts such as catastrophization (assuming the worst possible outcome) and confirmation bias (focusing on evidence that supports one’s assumptions), and think about alternative interpretations of the situation.

They tested Sit-D with more than 2,000 Chicago police officers, nearly one-fifth of the city’s active officers, most of whom participated in four 4-hour training sessions between September 2020 and February 2021. The sessions included a mix of classroom instruction about common cognitive biases and scenario-based exercises. Each session included 16 officers and four trainers. The final training session focused on a five-step thinking tactic model:

Step 1: Recognizing emotional and physiological responses.
Step 2: Regulating these responses to better think systematically.
Step 3: Considering alternative interpretations of situations.
Step 4: Thinking of various response options.
Step 5: Assessing the consequences of each possible response.

Among officers who had the Sit-D training, the researchers recorded a 23 percent reduction in the use of force in the four months following the instruction. They similarly saw a 23 percent drop in discretionary arrests for charges such as disobeying an officer and disorderly conduct, many of which “likely stem from officers’ emotional responses, such as frustration with a subject’s behavior,” write Dube, MacArthur, and Shah.

Police officers with the training took fewer days off because of injuries, suggesting the training also improved the officers’ safety, the researchers find. Course evaluation responses indicated that 80 percent liked the training and could imagine using it in the field right away.

Shah says that while the program didn’t specifically focus on racial biases, “almost all of the effect on the arrests is driven by officers arresting Black civilians less often.”

Practical questions remain, such as how often officers should retake the course to keep critical thinking top of mind, but the results so far demonstrate that such training could be a key part of policing.

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