The Clock is a Police Officer’s Enemy

The Clock is a Police Officer’s Enemy

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

We talk about “split-second” decisions as though it is an exaggeration referring to a short period of time. In the world of policing, split seconds are the reality of critical incidents.

Citizens are quite content to ooh and ahh over close calls in sports. Fans may be frustrated by a missed tag at second base, a fumbled catch from the quarterback, or a missed block from a surprise puck play, but no life is at stake. When life and death matter, there seems to be little forgiveness for officers who have to react at the edge of human ability to do so.

A reasonably fast pitch from a major league mound to the home plate takes .4 seconds. The batter has roughly the time of the average eye blink to decide whether to swing or not. A quarterback in pro football has a luxurious average of 2.7 seconds to decide where to throw and launch the football. A police officer being attacked would love to have almost three seconds to react.

Most reaction time studies show about a .7 second time between the external event being recognized as requiring some action to the nerves and muscles getting the command to move and beginning the movement. Response time, in contrast, is the time it takes to complete the movement.

Let’s examine an attack on an officer by someone using a knife. It will take the officer’s brain (officers are quite human and therefore average statistics are applicable) .013 seconds to recognize that the subject has a knife. In fact, in many surprise attacks with an edged weapon, the officer’s first awareness that the aggressor had a knife is when they are cut or stabbed. Even then, many officers who have survived such an attack did not know if they were merely punched, stabbed, or shot.

The decision to use lethal force is based on what the brain perceives as a lethal threat. Many of the “unarmed” persons who are shot by police (a very small number of all lethal officer shootings) were engaged in rapid motions that mimicked the way a person would use a weapon. The brain simply cannot process these attacks fast enough to ensure that there is a gun or knife in an assailant’s hand. Validated research shows that a knife attack takes an average of between .14 seconds and .20 seconds (make sure and note the decimal point – that means 1/5th of one second). If the assailant needs to take a step toward the officer, the attack may take twice as long, which is still within about a third of a second.

If the officer attempts to create distance from an attacker by backing up, we intuitively know that an attacker charging can move much faster. Studies show that an officer wearing typical duty gear can reach a maximum speed of under 9 miles per hour going backward, which is much slower than an aggressive attacker who, by their fifth step can be traveling over 12 miles per hour.

Research of firearms deployments shows that a novice using a revolver from a standing position can draw and fire one round in ¼ of a second. The fastest subjects in the study did so in less than 1/10th of a second. In a study on car stops, a novice gun user could move from a hand positioned with the firearm at the console area of a car to fire in .15 to .25 seconds. In another car stop experiment, an assailant was able to bring up their weapon and fire on an approaching officer in under a half-second, while it took officers from 1.3 to 3 seconds to respond and fire.

The ultimate observation is that it always takes more time to react than to be the first actor. When officers are criticized for having a weapon out and ready in tense situations, shooting an unarmed person, or failing to de-escalate an aggressive ambush attacker, the critics are willfully choosing to ignore how the human brain works, the limits of human performance, and the laws of physics.

What prosecutors, judges, jurors, investigators, and the critics on Facebook need is more scientific knowledge and less Monday morning quarterbacking.