In a recent study, Bill Lewinski and Joan Vickers examined how elite and rookie police officers reacted — and where they were looking — during a simulated conflict:
The elite ERT officers strongly out-performed the rookies:
First of all, the ERT spent significantly less time assessing the situation before drawing their gun. On whole, they drew “well before the assailant began his pivot,” Vickers reports. Most drew early and “held [their gun] at chest level before aiming.” The rookies tended to delay drawing until about a second after his turn.
The ERT shot before the assailant got his round off 92.5% of the time, beating him by an average of nearly 180 milliseconds (ms). The rookies shot first only about 42% of the time and on average lagged behind the attacker by more than 13 ms. Responding “very poorly,” the study says, the rookies essentially “reacted to his attack, rather than being ahead of him as were the ERT during every phase of the encounter.”
The ERT hit the assailant nearly 75% of the time, compared to about 54% — “slightly more than chance” — for the recently trained rookies. ERT hits were in the upper torso (center mass) 62% of the time, versus about 48% for the rookies.
In more than 60% of their trials, rookies fired when the assailant brandished a cell phone instead of a gun, compared to only about 18% for the ERT.
The researchers tabulated fixations (when an officer’s gaze was stable on an object or location within a 3-degree visual angle for 100 ms or longer) and saccades (when the eyes moved rapidly from 1 fixed location to another for at least 66.66 ms) and made these discoveries:
The ERT officers tended to use fixations of only short duration early in the encounter, during their initial assessment and as the suspect began to pivot toward them. Then they used longer-duration fixations as they aimed and fired. “They needed less time to ‘read’ critical cues” and acquire external feedback information that “allowed them to prepare their shooting movements in advance and prevail over the assailant,” the researchers explain. Thus the ERT “were ahead of the assailant in terms of their motor phases and gaze control across all phases of the encounter.”
“The rookies used an opposite strategy and had long-duration fixations at the outset and shorter durations as they aimed and fired.” In effect, “the rookies were behind” the suspect’s actions and were “caught by surprise.” They “used a reactive strategy where they acquired information at the last moment, which was inadequate both in terms of its content and timing for the extreme demands of the encounter.”
“The ERT had a higher frequency of fixations than the rookies in all phases [of the scenario] except the aim/fire phase, when the ERT had fewer fixations to fewer locations than the rookies, indicative of greater focus and concentration as they aimed and fired.”
The ERT increasingly directed their attention to the suspect’s gun hand/arm as the scenario evolved. “They increased the percent of fixations to this location from 21% in the assessment and early pivot phases to 71% during the final 2 seconds. On hits, the ERT directed 86% of their final fixations to this one location, revealing a remarkable degree of focus and concentration under fire.” And, the study explains, they had time for a final, undisturbed period of super-concentration that Vicker’s calls “the quiet eye,” which has been linked with high performance across many different genres of athletics. In this, their eye remained settled on a defined target location through trigger pull.
“The rookies did not show the same funneling of their attention to the assailant’s gun hand/arm,” the study points out. Early on, similar to the ERT, they concentrated a minority of their fixations there. But at the time the suspect aimed and fired, only 33% of the rookies’ fixations were directed there, a modest and inadequate increase. And whatever quiet-eye time they exhibited was significantly lower.
Perhaps most startling, the officers’ last abrupt shift of gaze before firing was found to be radically different between the 2 groups.
The rookie’s final saccade, especially among those who missed when they fired, “occurred at the same time they tried to fixate the target and aim,” the study reveals. At that critical moment in the last 500 ms, the rookies in a staggering 82% of their tests took their eyes off the assailant and attempted to look at their own gun, trying to find or confirm sight alignment as they aimed. “This pulled them out of the gunfight for what turned out to be a significant period of time,” Lewinski says. Vickers adds: “On a high percentage of their shots, the rookies did not see the assailant as they fired,” contributing to inaccurate shooting and the misjudgment of the cell phone as a threat.
About 30% of the ERT also looked at their gun, but their timing was different. Most of those gaze-shifts occurred before the officers aimed, “followed by the onset of their aim and fixation on the target and firing.”
The researchers pose the possibility that the rookies’ training may have contributed to their poor performance. They were taught pistolcraft “similar to how most police officers first learn to shoot a handgun: to focus first on the rear sight, then on the front sight, and finally on the target, aligning all 3 before pulling the trigger.”
“This is a very time-consuming process and one that was not successful in this study,” Vickers says.
Somewhere across their training, practice, and experience, the successful ERT officers had learned what essentially is a reverse process: Their immediate and predominate focus is on the weapon carried by their attacker. With their gaze concentrated there, they bring their gun up to their line of sight and catch their sights only in their peripheral vision, a subtle “sight glimpse,” as Lewinski terms it. “They have an unconscious kinesthetic sense to know that their gun is up and positioned properly,” he says. “This is a focus strategy that Olympic shooters use,” says Vickers, “and it is simpler, faster, and more effective.”
As the assailant’s actual attack got underway, the elite officers were zeroed in on a “weapons focus.” That is, the ERT officers’ “fixations were not directed to the assailant’s centre of mass as he pivoted and fired, but to the weapon itself, which he held away from his body until the moment he fired. The ERT tracked the weapon as soon as it was visible, using a series of fixations. Because he was moving rapidly, it was only during the last few milliseconds that his centre mass presented a viable target.”
“This intense attentiveness to the weapon can have memory implications later on,” Lewinski explains. “Now we have an empirical study showing why an officer who survives a gunfight may be unable to identify a perpetrator’s face or recall other important details proximate to the shooting, such as the body position or turning action of the subject.”
The researchers do not endorse point-shooting, but that’s pretty clearly what the “elite” shooters were doing.
A competitive three-gun shooter who used to race cars has this to add:
When I was still racing (NHRA and NASCAR) I had my visual focus tested as part of a study, and I think it is relevant. The majority of the drivers in the upper ranks had what the researcher called “advanced edge focus”. In essence, it was the ability to shift the brain focus without shifting the eye focus. For instance, in drag racing, the ability to co-ordinate the foot/hands with three visual points (the finish line, christmas tree and tach) and consistently cut a light with a spread of no more than 0.1 seconds was associated with the drivers who had this edge focus ability. The same in NASCAR was the ability to focus on your line while also mentally collecting the information from the surrounding cars. This translated into fewer wrecks for the drivers with this ability.
The testing has advanced and if you go read the articles on “Quiet Eye” (most of it is related to golf and baseball) you will find some similarities. I have been playing with catching the edge of the target in the peripheral (mental focus) while maintaining visual front sight focus and it seems to be helping. Some people just seem to have these skills (don’t know if is natrral or taught), but the research is looking like it can be learned.
When I was deciding what to be when I grow up in my 20s, I took some military tests and one of the recruiters, after my eye test got very excited and tried to get me to sign. He told me that very few people could shift from left to right eye focus on command and even fewer still could focus on a point at distance and perceive basic shapes in the peripheral. I was stupid and thought he was jerking my chain to get me in, but in hind sight it probably would have been good for me.