Violence Fatigue in Policing
By Meredith Krause, Ph.D. for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin – December 2012
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and a willingness to act in its defense.–George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State
In the decade since 9/11, terrorism has entered the information age to challenge the work of first responders, police managers, and decision makers. The attacks raised fundamental questions about America’s safety and resulted in a renewed focus on domestic security. In turn it fostered an emphasis on proactive and preventive, rather than reactive, strategies to combat terrorist threats.
The absence of a subsequent major attack on U.S. soil over the past decade has contributed to a renewed sense of security. However, the emergence of competing crises, like the global economic crisis and domestic recession, has brought about a re-examination of the sustainability, credibility, and utility of many post-9/11 security strategies. While this effort has attempted to balance security needs with the limitations posed by budgets, legal requirements, public support, and threats to U.S. interests, it has overlooked a critical risk to effective threat analysis and management. This phenomenon is described best as “vigilance fatigue,” or the failure to accurately perceive, identify, or analyze bona fide threats due to 1) prolonged exposure to ambiguous, unspecified, and ubiquitous threat information; 2) information overload; 3) overwhelming pressure to maintain exceptional, error-free performance; and 4) faulty strategies for structuring informed decision making under conditions of uncertainty and stress.1
Defining the Concept
Vigilance fatigue threatens persons and organizations tasked with processing large amounts of data, identifying risks or irregularities, and responding to perceived threats. A comprehensive review of medical, law enforcement, and business literature reveals only passing acknowledgements of this concept. The few existing references associate vigilance fatigue with errors in decision making due to physical fatigue or “change blindness,” described as a failure to recognize data changes because of continual scanning by eye.2 While the concept of vigilance fatigue proves worthy of further development, its complexity and relevance to policing, intelligence, and military operations have yet to be explored.
A full definition of vigilance fatigue must consider an array of closely associated skills, abilities, and behaviors, all of which contribute to a capacity for sustained vigilance in dynamic environments. This recognizes the ways in which attention, situational awareness, and decision-making processes affect the concept’s functionality. These attentional resources include capacity for selective attention and alternating attention, often limited by working memory abilities and the presence of distractions. A model of sustained vigilance (Figure 1) also points to the ways in which cognitive biases and reliance upon heuristics may degrade vigilance and jeopardize accurate threat detection and assessment, especially when someone faces excessive or questionable information.3
Describing and Understanding Vigilance Fatigue
A range of factors contribute to a person’s immunity to vigilance fatigue. These include the issues or aspects unique to the individual engaged in monitoring, the context in which this undertaking occurs, and the nature of the task itself. Based on a review of research in the areas of cognitive psychology, social psychology and group dynamics, decision making and risk assessment, signal detection theory, and human ergonomics, Figure 2 summarizes the factors that may foster vigilance fatigue.
The range of factors included in Figure 2 illustrates the complex interaction between a person’s cognitive style, emotional functioning, physical status, professional expertise, and coping skills. Basic physical requirements, such as rest and alertness, emerge as the core foundation on which more nuanced factors meet. Cognitive style, decision making approaches, and subject matter experience interact with person/job variables, like engagement and satisfaction, to provide an ideal level of vigilance. Research has demonstrated the adverse impact of fatigue on alertness and threat detection, memory function, cognitive capacity and accuracy of individuals and teams, reaction times, and occupational performance and safety.4
These adverse impacts are most apparent during the first two to three days of sleep deprivation. This finding has clear implications for law enforcement personnel assigned to rotating shift work.5 While research has confirmed the detrimental nature that sleeplessness and fatigue pose to vigilance, other researchers have emphasized the role of cognitive underarousal (boredom) or overarousal (overload) in contributing to lapses in attention and performance.6 Additional research has pointed to monotony as contributing to impaired vigilance, independent of the effects of fatigue and time on a task.7
Extended task duration can worsen the effects of monotony on vigilance fatigue. It reduces attention, vigilance, and accuracy while simultaneously increasing perceived workload, subjective stress, and task disengagement.8 Other research has confirmed the role of chronic and acute stress, including professional burnout, in disrupting perception (e.g., tunnel vision), reducing reaction time, impairing memory, and degrading logical reasoning.9
Alternative explanations for degraded vigilance have focused on the role of cognitive heuristics in leading to faulty conclusions, especially in the face of the overwhelming amounts of data, conflicting information, or novel data characteristic of police investigations and intelligence analysis.10 This impact may be complicated further by individuals’ tolerance for risk and decision-making error, as well as their desire to avoid the criticism, scrutiny, guilt, or embarrassment associated with faulty judgment.11 Together with complacency, professional entrenchment, and isolation from dissenting opinions, these dynamics may lead to selective attention to data, overinflated confidence in its quality, and flawed decision making based on it.12
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