IN LIFE-THREATENING situations, armed police must make critical decisions in a matter of seconds.

With guns, Tasers, stun grenades and a wealth of tactics at their disposal, it is the men and women on the frontline who turn the volatile, hostile and unpredictable into a meticulously orchestrated operation.

Their job depends on making split decisions and making the right decisions under extreme stress, solely to protect the public from harm. Our police forces officers carry huge responsibilities, where optimal decision making is expected in the face of immediate danger.

And with the variety of scenarios and threats ever increasing, scientists are keen to investigate just how these choices are made by authorised firearms police officers (AFOs).

Research is currently being carried out by neuroscientists working with 24 Cleveland and Durham Police AFOs over a 12-week period. Based at the Police and Tactical Training Centre hidden away in Urlay Nook, near Eaglescliffe, these officers are taking part in experiments melding the practical world of policing with the academic theory of brain science.

“Like many officers, I was always interested in training, improving performance and protecting the public, and I originally trained before the police as a scientist,” said Shaun Beebe, retired chief superintendent of Nottinghamshire Police and current head of operations for the Faculty of Science and School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham.

“I was always intrigued how our officers, who are members of the public, make decisions day in, day out, how does the brain work, what’s behind it.

“When I retired from the police, I went to the University of Nottingham – which is the home of the MRI in the UK and brain-imaging equipment and studies.

“I guess I put two and two together and thought wouldn’t it be fascinating to use those cutting-edge techniques to try and understand how we all make decisions and particularly police officers, who make those decisions under at times, really difficult circumstances and extreme stress.”

Mr Beebe’s vision saw him working with Klaus Kessler, professor of cognitive neuroscience, and post-doctoral researcher Nick Alexander of Aston University, who devised an experiment to measure the brainwaves connected to decision making.

The investigation uses EEG equipment and high stress scenarios in virtual reality to test the brain’s choices when using Tasers and firearms. The results of the study could help inform the way all firearms police officers are trained in the future.

AFOs wear a 64-electrode cap and virtual reality headset to transport them to a virtual back alley or open space, where a man is acting suspiciously. He can be seen carrying a gun, knife or a drinks can and it is up to the officer if and when to draw their gun, Taser or not react.

Prof Kessler said: “Eventually, we want more complex scenarios where we can use a whole house or an underground station so it can be moved from policing to terrorist scenarios. This is the ‘end game’ so-to-speak, but for now, we want to understand what the brain signatures are of decision making.

“We have already identified the ‘usual suspects’ of what you would expect in terms of decision making that we’ve gleaned from laboratory experiments – which are much more boring than the VR experiments we’re doing now.”

“We haven’t done the final analysis yet, but the response times of police officers are faster. We have indications that the training pays off and we expect with the more complex scenarios these differences will become even stronger and when we do stress manipulations to really stress people out then there will be an even bigger difference.”

He added: “The next stage is that we would like to develop the virtual reality scenarios to make them more complex.

“It’s always balanced with the sheer amount of information and data that the experiments develop that have to be analysed, because the human brain is so powerful and is such a complex organ for us to understand.”

Around one quarter of Cleveland and Durham Police AFOs have so far taken part in the experiments, at the Urlay Nook base, alongside more traditional practical training exercises.

Durham Police Assistant Chief Constable Dave Orford said: “It is important to remember that those police officers who carry firearms are all volunteers, who we ask to put themselves in danger to protect the public.

“Often, they do so in circumstances where they are working with little or contradictory information and their split-second decisions can be unpicked and analysed over years to come.

“The vast majority of the time, officers get it right and save many, many lives. But there are times when the decisions they take could be hard to understand for someone who has never been subject to that level of stress.

“This research will help us to better understand how firearms officers make the decisions they make and it will hopefully help them make better decisions in future, which will, in turn, save more lives in years to come.”