BYU chemistry professor trains police on critical thinking

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An undercover Provo Police officer protectively wields his weapon and crouches in a virtual scenario involving an armed, hostile man sitting in a truck. BYU professor Brian Woodfield plans to expand his training to include the VIRTRA 300 training system police use to prepare for real-life situations. (Jessica Olsen)

Provo Police Chief John King never planned on partnering with a chemistry professor to teach critical thinking courses. That is, until BYU’s Brian Woodfield approached King and asked if Woodfield could train Provo City Police.

The idea first came after Woodfield created virtual labs for his chemistry students at BYU, using highly sophisticated graphics that allowed students to participate in experiments and make mistakes without losing hours of work, as would happen in a real lab.

Woodfield, in the process of creating his virtual lab, learned how to teach critical thinking to his students. He is on the Provo Citizen’s Advisory Board, an organization which seeks to bring police and citizens together to discuss issues and make improvements. As part of his participation in this organization, Woodfield decided to approach King with this unique idea.

Woodfield explained that principles relating to “game world” from the virtual lab gave him the basis for the police training. Principles like “game challenge,” or the goal of a game, and “fear of failure,” or the cost of making a mistake in the game, were some of the influential concepts shaping Woodfield’s training.

The chemistry professor offered to teach these principles to the police, and King said yes.

Woodfield emphasized the need for officers to adapt to their surroundings. Based on Woodfield’s training, King wrote down a mental checklist he goes through when he gets a dispatch.

Create a mental model

The mental model is the initial information given to an officer through a dispatch or call. Woodfield said officers should come in with a mental model of the situation.

Think of a specific goal

Woodfield trains police to focus on going into a scene with a specific goal and to avoid simply reacting to the situation. King said the goal is simply to stop any threat and create peace.

Evaluate and adapt

King said when police respond to a 9-1-1 call, they are given a specific set of facts. Officers need to go into the situation, King said, aware they are receiving only one person’s perception of the crisis. Officers may need to adjust to new facts as they come.

Analyze what tools are available

These tools include more than just what’s on a police officer’s tool belt. The tools available also encompass the communication skills of an officer or an officer’s physical presence. If use of force is needed, police officers have a host of nonlethal tools available to them besides a gun, including a baton or Taser.

Both Woodfield and King emphasized the need for officers to know their strengths and weaknesses. King gave an example by painting a scenario of a police officer receiving a domestic violence call.

“If you know personally that you’re not the best communicator or negotiator, you can call another officer to the scene that you know really has interpersonal skills,” King said. “So it’s not just the physical tools, it’s the verbal skills and skill sets they have available.”

Recognize the cost of failure

Woodfield related the cost of failure concept to playing Monopoly. At the beginning, cost of failure is small and people want to get around the board as quickly as possible to buy up land. Near the end of the game, the cost of landing on a property is much higher, and players are wary of moving around the board quickly, sometimes preferring to be in the game’s jail.

“You’re naturally changing your strategy to problem solving in games based on the cost of making a mistake,” Woodfield said.

King said police officers who recognize the cost of failure — the cost of using force that could seriously injure someone, hurt the officer’s reputation and incite criminal charges on the officer — will be more wary of making rash decisions.

“If the reward is high and the risk is high, well you ask, ‘How do I mitigate this risk?'” Woodfield said. “Acknowledge what the risks are, what the rewards are, what the goals are and then the best tools for the situation become obvious.”

Slowing the process

Senior police officer Nisha King, who attended one of Woodfield’s police training classes, said the training was helpful because it reminded John King to slow the process of policing.

“Slow it down, slow things down, analyze the data before you make a decision,” Nisha King said.

John King said the checklist is just one way to slow down the process because it keeps individuals from merely reacting; it causes them to instead analyze the data and make an informed decision.

This critical thinking model extends beyond the chemistry classroom and police training by preparing individuals for a non-formulaic world, according to Woodfield.

Woodfield will expand the class to include Provo’s 3-D virtual training facility, which involves a room completely surrounded by screens projecting scenarios for police respond to. This training facility is usually used for target practice or tactics, but Woodfield plans on creating a decision tree for the officers.

This new model is meant to create a “safe environment” for critical thinking, just like the one Woodfield offers for his chemistry students in his virtual lab.

Both Woodfield and John King expressed their desire to create a legitimate, academic study to show the positive effect of this training on officers. John King said he hopes to expand the model.

“Right now, anecdotally, this model makes sense,” John King said. “We would like to have research to show that so we can expand this training and have more police agencies use this as a model for critical decision making.”

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