Baltimore police recruits receive cognitive training to better handle stress

Baltimore Police recruits trained in mental exercise to process stressful situations

The Baltimore Police Department has hired a cognitive neuroscientist to train new recruits in a repetitive mental exercise intended to improve their performance in stressful situations and prevent them from making split-second decisions based on their own implicit biases — all with the hope of improving their interactions with the public.

Thirty-six recruits who started at the department's academy in January and began patroling this month are the first in the nation to be trained in the full "Cognitive Command" or "C2" curriculum developed by Jonathan Page, a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who has made a career of studying brain functioning under stress and the implications of those processes for law enforcement.

The training has been piloted elsewhere and proved successful in clinical trials, with trained officers remaining calmer and remembering more details from simulated crime scenes than their untrained peers, according to Page. He is looking to roll out the curriculum nationwide, and is set to begin training officers in the Seattle area soon.

But the Baltimore Police Department — which has admitted to having a strained relationship with local community after years of controversial stop-and-frisk policing methods, a raft of police brutality claims and the fallout from Freddie Gray's arrest and death from injuries sustained in police custody in April — is the first to fully adopt Page's playbook, under a two-year contract with Page.

Police said the contract came with a nominal fee of $1 per year. Page said the contract covered his costs. It was unclear late Monday how both could be true.

At the core of the training are six words the recruits are encouraged to run through their minds both on the job and off, while out on patrol or cruising the grocery aisle: breathe, scan, cover, threat, distance, escape. Being conditioned to regularly think through the list — remembering to breathe to keep your heart rate down, scan surroundings for context or potential victims, assess threats and plan escape routes ahead of time — can help officers avoid some of the dangers and pitfalls of stressful situations, Page said, such as tunnel vision, the distortion of time and not hearing someone screaming at you from feet away.

"The words that were developed are just a way to kind of create an architecture in the brain to help you see and understand situations, take in information very rapidly," Page said Monday at the department's Professional Development and Training Academy on Northern Parkway. "Part of that is emotional training, emotional intelligence; part of it is looking at biases."

"When we slow situations down, they are better able to make proper thought decisions and handle situations in an effective manner," said Paul Banach, the academy's director since June 2014. "When they recognize how stress affects them and how situations affect them, they're not just going to jump the gun and say, 'Well, there's a person of color, there's a person dressed a certain way, I have to automatically address them in a certain way.' They are going to evaluate the situation first."

Baltimore police officers already receive training in community relations and de-escalation measures, but Page said the new training will help them remember those other techniques in situations where stress could otherwise push them out of focus. While it is restricted to new recruits for now, it could be provided to veteran officers as a way to organize the techniques they have developed through experience to manage stress.

Recruits on Monday said the training was beneficial.

"Police officers have to make split-second decisions, so this is kind of a good way to understand the situation enough to go ahead and do what you believe would be the best option at the time," said Officer Trainee Andrew Definbaugh, one of the 36 recruits who has been working for the last three weeks in the Northern District.

Applying the techniques has led him to think more deeply about where people are coming from in tense situations, he said. For example, a person who seems "angry and agitated" could just need help, he said.

"Now I'm not going with those preconceived notions of what I see immediately. I'm trying to understand the situaton," Definbaugh said. "And I owe it to the community to try to understand what they are going through before making my judgement on what it is."

As part of standard training given to all recruits, the 36 who also received the C2 training have been put through controlled scenarios in which they are confronted with different situations they might encounter in the field on a large projection screen at the academy. Like all recruits, they have been judged on their responses by supervisors.

Moving forward, Page said he will compare the results of the C2-trained officers — who are stationed all across the city — with officers who never received the training to see if there is an identifiable improvement in their scores. He will also review how the different groups perform in the longer term based on factors such as how often they use force or are injured, he said.

"As I hear more things from you it gives us more ideas of what we should be researching, how we should look at this, so we can keep on improving it," Page told the recruits Monday. "What we learn from you guys is going to affect not only this police academy but other police academies."

krector@baltsun.com

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