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How police officers perform in encounters with the public: Measuring what matters at the individual level

Bryan Vila (Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University, Spokane, Washington, USA)
Stephen James (Sleep & Performance Research Center, Washington State University, Spokane, Washington, USA)
Lois James (College of Nursing, Washington State University, Spokane, Washington, USA)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 9 April 2018




The purpose of this paper is to develop and describe the implementation of a novel method for creating interval-level metrics for objectively assessing police officer behaviors during an encounter with the public. These behaviors constitute officer performance and affect the probability of desirable encounter outcomes. The metrics measure concrete, micro-level performance in the common types of complex, dynamic, and low-information police-public encounters that often require immediate action using “naturalistic” decision making. Difficulty metrics also were developed to control for situational variability. The utility of measuring what officers do vs probabilistic outcomes is explored with regard to informing policymaking, field practice, and training.


Metric sets were developed separately for three types of police-public encounters: deadly force judgment and decision making, cross-cultural tactical social interaction, and crisis intervention. In each, “reverse concept mapping” was used with a different diverse focus group of “true experts” to authoritatively deconstruct implicit concepts and derive important variables. Variables then were scaled with Thurstone’s method using 198 diverse expert trainers to create interval-level metrics for performance and situational difficulty. Metric utility was explored during two experimental laboratory studies and in response to a problematic police encounter.


Objective, interval-level metric sets were developed for measuring micro-level police performance and encounter difficulty. Validation and further refinement are required.

Research limitations/implications

This novel method provides a practical way to rapidly develop metrics that measure micro-level performance during police-public encounters much more precisely than was previously possible.


The metrics developed provide a foundation for measuring officers’ performance as they exercise discretion, engage people, and affect perceptions of police legitimacy.



The authors have no conflicts of interest to report. Funding from the following organizations supported this research. However, the information reported here and the conclusions and opinions offered are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the funding agencies and organizations’ policies, practices, or opinions:

  • “Developing a Common Metric for Evaluating Police Performance in Deadly Force Situations,” National Institute of Justice (Grant No. 2008-IJ-CX-0015).

  • “Critical Job Tasks Simulation Laboratory Expansion for WSU Sleep & Performance Research Center.” Office of Naval Research (Grant No. N000140810802).

  • “Impact of Work-Shift Related Fatigue on DFJDM, Driving, Cognition, and TSI Performance.” Office of Naval Research (Grant No. N000141110185).

  • “Empowering the Strategic Corporal: Training Young Warfighters to be Socially Adept with Strangers in Any Culture.” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Grant No. W911NF-12-0039).

  • “Developing Objective Interval-Level Metrics to Measure the Effectiveness of CIT Training.” Spokane (Wash) Police Department (Contract No. OPR 2013-20130455).

  • “Study on the Impact of Work-Shift Related Fatigue on DFJDM.” Department of Defense, Domestic Preparedness Support Initiative, via Renaissance Sciences Corp. (subcontract no. CBSC-061615-1 on prime NAVAIR Contract No. N61340-11-D-0003).

  • “Analyzing Novel Experimental Research Data to Better Understand and Manage Fatigue Across the Range of Military Settings.” Office of Naval Research (Grant No. N000141512470).

The authors acknowledge the active participation of Lauren B. Waggoner during the DFJDM metric development process, and Elizabeth J. Dotson with scoring scenarios and writing assistance. Cynthia L. Morris provided invaluable critical advice. The authors also acknowledge the scores of colleagues, students and outside experts who advised and assisted in the DFJDM, TSI, and CIT projects and regret that there is not enough room to name them here. The authors are deeply grateful to the true experts who participated in our scale-development processes and to the more than 1,000 police trainers from across the USA who scored the scales.


Vila, B., James, S. and James, L. (2018), "How police officers perform in encounters with the public: Measuring what matters at the individual level", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 41 No. 2, pp. 215-232.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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