College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

School of Education Faculty Receives Grant in Support of Multidisciplinary Project Focusing on Law Enforcement Officer Decision-Making in High Stress Conditions

February 23, 2024

Stephanie Dailey
Stephanie Dailey

Stephanie Dailey, assistant professor in the Counseling program within the School of Education at George Mason University, in collaboration with the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute (HSSEDI), a federally funded research and development center at the MITRE Corporation, is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) to examine ways in which high stress conditions may influence law enforcement officer decision-making and utilization of equitable policing strategies. Dr. Dailey’s project represents a multidisciplinary, multi-year effort that includes collaboration with faculty in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society in Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences and researchers in Mason’s School of Engineering.

Research Project Includes Partnership with MITRE Corporation

Conducted in partnership with the MITRE Corporation, the study is nearing completion of its current year-long phase and involves law enforcement officers who have been participating in a series of experiments where immersive virtual reality is used to simulate a high-stress encounter with a subject (as portrayed by an avatar), exhibiting various social and behavioral characteristics.

The subject avatars vary throughout the experiment in dress, skin tone, compliant or non-compliant behaviors, and whether they are armed or unarmed. In response to a rapid sequence of simulated scenarios in which the suspect displays different combinations of these controlled variables, officers volunteering for this study are required to make quick decisions on how to respond to the subject. The simulated scenes mirror real life situations in which officers could find themselves.

Assistant Professor Stephanie Dailey Explains How Bias Can Lead to Faulty Assumptions in Officer Decision-Making

In discussing her research, Dr. Dailey explained that by examining an officer’s use of force decision-making, it allows for a better understanding of the circumstances in which officers use different levels of force. Specifically, circumstances in which officers are more likely to react in a way that is not commensurate with the situation or threat level at hand. She noted, “We all have biases. Anytime we are navigating the world, we are operating off a series of cognitive shortcuts or mechanisms that support rapid decision-making, such as, ‘don’t touch a hot stove!’ But sometimes, the cognitive shortcuts we use are based upon faulty assumptions. Having officers repeatedly go through different simulated scenarios helps us isolate what factors may influence officer decision-making.”

Dailey provided several examples of how the behavioral cues displayed by the subjects in the simulated experiments are manipulated in isolation or in combination with other characteristics thus giving researchers the opportunity to observe the officer’s reactions under different scenarios. “The officer may encounter a suspect who has their hand in their pocket and who then pulls out a cell phone or perhaps a gun. Or the suspect could be verbally combative with the officer,” she explained. Other scenarios could include a dark-toned subject in street attire who is not combative and does not have a weapon or a light-toned subject, in business attire, who is combative, and has a weapon. Dailey notes that the combination of these variables is randomized and determined by algorithms designed to identify factors that may merit further investigation in subsequent runs of the simulated experiments. “We look at different combinations of factors and see where there are statistically significant variations in the decisions made by an officer on how to interact with the subject, including use of force decisions,” Dailey stated. She added that the officer’s use of force is based upon a continuum and not limited to discharging a service weapon but could include verbal commands, soft hand controls, using a taser, attempts at physical restraint, or other non-lethal actions.

Next Phase of the Project will Focus on the Impact of Equitable Policing Training on Officer Well-being and Community Safety

With the current phase of this research project ending, the next stage will center on the impact of training supporting equitable policing. Researchers will survey law enforcement officers who have had this training to investigate if it has positively impacted officer behaviors and well-being in the field. In discussing this next phase of the study, Dailey emphasized the importance of being proactive in ensuring that law enforcement officers are well equipped to make good decisions not only in the moment when faced with a threat, but to be prepared even before a threat presents itself. This can enhance the protection and safety of both the officer and the community.

She elaborated on this concept, “The idea is to provide recommendations for these trainings and to help law enforcement agencies understand what part of equitable policing training is most helpful for officers. The primary focus of this training is self-awareness, de-escalation skills, and procedural justice,” Dailey stated. The research team will examine whether there are specific aspects of this training that are especially beneficial in enhancing an officer’s ability to respond to a high stress situation in a way that protects the safety and well-being of the community.

Dailey concluded her remarks, “If my main goal is to help communities that are impacted by police violence, then the best place to start is with the decision-making of officers. As a researcher, I am just trying to support safer and more just communities by helping officers make informed decisions.”

To learn more about degree offerings in Mason’s Counseling program, please visit the program website.