The adaptable law enforcement officer: Developing a measure of adaptive effectiveness

The ability to adapt to changing situations is vital for law enforcement officers who are charged with the objective of establishing contact and building relationships with sources in criminal environments (i.e. covert law enforcement). Not only do these officers have to maintain a guise of adhering to criminal conduct, but they also have to react fittingly to novel and uncertain situational demands.

Consider, for example, the following situations:

  1. When a police handler is to meet his source in secret, but the source decides to bring a friend along.
  2. When an undercover officer is invited to a private party, but the festivity turns into the planning of a crime.

In order to maintain a credible guise while also maintaining the mission objective (e.g. to avoid participating in the criminal activity while upholding status in the group), these situations require an adaptive response from the officer.

This project aims to develop a behavioural measure of adaptability relevant for police contexts. To examine adaptive behaviour, we have developed a novel experimental set-up inspired by observations of the training at the Los Angeles Police Department.

Experiment 1 – University students will take the role of an ‘agent’ that has to complete three ‘undercover missions’. Adaptive behaviour will be elicited by three features: a goal, an expectation, and a violation of that expectation. This violation creates a novel or unexpected situation that participants must adapt to in order to attain their mission objective. Adaptability will be measured as the adjustments made in response to the changing situational demand.

Experiment 2 – This will be a vignette study to examine perceptions of the adaptive responses. A sample of practitioners with relevant experiences will watch a number of video recordings of adaptive responses from Experiment 1 and rate the efficacy in attaining mission objectives.

This research has the potential to substantially impact practice. Our contacts in police units in both the US and the Netherlands confirm the importance of adaptive skill in the safety and security domain. They have expressed great interest in the development of a behavioural measure of adaptability and a better understanding of the role of adaptation in goal achievement, with the ultimate aim of training adaptive skill in a more systematic fashion.

The proposed research may also have a considerable academic impact. Adaptability is a construct that is relevant in many psychological disciplines, such as educational psychology, environmental psychology, and decision-making. Hence, establishing a novel dependent measure of behavioural adaptability would also be a well-received contribution in other psychology domains.

Project resources

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