Human Factors in Law Enforcement Leadership

By Darius H. Bone, M.A., Anthony H. Normore, Ph.D, and Mitch Javidi, Ph.D.
A police officer stands outside his vehicle in a city.

The discipline of human factors focuses on understanding the interactions among people and other elements of a system; it applies theory, principles, data, and methods to help optimize employee well-being and overall agency performance.1 The specific workplace elements involved include the environmental, organizational, and individual characteristics that influence behavior.

Pertaining to law enforcement, a focus on human factors can help substantially increase officer and civic safety, create closer ties between police agencies and the public, and enhance community leadership. Such a focus can be accomplished through an agency’s commitment to continually seek improved training and threat- and error-management systems.

Current research emphasizes the need for a proactive, credible response to human error within an organization.2 Perhaps highly functioning agencies are distinguished most by their preoccupation with the possibility of failure.3 They expect errors and train their workforce to recognize and recover from them. These agencies continually rehearse familiar scenarios of failures and strive to imagine new ones.4 Instead of isolating mistakes, they generalize them. Rather than making local repairs, they look for system reforms.


Lieutenant Bone
Lieutenant Bone serves with the Los Angeles, California, Police Department and is an adjuct instructor at East Los Angeles College and the Police Academy at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
Dr. Normore
Dr. Normore is a professor and chair of educational leadership and graduate education at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Dr. Javidi
Dr. Javidi is the cofounder of two private firms focused on public safety training and development in Holly Springs, North Carolina.

Law enforcement leaders should challenge themselves and their employees to increase safety margins by focusing on human factors. By doing so, they will improve proactive communication at their level of influence and develop an organizational culture that values safety and wellness.

Officers engaged in critical activities in which they risk serious injury or death will benefit from recognizing how human performance relates to their jobs. From the probationary officer to the tenured executive, they can make their jobs safer and help protect their colleagues and the community.

Agencies immediately can incorporate some basic human factors concepts. Hopefully, police leaders will continue studying the subject to foster a culture of collaboration between law enforcement at all levels with public and private entities to achieve the common goals of safety and communication. Doing so will help build community trust and improve public perception.


Leaders must identify and mitigate elements that link law enforcement tasks with complaints, litigation, loss of community trust and support, internal cynicism, damage to equipment and resources, injuries, deaths, riots, and catastrophes.5 They need to consider how the brain interacts with the body and decision-making abilities during stressful incidents.

Particular attention must focus on understanding how officers perform under stress and making thoughtful adjustments to certain critical activities to make their jobs safer. Personnel at all levels of the organization, regardless of rank, must be actively involved. The synergy that develops has potential and can help grow individual leadership skills and improved communication.

Research encourages a focus on human factors and risk-management strategies.6 Law enforcement leaders have important reasons for accepting these measures to proactively mitigate causal factors.

  • Personnel routinely make critical decisions.
  • Officers can understand their capabilities and limitations better.
  • Leaders owe it to their frontline personnel to keep them as safe as possible.
  • Officers and their departments can educate citizens further about use-of-force policies and practices.
  • Agencies can improve communication with the public by proactively humanizing officers and develop reciprocal respect intended to bolster mutual trust and appreciation.
  • Officers can respond more effectively to critical incidents.
  • Recent protests have demonstrated a gap in public understanding of policies concerning use-of-force. By offering general explanations and optimizing human factors, agencies can help citizens become better informed and see officers as human beings, rather than robotic enforcers-of-the-law.
  • Costs and lawsuits, especially those concerning critical incidents, associated with law enforcement must be mitigated through continued improvements.
  • Research has indicated that highly functioning organizations that deal with around-the-clock shift work involving considerable risks have done an impeccable job reducing injury, death, and liability by focusing on human factors.7


A critical focus for agencies is the importance of officers’ well-being. To this end, several areas come into focus: physical conditioning, fatigue, and stress.

Physical Conditioning

Agencies must have a strong commitment to physical fitness.8 Officers have a physically and mentally demanding job that at times is life threatening, and departments need to make protecting the health of their personnel a priority.

Leaders actively should model and encourage wellness. Likewise, if officers appreciate the challenges their job entails, they will embrace the importance of physical fitness. They must remain vigilant not to allow complacency—a common human characteristic—to lead to their demise.

Physical fitness combined with confidence in their abilities and command presence will help officers avoid harm caused by suspects. To this end, law enforcement personnel on the frontline must take an honest self-assessment of their fitness level and make positive and realistic changes when necessary.9 Officers who have poor physical fitness should seek help in achieving optimal health. They must believe they will get healthier, rather than think it is too late. Positive thoughts lead to positive action.


A common health and safety concern for all law enforcement officers, fatigue is characterized by increased discomfort, lessened capacity for work, reduced efficiency, and loss of power or capacity to respond to stimulation and usually is accompanied by a feeling of tiredness.10 Overtime, special-duty assignments, secondary employment, and shift work contribute to fatigue.

Managers in many occupations recognize the negative effect of fatigue on safety, health, and performance and minimize the impact by restricting duty hours. Likewise, the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that all law enforcement agencies provide training and adopt policies to minimize the effects of fatigue on officers prior to and during their duty assignments.11

Fatigue can lead to performance consequences, such as impaired driving (including traveling home after work), microsleep, hampered decision making, mood changes, and diminished motor skills.12 Research has shown that remaining awake for 20 to 25 hours reduces performance to resemble that of someone with a 0.10 blood alcohol content.13 If not controlled sleep deprivation and fatigue experienced over long periods of time can lead to a multitude of health and performance consequences, such as diabetes, cognitive impairment, irritability, memory lapses, weight gain, heart disease, increased reaction time, decreased accuracy, impaired moral judgment, and hallucinations.14


Officers can experience high levels of stress during critical incidents.15 During such situations the brain experiences the phenomenon known as “fight-or-flight,” when overwhelmed people can completely shut down or panic. Due to dramatic changes in hormones released by the body to initiate a fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat, human beings experience psychological and physiological changes that they have little or no control over.16

Further, the impact of intense stress before, during, and after an event affects the details of what officers remember about the situation.17 During such incidents officers focus predominantly on the threat or personal survival. Because of their selective attention under these circumstances, they have a low rate of recall of information subconsciously deemed unrelated to the perceived threat. This results in a specific and vivid, though not necessarily accurate or complete, memory for particular aspects of the event.

One study focused on changes that occur because of high stress or deadly force encounters in law enforcement.18 Besides changes in hearing and vision, it examined variations in thinking, awareness, memory, and performance under stress. The results revealed occurrence rates of various effects resulting from such stressful encounters.

  • Fast motion time (17 percent)
  • Slow motion time (62 percent)
  • Diminished sound (84 percent)
  • Intensified sound (17 percent)
  • Tunnel vision (79 percent)
  • Heightened visual clarity (71 percent)
  • Memory loss for part of the event (52 percent)
  • Memory loss for some of an action (46 percent)
  • Memory distortion (21 percent)
  • “Automatic pilot” (74 percent)
  • Dissociation (39 percent)
  • Intrusive, distracting thoughts (26 percent)
  • Temporary paralysis (7 percent)

A substantial part of the reactions has to do with thinking, awareness, and memory, which pertain more to how the brain operates under stress than it does with just the eye and ear. Seeing, hearing, and other senses operate at the directions of both the conscious and unconscious mind. For instance, a blink because of an object coming toward the eye is an instinctive reaction of the unconscious mind, while a directed weapon stare is a reaction of the conscious mind.19

Even in nonstress situations, when something piques individuals’ interest, they begin to have selective attention. When people exclusively focus on some aspect of an event to the exclusion of other objects in the sensory environment, their minds will direct the senses to give them the information at the speed needed. If whatever persons focus on begins to create an emotional response, such as fear, various reactions happen that amplify the sense, thought, and behavioral processes.


Faced with limited resources brought on by today’s economic climate, administrators who create and implement policies may not understand or appreciate the importance of how human factors impact the law enforcement profession. They need to adopt a greater leadership role and seek additional education on human factors. Ultimately, they must take responsibility for their own safety, as well as that of their partners and communities. As more leaders become educated on human factors, they can help effect change and improve safety margins for their officers and their department.

The first question management should ask when searching for ways to increase officer safety is, Are the officers fit enough to perform the task? Although law enforcement personnel hold responsibility for their own physical fitness, management’s obligation to officer safety must remain paramount. This can be a complex process when unions, legal issues, and limited resources appear to impede the goal of fitness. Agency leaders should set a tone of care and compassion for officers’ well-being and develop strategies to achieve the goal of physical fitness for all employees, including civilian staff. To this end, agencies can consider several strategies.

  • Offer fitness incentives, such as pay differential, awards, or uniform medals.
  • Educate employees on the value and benefits of fitness.
  • Establish or refurbish a gym.
  • Seek community support.
  • Obtain group discounts at local gyms and consider partnerships with other agencies to increase negotiation leverage.
  • Implement required fitness levels for specialized assignments or promotions.

An agency’s commitment to fitness likely will lead to greater appreciation for human factors, improved health, increased morale, and reduced absences due to illness or injury. Regardless of what positive strategies leaders use, dedication to fitness is a step forward for developing a focus on human factors at the operational level.

Initially, agencies may find establishing such a focus overwhelming. Having well-trained and knowledgeable personnel devoted to improving the agency’s capacity to better understand the subject can seem challenging. Nevertheless, this should not dissuade agency leaders. A dearth of research on human factors has been catalogued in the military, aviation, aerospace, and academic professions. However, law enforcement agencies interested in understanding the topic can heed several suggestions.

  • Consult with either the in-house or another agency’s aviation or air support division successful at training in human factors.
  • Seek assistance from local colleges and universities that have risk-management courses and workshops.
  • Contact private companies that provide human factors courses for law enforcement.
  • Encourage leaders to be proactive and creative, and reward them for their efforts and successes.

To begin, agencies should set short-range goals and take small steps to identify critical areas where safety has been a concern, such as employee wellness, pursuit driving, arrests, use of force, and marksmanship abilities. Public complaints also should be considered to determine whether human factors, such as fatigue, could be a contributing cause.

Implementing a Focus on Human Factors

  • Identify a lead person or team to facilitate the process.
  • Select proactive, progressive leaders committed to the agency’s mission.
  • Include personnel at the operational level in developing solutions.
  • Require open communication; egos should be checked at the door, regardless of individuals’ rank or status.
  • Adopt a safety culture. For example, when accidents happen, focus on preventing reoccurrence, rather than placing blame.
  • Examine whether an act was intentional before taking corrective or disciplinary action.
  • When accidents occur consider how human factors may have been impacted by the environment (e.g., weather, lighting, social, political, organizational, or training) and machines (e.g., weapons, automobiles, electronic devices, or cameras).
  • Following accidents take an honest, objective look at all levels of the organization with the goal of preventing or limiting future incidents.
  • While conducting research on accidents, avoid becoming consumed with statistics.
  • Often, insufficient data points are captured to conduct a meaningful analysis.
  • Where human factors are identified, reasonable action equates to corrective steps.


With the exponential growth of social media, around-the-clock news coverage, and the sensationalism of law enforcement from movies, citizens easily can become jaded about how officers police the community. Consequently, educating the public on the realities of policing can prove challenging.

However, agencies can confront this challenge by closely and proactively examining their community policing efforts to humanize officers. By sharing some of the human factors involved in policing, especially during stressful incidents, the public can see officers as real people with vulnerabilities. For example, when explaining to the community why officers simply cannot shoot a gun out of a suspect’s hand, leaders can discuss what happens to the human body during times of intense stress (e.g., tunnel vision, increased adrenaline, faster heart rate, and heavier breathing).

Agencies should note that while some issues may seem clear to the general public, many people get information about law enforcement from television and action-oriented movies. When discussing use-of-force rationale or policies, an officer’s self-awareness becomes critical. Questions from citizens can elicit a brash response from officers because the answer may seem obvious. Still, inquiries lend themselves to opportunities for developing greater ties with the community and increasing support and respect for the law enforcement profession.


“Law enforcement is an honorable, challenging, rewarding and unique undertaking. Few, if any, careers require the diversity of knowledge and skills, along with the steadfastness of attitude, as does this noble profession.”20 However, policing also is filled with peril, and, thus, officers must think critically and objectively about themselves, their organization, and the population they serve. Emotional, psychological, and social survival equally are as important.

Police organizations need to instill safety, security, and prosperity into the community and organization. Rebuilding trust and respect is paramount. To do so agencies must steer clear of barriers to transparency that erode trust and prevent safe, open, and honest communication. They also need to learn to eliminate root causes of enduring problems in the future.21


1 “Ergonomic Principles in the Design of Work Systems,” International Organization for Standardization, accessed July 27, 2015,
2 Jack Colwell, “Why Human Factors in Law Enforcement?” Human Factors in Law Enforcement, December 22, 2009, accessed July 27, 2015,
3 James Reason, “Human Error: Models and Management,” British Medical Journal 320, no. 7237 (March 18, 2000): 768-70, accessed July 27, 2015, PMC1117770/.
4 Ibid.
5 Colwell, “Why Human Factors in Law Enforcement?”
6 Reason, “Human Error.”
7 Ibid.
8 Paul R. Howe, Leadership and Training for the Fight: Using Special Operations Principles to Succeed in Law Enforcement, Business, and War (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011).
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.; and U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service, Risk Management Handbook, FAA-H-8083-2 (Washington, DC, 2009), accessed July 28, 2015,
11 The International Association of Chiefs of Police supports the National Violent Death Reporting System. See “Support of National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS),” International Association of Chiefs of Police, accessed July 28, 2015,
12 For information on microsleep see University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Microsleep: Brain Regions Can Take Short Naps During Wakefulness, Leading to Errors,” ScienceDaily, April 28, 2011, accessed July 28, 2015,
13 Howe, Leadership and Training for the Fight; and Nicole Lamond and Drew Dawson, “Quantifying the Performance Impairment Associated With Fatigue,” Journal of Sleep Research 8, no. 4 (December 1999): 255-262, accessed July 28, 2015, 10.1046/j.1365-2869.1999.00167.x/full.
14 Jeanne B. Stinchcomb, “Searching for Stress in All the Wrong Places: Combating Chronic Organizational Stressors in Policing,” Police Practice and Research: An International Journal 5, no. 3 (July 2004): 259-277, accessed July 28, 2015, 156142604200227594#abstract.
15 Howe, Leadership and Training for the Fight.
16 Kevin Gilmartin, “Hypervigilance: A Learned Perceptual Set and Its Consequences on Police Stress,” in Emotional Survival in Law Enforcement: A Guide for Law Enforcement Officers and Their Families (Tucson, AZ: E-S Press, 2002), accessed July 28, 2015,
17 Ibid.
18 Alexis Artwohl and Loren W. Christiansen, Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1997).
19 Ibid.
20 Colwell, “Why Human Factors in Law Enforcement?”
21 Ibid.