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Jane Tyska.Bay Area News Group

Could uncalled-for violence by police be reduced with neurological screening?

It’s becoming far too commonplace to read about yet another instance of a police officer over-reacting to a perceived threat, with tragic results. Much has been written about the causes of this and many ideas about better training and changing police culture have been advanced as a remedy. It’s also becoming clear that we are asking police officers to be social workers, drug counselors, mediators, and psychiatrists in addition to dealing with crimes and other more serious aspects of enforcing the law.

It seems other expertise is needed to be handle many of the things police officers deal with, daily. And there’s really no reason why day-to-day civil violations such as parking, jaywalking, illegal sign postings, and whatnot need to be handled by fully armed police officers.

We also know that different people react differently to stress. Some people feel stressed out over the smallest things or perceive dramatic threats where no actual threats exist, while others seem to go through life without a bother in the world. The reasons for this are extremely complicated and unpredictable. But, recent scientific studies[1] indicate that there may be a new tool to reduce potentially bad outcomes, through neurological testing: a method that might help predict the behavior and reactions of police officers who find themselves in high-stress situations, before those situations arise.

As reported in Science News,

“Researchers at the University of Zurich show that increased sensitivity in a specific region of the brain contributes to the development of anxiety and depression in response to real-life stress. Their study establishes an objective neurobiological measure for stress resilience in humans.” [Emphasis added]

The research focused on studying a particular neurological structure in the brain called the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system.

“The locus coeruleus (LC) is a major node in the stress response that integrates input from multiple stress responsive neural circuits and releases norepinephrine (NE) throughout the central nervous system (CNS) to promote vigilance and anxiety.”[2]

In other words, this neurological system impacts the intensity of the fight or flight response. By producing norepinephrine, it influences a wide variety of alert responses within the body. This means that in a high-stress situation, having a “normal” level of reaction (LC-NE system) response is critical to the outcome. And if a person’s LC-NE brain system is inherently over-reactive, that’s a big problem when a situation calls for keeping your cool.

“Clouded judgment” can be a neurological fact. And putting a gun in the hand of an individual whose judgment is being overrun by unconscious forces is a big mistake. As we all know, in police work, this difference is a matter of life and death.

The science suggests that no amount of traditional police training, rules, or potential consequences will have an effect on a person’s inherent neurological response tendencies. And if an individual is a racist, it obviously makes everything worse. This is not to say that education and promoting self-awareness, or even meditation and new therapies such as Neurofeedback (to calm erratic brainwave behavior) can’t help. They probably can. But the science suggests that even if negative tendencies are not present, people are who they are, neurologically, and will tend to be driven by that in high-stress situations.

The fact is some individuals may just not be well-suited for front-line police work, no matter how much they are trained, how committed they are, how intelligent they are, or how good their intentions may be. Their inherent stress response is how they're wired.

There are, of course, many other methods of determining stress response; by measuring heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol hormone secretion, etc. But the LC-NE system assessment may be a major driver of them all, behind the scenes.

This research suggests that police candidates could be tested, in advance, to assess their systemic stress response and then, at the very least, receive counseling or treatment, and be assigned to duties, accordingly. The testing results could be used to determine who is best suited to do police work that entails being in high-stress interactions with the public and who might be better suited for a “desk” job.

This kind of assessment would also give an indication of what percentage of individuals who seek out police work show a high reactive system stress response, to see if there are any trends in that data. Or what if comparing this assessment data to the general population showed that we are all suffering from an increases in our systemic stress response? I don't know. And this discussion is certainly not complete without considering how everyone's stress response is being impacted by this country's epidemic of mass shootings.

But, I'm still curious about this new science because my non-scientific impression is that police officers, today, are generally much more tense and emotionless in their interactions, even in casual, non-threatening situations, than police officers were decades ago in big cities and small cities alike. But as best as I can discern, this has no correlation to the level of violent crimes at any given time (e.g., New York City beat cops were much friendlier in that city, decades ago, when violent crime was off the charts, than they are today, even though violent crime is way down).

In any case, it’s worth investigating because what we’re doing now is clearly not working.

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.

[1] University of Zurich, April 15, 2021

[2] The National Library of Medicine: Neuroscience, March 2018