The OODA loop, reaction time, and decision making

By Sgt. Steve "Pappy" Papenfuhs

Since the mid-19th century, human reaction time and decision-making have made popular research topics for experimental and cognitive psychologists.  In the 1950’s, Air Force Colonel John Boyd borrowed from this human-factor knowledge as he developed his Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop decision-making model.  In this article I will explore how these dynamics contribute to tactical decision-making by law enforcement as they are “forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” 1

The most common reference regarding Boyd’s cycle addresses the need to, “get inside the opponent’s OODA loop.”  In other words, he who cycles through the OODA decision loop the fastest will likely prevail in combat.  This acknowledges that the opponent in fact has an OODA loop. And, the OODA loop boiled down to its essence analyzes, synthesizes, and defines the most critical component of human performance - reaction time.

While I agree with this model as a conceptual strategy for combat, and while we need to be prepared to use reasonable force up to and including deadly force at a moment’s notice, we would all prefer to “talk” suspects into compliance whenever possible.  According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2 approximately 99.96 percent of the time we are successful in doing so.  Perhaps a more global view therefore, would be to view our job as “managing” the opponent’s OODA loop when practicable.  In fact, this is exactly what SWAT teams do during critical incidents; and the vast majority of such events are resolved peacefully using the Time - Talk - Tear Gas strategies that ensure the safety of both suspects and officers.

In order for a suspect to voluntarily comply with our commands and surrender to an arrest he needs the requisite time to perceive, decide, and respond.  Acknowledging this, I would like to review a video that is in the public domain and analyze it from this perspective.  This exercise is not meant as an analysis of the reasonableness of the involved officer’s actions as that would be inappropriate without knowing the totality of the circumstances, but rather as an exercise in understanding the human factors involved; and to consider a point or two about tactical deployment and training considerations.

In October of 2010, an undercover Seattle police officer was assaulted during a downtown narcotics operation.  One of the suspects fled into a convenience store where he was followed by a second undercover officer with firearm in hand.  As witnessed by the store clerk, the officer was verbally directing the suspect to get down on the ground.  While the suspect apparently raised his hands in a “surrender” position, he failed to comply with the officer’s commands.  The officer advanced on the suspect, kicked him in the thigh, then grabbed him by the back of the head, and pushed him to the ground.  The officer then kicked the suspect two more times (falling to the floor after he did so) before a uniformed officer came to his aid and handcuffed the suspect.  The video in question is available here.

Using a frame-by-frame analysis, we can determine with a fair degree of certainty the timing of the encounter.  Remember, this is not a discussion of the reasonableness of the force application.  The viewer cannot see everything that the officer sees.  The viewer has a two-dimensional plane of reference of a three-dimensional world.  The important facial features of the suspect are not available to the reviewer, nor is there any sound which may depict verbal expressions on the part of the suspect or the officer.  We also don’t know the suspect’s actions or if he ignored or resisted commands of the officer prior to entering the store.  I am simply reviewing the human factors involved with the intent to gain a better understanding of motion, reaction time, and decision making.  We can then use that information to discuss officer safety practices.

The Forensics
The entire encounter takes place very quickly.  From the moment the suspect begins to raise his hands until the officer’s kick makes impact 2.7 seconds pass.  Here is the gross timeline:  The suspect begins to raise his hands at the 0.0-second mark (it is apparent the suspect knows that he is the subject of the officer’s attention even before the officer enters the store).

At 0.4 seconds, the suspect’s hands are up (time passage: 0.4 seconds).  Approximately 0.9 seconds later (at the 1.3 seconds mark), the officer is moving through the threshold of the store’s doorway.  Approximately 0.9 seconds later (at the 2.2 seconds mark), the officer initiates the kick.

Finally, approximately 0.05 seconds later (the 2.7 seconds mark), the kick strikes the suspect’s leg.

An OODA Loop Analysis
First, from the officer’s human performance standpoint, if we apply a reasonable 0.25 seconds to make the decision to kick, then he (consciously or unconsciously) decided to execute the kick at approximately 1.95 seconds of the timeline (2.2 kick-initiation mark minus 0.25 seconds).  Or, looking at it another way he “decided” to kick 1.55 seconds after the suspect’s hands were raised.  Before the reader jumps to a conclusion and condemns the officer for kicking a suspect who has submitted to his authority and is standing with his hands up, remember that you have the benefit of hindsight.  You are not under the influence of the “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” moment; and from a human attentional process, it is very possible that the officer did not perceive the suspect raise his hands to a “surrender” position.

Once a decision to initiate a motor program has been made it is difficult if not impossible to inhibit the action.  In other words, at the 1.95 second mark (0.65 seconds after moving through the threshold) the decision to kick was made, the motor program initiated, and it was very likely now “fire and forget” — with limited ability to turn back.3

Focusing on the suspect’s OODA loop, the suspect’s first cycle through the loop took place very rapidly.  It appears that he first notices the officer approximately 0.65 seconds before he begins to raise his hands.  The movement of his hands then takes 0.4 seconds.  Therefore, we can estimate that his first OODA loop cycle took about 1.05 seconds.  Now we must review a critical component of the suspect’s OODA loop response time, that is, time to understand and comply with the officer’s commands.

Research by Jason 4 has indicated that the average time for an individual to go from a standing position to a prone position as rapidly as possible is 1.1 seconds.  Using that time frame, we can estimate the response time for the suspect to comply with the officer’s commands to get on the ground.

Remember the formula: Reaction Time (RT) + Movement Time (MT) = Response Time.

The suspect has cycled through his first OODA loop and is standing with his hands up.  From that point, we can reasonably assume a 0.75 second reaction time on the suspect’s part as he begins to process the officer’s commands.  Remember, the suspect is also responding to stimulus during a “tense, uncertain, and rapidly-evolving” situation and has the same performance limitations as the officer.  If the suspect were to attempt to go prone, we would add Jason’s empirical MT of 1.1 seconds to the 0.75 RT and calculate a 1.85 second response time.

Some viewing the video will say, “Yes, but he didn’t attempt to comply and prone-out.”

You are probably correct, however the suspect is also processing a stressful situation wherein he is listening to a set of commands while at the same time processing the fact that an individual who has a gun in his hand is rapidly closing on him.  Additionally, he is likely attempting to work out some way to avoid his growing reality of being the focus of this officer.  All of this consumes mental bandwidth and eats up the suspect’s response time to the officer’s commands.  Human factors apply to suspects as well as to officers.

The final inquiry then, is whether or not the suspect would have had ample response time to comply with the officer’s commands before he would have been kicked.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the suspect decided to comply and go prone at the moment the officer cleared the threshold.  Remember, it takes the suspect 1.85 seconds to go prone.  Going back to the officer’s timeline, from the moment he cleared the threshold until he landed the kick only 1.4 seconds had passed.

As you can see, unless the officer would have been able to stop his kick after having already launched it (an unlikely premise), it is likely that the suspect would have been kicked in the face or the torso rather than in the leg.  It appears that the only way the suspect could have avoided the kick, would have been if he began to get on the ground even before the officer entered the store.  Perhaps he should have done so, yet I am not convinced that he could process the information that rapidly.

Or, are there other actions the officer could have taken to mitigate that particular use of force?  Perhaps, and this relates to strategy and tactics: don’t go in the store.  From a commonality of tactics perspective, going into the store was a tactical entry.  While this was certainly “hot pursuit” of a felony suspect, this was not a hostage rescue or an active shooter/killer situation.  If, before he entered the store the officer was able to observe that the suspect had put his hands up into a surrender position, and if the officer could orient to the fact that the suspect was surrendering, or perceived him as doing so, the officer may have decided to act by stopping at the threshold and giving commands to the suspect.  But remember, between the time the suspect’s hands were completely up and the officer was entering the store, only 0.9 seconds passed.  So, he had less than one second to process through that cycle of the OODA loop.

By holding at the door, the officer may have been able to wait for backup instead of entering alone, and therefore may have avoided the struggle (with an apparently non-resisting suspect) where he stumbled and fell to the ground while holding a firearm in his hand exposing everyone to the threat of an unintentional discharge. (Remember, “startle, stumble, sympathetic grip” issues can lead to unintentional discharges even if the trigger finger is indexed along the slide.)

While we would be remiss in rendering an opinion without all the facts, we can certainly use this event as a discussion and learning point about “best practices.”  However, a final caveat.  Just because lesser intrusive force or alternative methods of making an arrest might have been available, that fact alone does not make the officer’s decision per se unreasonable.5

While it may seem that I am simultaneously defending and criticizing the officer’ actions, I am actually doing neither.  My intent is rather to promote an intellectual and academic discussion.  Let’s share experience and expertise, and have a productive debate in order to develop and enhance methods to best keep officers, citizens (and suspects) safe.  But, please let’s avoid the “he deserved what he got” viewpoint.

First, that doesn’t meet the standards of our profession.  Second, whether he was involved or not, the suspect was acquitted of the crime.  Finally, part of “keeping officers safe” is ensuring that we as trainers do our best to keep them out of jail and out of a federal civil rights suit.  This officer had been charged with a misdemeanor assault as a result of this event.

Luckily, the expert who first opined that the force was excessive changed his opinion after having the opportunity to read the officer’s report (with the useful lesson to us all to avoid reaching conclusions without all of the information).  At that point, all charges against the officer were dropped.

About the author

Sergeant Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is a police training specialist recently retired after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He is the developer of the Defense and Arrest Tactics program currently taught at the San Jose Police Department, and the police academies at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Gavilan College in Gilroy, and Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC).