The Boyd Cycle Observation: Modes of Perception, the Origin of Knowledge via the Senses…and Truly Trained Observers! | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

In this post I would like to begin the process of describing each phase of the OODA Loop starting with Observation. As law enforcement and security officers we are often referred to as “trained observers” I have often thought when, where and how did we become worthy of this title “trained observer”? The true answer is, this is not the case in fact there is very little training in this area for the vast majority of police and security professionals. Yes it is mentioned that you must practice situational awareness, you must look for things out of place, watch deadly hands, look for bulges in waistlines and read body language but there is very little, if any time dedicated to developing these necessary skills. The two exceptions to this are (1) if you are in criminal investigations and attend a program of instruction on interview and interrogation techniques. These classes have a big focus on observation and the reading of body language to assist in orienting to the subtle signs of deception.

The second exception is the individual officer who takes individual initiative to research, study and learns from experience on the street or attends classes on his own and practices the skill to develop the ability to be aware and read the subtle signs of crime and danger, on the street.

There is also a third way of learning these skills and that’s the informal and very effective experience gathered from on the job or on the street. Experience is not, “time on the job.” Time on the job means nothing unless; you are involved and actively learning from experience. Experience I am describing is time in conflict where you develop the professional ability to recognize patterns, from handling violent encounters on a regular basis. It’s also what we call “street smarts” where those growing up or working in violent neighborhoods learn and channel the ability to observe and orient to danger as part of survival. Military veterans who have experienced regular combat also develop these skills. Like any other skill the ability to stay aware is perishable and to maintain the level necessary it must be conditioned through repetition, repetition through training and experience.

Experience: is described by Don Vandergriff in his book Raising the Bar as a reliable guide when it is relevant to the contemporary and future operating environment and missions, and when it’s filtered, processed and stored in the brain using enduring principles and useful, reliable thought models. When key elements of the operating environment, opponents, technology and missions change rapidly, how experience is translated into intuition is even more important. Time alone does not equal experience, time plus handling a variety of situations, in various environments and the lessons learned equal experience. This takes individual and organizational effort by tracking decisions made if we are to learn all we can from our experiences and turn experience into expertise and evolve into “trained observers.”

This brings up the questions I am often asked; what if we work in an area where we do not experience violent encounters regularly or maybe, your thinking I have five, ten or more years on the job and I have never been in a violent encounter (less than 1% of law enforcement and security encounters turn violent)? How do we develop this experience and develop ourselves as trained observers so we can be effective and safe on the street? The answer lies in training, formal and informal learning. Formally through programs of instructions taught by qualified, motivated and competent instructors that teach through experiential learning techniques such as, tactical decision games and free play exercises. We can also get great benefits from Informal training on the job, in the form of after action reviews or critiques at every opportunity to have to learn. Whether it’s a violent encounter or not there are lessons on observation and the Boyd Cycle to be learned!

Now if we are going to call ourselves or be referred to as “trained observers” we must spend time developing our observations skills so they are truly exceptional and assist us in understanding the climate and environment we find ourselves in. What is observation the first phase of the Boyd Cycle? Most officers I have spoken to respond; “it’s what you see.” True but it’s much more than that, its ones whole body sensing the environment and climate of the situation through all our senses (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste and INTUITION) working in unison, sensing yourself and the world around you. Let’s break these down and describe how each works at developing our optimal observations. Let’s start with the most prominent the visual cortex, sight.

Sight: The world as we see it is wholly dominated by sight. In his book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Jacob Bronowski says; “The place of the sense of sight in human evolution is cardinal.” This is not to say the remaining senses do not play a crucial role in our gathering information and knowledge, they also play a great role as we will discuss later. However we have evolved as humans and learn almost wholly through what we see. This is especially true in the law enforcement and security professions, what we see taking place in a given set of circumstances is the critical component to our orienting to the situation and the catalyst to our decisions and actions. It’s important to understand sights role in the process and how to channel what we see into useful information quickly so we gain the advantage.

Looking around with your eyes, what do you see? Most look for the adversary, great but that’s not good enough. You must see the overall big picture and its subtle details, of the environment you are in. You must know where to look for the possibility of; multiple adversaries and where they could launch an attack from, hallways and allies, entries and exits, escape routes, avenues of approach, cover, and concealment, car doors, center consoles, glove compartments and where can you best position yourself. What time of the day is it? Is it daylight or nighttime cloudy, raining foggy or snowing? What effect do these conditions have on your vision? Is the adversary in an open area where you can easily see what’s going on or is he in closed in or wooded area loaded with cover and concealment, where it’s easy to conceal his movements? These factors affect your vision and hence what you see, which as mentioned is one of the windows into your orientation of the climate of the situation.

You must see the adversary and the obvious signs that he is there and where you are, you must also see the subtle signs and signals that manifest themselves through non-verbal means (body language). Actively look, to clear his hands to ensure they are free of weapons or are they clinched and ready to strike. Observe his body movements and positioning. Is the person showing signs of submission or the signals of a pending assault? You must observe his size, potential strengths and weaknesses and whether or not, you know the individual(s). You must also look for the subtle signs of anxiety and stress by reading body language ( and recognizing anomalies in patterns of behavior ( or any other indicators of threats or opportunities to take control.

If you have a back-up officer with you make sure you are positioned where you both can see and work as a team to get the best picture of what’s taking place. Concentrate on your areas of observation and communicate.

Technology and optics can greatly enhance what you see as well. Use binoculars when distance is a factor or a night vision device such as thermal imaging equipment at night is an outstanding tool to enhance you vision.

Train your observation, through practice at every opportunity. Teach yourself to scan areas of the body and the environment looking for threats. Practice scanning exercises in training by using realistic role playing with and without weapons so individual development of threat assessment is conditioned. You must see the threat first and then act.

Example: In a free play exercise set up scenarios that have multiple subjects in a room some innocents, some armed adversaries. The scenario is designed to be an obvious threat scenario where the individual or team of officers must discriminate between innocents and adversaries and locate the threat (knife, gun etc) orient to it decide and act. If there is little time to set up this scenario, use multiple small targets hung on all the walls at your agency in a room and run guys through a quick drill, where they must come in and indentify the threat. Make it competitive, which student did it with the fastest time to make it a little more interesting and fun. You can also do this same exercise utilizing subtle threats which fine tunes the skill even more. The development that takes place is very beneficial and applies to what we do.

A vast majority of encounters we handle happen in low light or darkness so we must understand the eyes effectiveness in this condition. Practice techniques that assist in developing vision at night such as; full adapting one’s eyes to darkness, keeping one eye closed near and not looking at any light. Scanning objects at night without looking directly at it and watching for unexplained shadows is another method assisting in what we can see at night. Also know that the auditory cortex becomes more prominent at night and we depend more on our hearing, the second most depended upon mode of perception to assist us in observing the environment.

In speaking about the importance of sight and its role in how we gather information and gain insight and knowledge into a particular set of circumstances and the world we live in, we must also not be handicapped by it and remember over focus and tunnel vision can affect negatively in reading the situation. If we over focus on sight we miss other important factors processed through all our other senses such as; sounds and smells that could alert us to other adversaries or threats. Over focus can prevent us from seeing the obvious right there in front of us.

Sight we are dependent upon not only looking outward at unfolding circumstance but looking inward as well. The abilities we have in the way of memory and imagination which develops experience and leads to innovation are all conditioned by the sense of sight looking inward and visualizing in an attempt to analyze whats going on and lessons learned. We must understand the special importance that sight plays in the observation phase of the Boyd Cycle in helping us understand the situation. At the same time we must train and channel our ability to observe completely in which sight is working in unison with all our senses, if we are to become truly trained observers.

Next Post we will discuss the auditory cortex and hearings role in observation.

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