Police stress, it’s not what you think

RTI International, the Durham Police Department partner to understand police stress

Police lights flashing at night

Research Triangle Park, NC —A police officer responds to a call, there is a suicide in progress. He is outfitted with a device that monitors his stress level throughout the day. Though you may assume racing to the scene or performing CPR before paramedics arrived caused the officer the most stress, physiological data showed that the officer’s level of stress peaked while delivering the death notification to the victim’s family.

This is a real story from RTI International and the Durham Police Department’s Biometrics & Policing pilot, which aims to demonstrate how wearable sensors can be used to better understand police officers’ stress.

“Nothing is more important to me than the safety of our officers, which includes their mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing,” said Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, Durham Police Department’s Chief of Police. “Through this pilot, we are able to pinpoint when and why officers experience stress, allowing us to make informed decisions about managing and alleviating that stress.”

As part of the pilot program, officers wear research-grade biometric devices—similar to wearables like activity trackers and smartwatches—in the field during their daily activities. The device captures physical and physiological measures—movement, skin temperature, heart rate, and changes to the electrical properties of the skin—which provide a snapshot of stress level.

“Never before have we been able to obtain such detailed physiological data outside of a laboratory about an officer’s emotional status to see how they respond to and recover from stressful events,” said Robert Furberg, Ph.D., senior clinical informaticist at RTI. “We’ve historically relied on self-reported information or observational studies. Wearable technologies now allow us to better understand how officers process stressful events and appreciate how their immediate and long-term health may be affected.”

RTI and the Durham Police Department will use information from the pilot to more objectively evaluate programs designed to help officers better manage and control stress, as well as to inform staffing and other operational logistics.

“We commend Chief Davis and the Durham Police Department for standing at the forefront of this research,” said Travis Taniguchi, said public health analyst at RTI. “Partnering with them has allowed us to open doors to new research that otherwise wouldn’t be available.”

“Data from the pilot will not only benefit officers, but also the communities that we serve, by helping officers understand and control their stress to continue to make good decisions,” Davis added.

This pilot is part of an ongoing partnership between RTI and Durham Police Department who previously worked together to develop CFS Analytics™ and RTI-STAR.  

To learn more, watch the RTI Biosensor Project video or read “Biometrics and Policing: A protocol for multichannel sensor data collection and exploratory analysis of contextualized psychophysiological response during law enforcement operations,” published in the JMIR Research Protocols.

Read more about RTI’s policing research by visiting the Emerging Issues page