Deriving Expert Knowledge of Situational Awareness in Policing: a Mixed-Methods Study

Juha-Matti Huhta, Paula Maria Di Nota, Tony Hietanen, Eero Ropo

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Situational awareness (SA) is the most important skill required by police to effectively assess and respond to encounters, including critical incidents. Incomplete or sub-optimal SA strategies can lead to errors in subsequent judgement, decision-making, and action, including tactics and use of force (UOF). Errors in UOF, especially lethal force, in training or operational field settings, have severe consequences for learning, occupational health, and public safety. Therefore, adequately defining and instructing SA is an important gap to fill in existing applied police literature and practice. Using a mixed-methods approach, the current study aimed to define and conceptualize SA in police-specific contexts. Participants included 23 novice trainees and 11 experienced officers and instructors in tactics and UOF. Participants were shown 13 static images of various staged encounters, ranging from non-threatening to high-threat. Following each image, participants were interviewed and asked to describe what they saw and how they would respond. Thematic analyses of the interview data revealed the following seven themes that are highly interrelated and more completely define police-specific SA: distance/time laws; partner/roles; profiling the suspect; tactical options and opportunities; ongoing assessment of own tactical activities and outcomes; surrounding environment and conditions; and dangerous objects. Expert officers provided more detailed and multidimensional descriptions of the themes and statistical analyses confirmed that experts identified more themes compared to novices. By making tacit knowledge visible, the current findings establish a professional standard for SA formation, which can inform evidence-based police training in SA, tactical decision-making, and UOF while improving operational safety.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Police and Criminal Psychology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Feb 2023
Publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Policing
  • Qualitative analysis
  • Situational awareness
  • Tactical decision-making
  • Training and education

Publication forum classification

  • Publication forum level 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Law


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