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DetectionDetecting concealed weapon, threat is not easy, and experience is no help to police officers

Published 17 August 2017

Detecting potential threats is part of the job for police officers, military personnel and security guards. Terrorist attacks and bombings at concerts, sporting events and airports underscore the need for accurate and reliable threat detection. However, the likelihood of a police officer identifying someone concealing a gun or bomb is only slightly better than chance, according to new research. Officers with more experience were even less accurate.

Detecting potential threats is part of the job for police officers, military personnel and security guards. Terrorist attacks and bombings at concerts, sporting events and airports underscore the need for accurate and reliable threat detection.

However, the likelihood of a police officer identifying someone concealing a gun or bomb is only slightly better than chance, according to new research from Iowa State University. The results, published in the journal Law and Human Behavior, found officers with more experience were even less accurate. Dawn Sweet, an adjunct assistant professor of communication studies and psychology, says the findings do not point to weaknesses in the officers’ abilities, but rather highlights the need for better research and training.

“We expect police officers to do something that is very difficult and challenging without giving them the tools they need to do the job,” Sweet said. “The training officers receive is not research based, but based on anecdotes and cues that we don’t know to be reliable. There needs to be evidence these cues work, and we lack that evidence.”