Vigilance Fatigue in Policing: A Critical Threat to Public Safety and Officer Well-Being

Article excerpt

In the decade since 9/11, terrorism has entered the information age to challenge the work of first responders, police managers, and decision makers. The attacks raised fundamental questions about America's safety and resulted in a renewed focus on domestic security. In turn it fostered an emphasis on proactive and preventive, rather than reactive, strategies to combat terrorist threats.


The absence of a subsequent major attack on U.S. soil over the past decade has contributed to a renewed sense of security. However, the emergence of competing crises, like the global economic crisis and domestic recession, has brought about a reexamination of the sustain-ability, credibility, and utility of many post-9/11 security strategies. While this effort has attempted to balance security needs with the limitations posed by budgets, legal requirements, public support, and threats to U.S. interests, it has overlooked a critical risk to effective threat analysis and management. This phenomenon is described best as "vigilance fatigue," or the failure to accurately perceive, identify, or analyze bona fide threats due to 1) prolonged exposure to ambiguous, unspecified, and ubiquitous threat information; 2) information overload; 3) overwhelming pressure to maintain exceptional, en-or-free performance; and 4) faulty strategies for structuring informed decision making under conditions of uncertainty and stress. (1)


Vigilance fatigue threatens persons and organizations tasked with processing large amounts of data, identifying risks or irregularities, and responding to perceived threats. A comprehensive review of medical, law enforcement, and business literature reveals only passing acknowledgements of this concept. The few existing references associate vigilance fatigue with errors in decision making due to physical fatigue or "change blindness," described as a failure to recognize data changes because of continual scanning by eye.' While the concept of vigilance fatigue proves worthy of further development, its complexity and relevance to policing, intelligence, and military operations have yet to be explored.


A full definition of vigilance fatigue must consider an array of closely associated skills, abilities, and behaviors, all of which contribute to a capacity for sustained vigilance in dynamic environments. This recognizes the ways in which attention, situational awareness, and decision-making processes affect the concept's functionality. These attentional resources include capacity for selective attention and alternating attention, often limited by working, memory abilities and the presence of distractions. A model of sustained vigilance (figure 1) also points to the ways in which cognitive biases and reliance upon heuristics may degrade vigilance and jeopardize accurate threat detection and assessment, especially when someone faces excessive or questionable information. (3)



A range of factors contribute to a person's immunity to vigilance fatigue. These include the issues or aspects unique to the individual engaged in monitoring, the context in which this undertaking occurs, and the nature of the task itself. Based on a review of research in the areas of cognitive psychology, social psychology and group dynamics, decision making and risk assessment, signal detection theory, and human ergonomics, figure 2 summarizes the factors that may foster vigilance fatigue.

Individual/lntrapersonal   Contextual/Environmental   Task-Specific
Factors                    Factors                    Factors

* Boredom proneness        * Access to tools          *
(Factors that typically    designed to support        Information/data
increase the risk of       information processing     overload (Factors
vigilance fatigue)         and decision making        that typically
* Extended span of         (Factors that typically    increase the risk
attention (Factors that    decrease the risk for      of vigilance
typically decrease the     vigilance fatigue)         fatigue)
risk for vigilance         * Stress and arousal       * Low base rate
fatigue)                   level (Factor that         (rare) targets/
* Smooth visual            require careful balancing  outcomes (Factors
scanning/pattern           because extremes will      that typically
recognition skills         contribute to compromised  increase the risk
(Factors that typically    vigilance)                 of vigilance
decrease the risk for      * Adequate                 fatigue)
vigilance fatigue)         staffing/resource levels   * Time pressure
* Reliance upon cognitive  (Factors that typically    to complete task
heuristics (Factors that   decrease the risk for      (Factors that
typically increase the     vigilance fatigue)         typically
risk of vigilance          * Thoughtful shiftwork     increase the risk
fatigue)                   management (Factors that   of vigilance
* Risk tolerance (Factor   typically decrease the     fatigue)
that require careful       risk for vigilance         * Presence of
balancing because          fatigue)                   complex data/
extremes will contribute   * Presence of groupthink   tasking (Factors
to compromised             ((Factors that typically   that typically
vigilance)                 increase the risk of       increase the risk
* Subject matter           vigilance fatigue))        of vigilance
expertise (Factor that     * Group/office cohesion    fatigue)
require careful balancing  (Factors that typically    * Level of task
because extremes will      decrease the risk for      monotony
contribute to compromised  vigilance fatigue)         ((Factors that
vigilance)                 * Management support (top  typically
* Negative affect (e. …