Wichita State graduate student works to help police evaluate stressful situations

  • Wichita State graduate student Monica Connelly is conducting research with area law enforcement to help them identify movements made by subjects in stressful situations.
  • The research is focused on learning if threatening movements differ from non-threatening movements, and how those differences might be taught to law enforcement.
  • Much of the work in this area, Connelly said, focuses on sports.


Wichita State graduate student Monica Connelly listened to police interviews during her time as an intern and grew curious.

Police are put in stressful situations and asked to make difficult decisions when judging the threat presented by a suspect. Is the law enforcement officer dealing with a person reaching for a cell phone or a gun? A wallet or a knife? Is the suspect’s movement a tip-off to aggressive behavior or compliance?

“That’s the decision-making they have to do,” Connelly said.

Connelly wanted to know if using human factors research could help law enforcement make better decisions in those situations.

Her curiosity started during her undergraduate internship in the forensic psychology department at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She came to Wichita State to work on that topic in the Human Factors Ph.D. program under the direction of Joel Suss, assistant professor of psychology.

Specifically, her research involves studying weapon detection by law enforcement officers using biological motion as a cue.

Much of the human factors work in this area, Connelly said, involves sports, such as studying how a soccer goalkeeper might judge an opponent’s intent for the direction of a kick.

“We started looking at how we can cognitively assess the decision-making process that law enforcement officers go through when they’re dealing with a suspect one on one,” she said. “Because there was such little work done in law enforcement, we saw it as a really good opportunity to start taking things down that avenue and also help understand how we should train new officers and new recruits in order to be really good decision-makers.”

She is working with the Wichita State Police Department and the Wichita Police Department in the data collection phase of her research. The data comes from the reactions of more than 80 officers, who will watch 250 videos. She wants to conclude her research by March.

“We’re really interested to see if . . . can people tell wallets or a gun,” Suss said. “We’re trying to see if more experienced police officers, or better-trained police officers, can they distinguish between these things? It’s a really difficult thing (for law enforcement) to do.”

To provide data, law enforcement personnel watch point-light displays on a computer.

“This focuses people on the underlying biological motion,” Suss said. “We show people that. We stop it. Then we ask them ‘Is it a weapon or a non-weapon?’ We’re trying to work out ‘Can people distinguish weapons from non-weapons.’” 

While circumstances such as lighting and weather can vary, and suspects will vary in age, gender and body type, they may share common traits such as arm angle, speed of movement and body posture.

“The one way that they are more or less all in common is how we are able to move biologically – my arm can only move in so many directions, things like that,” Connelly said. “I’m trying to knock it down to biological motion as a cue to what I might be holding. Do I behave differently or move differently if I’m holding weapon? Do I unintentionally, maybe, start loading into one foot and take a more aggressive stance?”

For her work, Connelly received an honorable mention for her application for the National Science Foundation's prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

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