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Washington State University
CAS Connect March 2014

In Motion: Bryan Vila takes it from streets, into lab, and back again

A teenaged Marine on the battlefields of Vietnam, a young street cop in the slums of Los Angeles, and a police chief in the dubious island paradise of Micronesia, now a professor, researcher, and innovator in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Bryan Vila draws on his unique background to inform and enrich his ground-breaking work.

Bryan Vila at the Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane. Photo by Judith van Dongen.
Bryan Vila at the Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane. Photo by Judith van Dongen.

As a senior researcher in the Sleep and Performance Research Center and director of the one-of-a-kind Simulated Hazardous Operational Task Laboratory, both at WSU Spokane, Vila examines what he calls “the intersection of justice and human performance.” His studies of the impact of shift work and sleep deprivation on the performance of experienced police officers translate directly to military fighters and peacekeepers who face similar physiological and cognitive challenges.

“Traditionally, criminology and criminal justice have ignored the impact of human biology on how people make decisions and act on them—what can and can’t reasonably be required of them,” Vila said.

“For example, police officers often are required to work long, erratic hours that research tells us will impair their ability to drive, make decisions, or interact with people. Then we hold them accountable for performing at a high level while operating an emergency vehicle festooned with more gadgets than a person can safely manage while driving; or making decisions in ambiguous, potentially deadly, split-second encounters when their body is flooded with adrenaline or exhausted by sleep deprivation.”

Vila was recently invited to present at a White House innovation conference about a new computer application he helped design for reducing fatigue and improving police officer safety. His team of collaborators from inside and outside the University developed an app that can monitor objective assessments of police officers’ fatigue rather than depending on self-assessments. The tool is equipped to push a warning to the officer and display a list of appropriate countermeasures.

The earlier-detection capability is especially important because people are poor judges of their own sleep impairment, Vila said. “They tend to be seriously impaired by the time they actually feel drowsy, and fatigue countermeasures require time to take effect. The app gives them warnings early enough to take effective action.”

The invention “has the potential to revolutionize how a critical public service is managed,” said Brian Kraft, director of CAS Business Development. “It serves to both enhance effectiveness of personnel and reduce costly, and potentially lethal, fatigue-related risks. It’s a real win-win for both the officers and the public.”

Several of Vila’s upcoming research projects involve testing the impact of the app on police performance in the real world and devising comprehensive fatigue management programs to keep officers and the communities they serve safer.

“I’m driven to do this work because it fills some obviously serious public policy gaps that lead to tragedy, pain, suffering, and injustice,” Vila said. “The primary reason these gaps persist is that science and our institutions tend to have rigid boundaries that keep researchers and policymakers from thinking holistically and systematically about important problems. My research has its roots in the social and behavioral sciences, human biology, neuroscience, medicine, public health, ecology, and politics. Sometimes we find ways to improve society, sometimes we find new basic research that needs doing. Every day I get up with a head full of science—how cool is that!”

Bryan Vila demonstrates a law enforcement exercise in his Simulated Hazardous Operational Task Laboratory. Photo by Bob Hubner.
Bryan Vila demonstrates a law enforcement exercise in his Simulated Hazardous Operational Task Laboratory. Photo by Bob Hubner.

Before he became an academic, Vila served in the U.S. Marines and as a law enforcement officer for 17 years, including nine years as a street cop and supervisor with the LA County Sheriff’s Department. He later served six years as a police chief helping the emerging nations of Micronesia develop innovative law enforcement strategies, and two years in Washington, D.C., as a federal law enforcement officer. The various missteps, and canny saves, that Vila experienced as a young Marine and later as a cop in hazardous places inform his current studies of factors that lead to deadly errors.

He recently addressed WSU audiences about the Common Reading subject “Being Wrong ” by revealing his hard-won strategies for embracing error as inevitable, learning to recover with good humor, and wringing good lessons from bad times.

“His story plays out like a thriller novel,” said Karen Weathermon, co-director of the reading program.

Vila teaches courses in criminology, policing, human ecology, capital punishment, crime control research methods, and justice and human performance. He earned his doctoral degree in ecology in 1990 from the University of California-Davis, and has held tenured teaching positions at UC-Irvine and the University of Wyoming. Before joining WSU in 2005, he directed the Division of Crime Control and Prevention Research at the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.

Vila has served as PI or co-PI on $7.6 million in externally funded research projects, and has brought eight grants/contracts totaling $5.5 million to WSU in the past six years. Law enforcement agencies and occupational health groups around the world have sought him out to speak about the effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation on critical job-task performance.

With numerous publications focused on fatigued law enforcement agents and many other criminal justice topics, Vila was honored with the college’s Career Achievement in Scholarship Award in 2012.

Snapshot: Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology

The Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology blends theory and practice in teaching and research about policing, courts, corrections, and criminal justice policy-making. DCJC has earned national and international recognition for scholarship with a focus on problem-driven research that confronts both traditional and emerging challenges in the United States and worldwide.

WSU Spokane


Award-winning DCJC faculty bring real-world experience and perspective to the classroom and laboratory. They routinely lend their research expertise to a broad array of local, state, and national criminal justice agencies. This involvement on the “practitioner-side” of policy uniquely enriches their research and teaching.The Journal of Criminal Justice Education  recently ranked the department 4th among criminal justice/criminology programs based on per-faculty average publication output.. The index took into account the total number of publications and weighted them according to journal prestige.

DCJC faculty pursue a variety of research interests, from alternatives to incarceration to international policing. They have developed models and devices to help measure risk for domestic violence and to reduce fatigue-related errors by police and military personnel.

DCJC is the second-oldest criminal justice program in the country. It was established as the Department of Police Science in 1943 by V.A. Leonard, who also founded Alpha Phi Sigma national criminal justice honor society and was a founding member of the precursor to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. After being merged with the Department of Political Science in 1982, the unit was granted autonomous status in 2011.

Courses are offered on the Pullman, Spokane, Vancouver, and Global campuses. A new MA program recently became available by online instruction.

Degrees in criminal justice and criminology

  • Minor
  • Bachelor of Arts
  • Master of Arts
  • PhD


  • 12 full time teaching faculty
  • 3 clinical research faculty

Graduate students

  • 48

Undergraduate teaching hours

  • 2012-13: 9,633

A video based on some of Vila’s team research was nominated last year for an Emmy Award in the “Community-Public Service PSA” category. Did You Know—Fatigue was developed by the California SAFE Driving Campaign run by the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. CalPOST and the U.S. Office of Naval Research funded the first phase of the study of the impact of fatigue on police officer driving, deadly force judgment, and decision making and cognition. ONR is now funding a second phase of the study.