Ch. 5; Violent Encounters…5 Year FBI Study!
Perception – Its Role in the Violent Encounter
This chapter is about a specific thing; Perception! The focus is on three points in particular:
- An overview of a current theory about the way in which human beings perceive their environment.
- An explanation of how the perceptions of the officer and offender at the crime scene may have affected the ways in which both acted.
- A discussion of the implications of these findings for law enforcement training.
Processing Information: Perception, Storage, Recall
The questions here are centered on the officer and how he/she observes suspects. Do the officers put the signs together to know whether a person is armed or not, or how do they explain well what they did and why, during a situation? How does the public perceive the situation, etc.? Using a case as an example, the following questions are looked into.
Example 1: (Officer Perception) During the middle of the night, while working a busy drug area, officers closed in on an alleged drug dealer in a red shirt. As the officers apprehended the dealer, one of the officers announced the presence of a gun on the dealer. The appropriate measures were taken and the dealer did in fact, have a .357 in his waistband. Later, during booking at the station, the officer was asked how he knew the offender had a firearm. His response was, “I’m not sure why; I just knew.”
Example 2: (Community Perception) During an arrest of a male armed with a firearm, several citizens observed from various porches close by. Instead of the normal routine they normally observed on this “drug” corner, the officers immediately drew their side arms and focused in on a particular male. The observers complained that the officers just grabbed the guy and started beating him for no reason that they didn’t do what they normally do. They complained that the officers selected this one male as their target for no reason at all. Why did the observers see something different than the officers?
Example 3: In a metropolitan area where there were shots fired, many officers poured onto the scene for support. Afterward, as one of the officers involved was interviewed, he was asked how many shots he had fired. “I only got two shots off…” was his reply. Further examination discovered that there were actually 6 shots fired from his weapon.
In another situation, an officer involved in a shooting, used a shotgun on the offender, who had just shot the partner officer, and after the offender was hit and on the ground, the officer almost fired a second time, as the offender reached for his gun. Barely noticing a third officer at the scene, kicking away the pistol with his foot, the officer with the shotgun ceased and did not fire a second round.
Questions to Answer:
When involved in serious, life-threatening situations, several things can occur, such as: tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, inability to recall details and more. Why does this happen? Why do people in the same situation recount different scenes or details? Here are some things to think about;
Mistaken Theory: The Brain is a Video Camera
Discounted in the past couple of years, is the idea that the brain works like a video camera. Researchers have found that there are some mistaken assumptions that go along with the “video camera” theory:
1 – Everyone sees what really occurs…Just like watching a sporting event, when the flag is thrown; everyone thinks they saw what really happened. Each has a strong opinion about what they saw and the referee is usually wrong. It isn’t until the “slow motion” instant replay is show that the truth is revealed.
2 – Everyone sees everything that occurs…Just like a witness to an accident, the account will depend on the angle, the distance, the speed, the vision of the witness and other elements to know exactly what happened before, during and after the accident occurred.
3 – Everyone processes incoming information the same way…In this example they use a story of two friends who agreed to play tennis and then go shopping. As they agreed to show up at a set time, when they arrived, one of the friends was dressed to play tennis and the other was dressed for shopping. They both had the same information but the order was interpreted differently.
4 – Everyone remembers exactly what occurred during an incident…In the example above of the officer who recalls that he only fired 2 shots, the magazine was discovered to have actually fired 6 shots. The officer still insisted that he had only fired the 2 shots he recalled.
5 – Memories stay the same, maintain accuracy, and remain consistent over time…During the 70’s, journaling was popular. Recording events that occurred and life in general and the thoughts and feelings of the writer was a normal thing. After decades, the journals were re-read and the authors were surprised as the events seemed different than they remembered.
6 – Because their memories are recorded in their brains as events happen, people can replay those experiences with accuracy and in detail…This misunderstanding of how perception works has led some judges to refuse witnesses to testify in cases where their memories may have been contaminated.
Realizing that the brain does not work like a video camera, neuroscientists’ had to take a new look at how witnesses remember crime scenes. Law enforcement now realizes that there are many other factors that must be considered during interviews and interrogations. Law enforcement now realize that many of the “details” that were given were actually confabulated, or made up. The witnesses were not intentionally lying; in fact, they really believed what they said and the way they described it. Although the details were wrong, they were embedded into the memories of the witnesses and were resistant to change.
The brain actually processes events and various stimuli in the environment, not merely records them. This process operates a bit differently for each person, and law enforcement often observes the effects of this difference. That is why officers are known to separate witnesses when asking questions after an occurrence on the street. Most of the time, witnesses versions are slightly different; not that they are lying, but that the perceptions of each person are different. The reason people describe the same event so differently falls into three components: biology, environment and psychology.
“Currently, cognitive scientists consider that the way the brain processes material can best be understood as a multitasked operation.” An estimated 1 billion stimuli are sent to the brain every second and all incoming stimuli are assigned certain responsibilities to various parts. From sound to movement to light, etc. etc. Of all of these, only about 100 are sent to be processed. So when you say the word “apple” you will think of different related words than some other person. When people hear, smell, feel, taste something, they recall from their own stored memories and experiences of those stimuli.
Effects of Environment and Psychology:
Believing that the brain constructs memories by piecing together information, like when one hears the word “apple,” the experience is greater than just coming up with an image. Linking all of the parts together, like past experiences, smells, textures, etc. is called a memory chain. Every person has their own unique memory chain to recall from the same stimuli. As a witness is recounting details of a situation, they will relate it to memory chains in their brains; for example: that guy was 6 feet tall, because he walked by my girlfriend and she is only 5 feet tall. Using the “girlfriend” as a comparison, the witness will reflect back and forth to describe the event details. Most interviewers know that open-ended questions achieve a greater amount of accurate information. “Interviewers should ask questions regarding particular statements made by witnesses after taking the initial verbatim statements.”
“Why do perceptual distortions take place, and why are they biologically adaptive?” Like auditory exclusion, the body will filter sounds attempting to reduce the stimuli and allow that person to focus intensely on a certain thing. Such types of exclusions are related to intense situations, perceived threats and life and death situations. Many times, during the situation, the person will experience a “time slowing” in which they perceive the situation took 2 to 3 times the time it actually took. So a situation that took 3 to 5 seconds seemed to take 10 to 15 seconds to that person’s perception. The brain does this as it tries to make sense of everything that is going on, in other words, the stimuli are too intense and therefore the brain automatically filters in order to achieve focus and direction. (I have had that happen to me, being shocked while working in commercial construction. What seemed to be 2 to 4 seconds was actually barely a second at all…freaky stuff! Or a near-miss car accident where your perception is things moving in slow motion, this also is known as time dialation.) Tunnel vision is also another effect of the “filtering” process from the brain. Many officers were unable to recall seeing surrounding movement or activity during certain situations, or hearing sounds.
Because of certain biological reactions, like tunnel vision, there is certainly a danger to officers and citizens alike. Arriving at a situation and not seeing multiple threats, happens all the time and is the cause of too many officer shootings and deaths. Law enforcement must take this into account during training exercises and officers must realize that their partners might experience such reactions as well. Social science research, including the findings in the past two studies, indicates that training can have a hugely positive effect with these reactions. Some officers interviewed stated that they “heard the voice of my instructor at the academy” telling them to expect certain reactions.
Understanding perception, recall and memory one must consider biology but also environment and psychology. If humans functioned at the level of biology only, we would not have control over our experiences or understanding of why we do what we do and such. Because of the cerebral cortex, humans have a greater ability to reason, comprehend, process, etc. than other animals. Since the brain attends to only about 100 of the 1 billion stimuli it receives every second, there is obviously more at play than just biology. Of the 100 stimuli attended to, only about 50 are processed. Social scientists use the term “schemas” which are the kinds of filters that the brain uses to collect and make sense of information. Multiple stimuli from all of the senses enter the brain and the “filters” try to collect information consistent with a person’s experiences, training, hopes, expectations, biases, etc. Humans makes sense of the stimuli by collecting those that they need for preservation, especially in emergency situations, and those that are consistent or can be made consistent by their own perceptions and with what they already know.
Personality Traits and Schemas:
In the study, “Killed in the Line of Duty”, 22 of the 50 offenders who killed officers who were interviewed were diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorders (ASPD). An individual with ASPD sees the world as a hostile, threatening place. They experience their environment through this hostile/threatening filter/schema. This is not an excuse for their behavior, but does explain why those with ASPD can be hostile and dangerous.
Muting the Effects of Schemas:
Officers cannot exclude all reactions, they can learn to recognize them and work with them to the optimal usage and advantage. Through correct training, breathing techniques and relaxation exercises, they can reduce the distortions that can occur during high stress situations. Once stress levels are reduced, tension and anxiety controlled, officers find that their appraisal of situations is actually better and more accurate.
How Offenders Perceive Officers:
Many offenders actually prepare themselves mentally for battle. The following examples are verbatim from the interviewed offenders.
After a short foot chase, the offender ran around the corner of a building and waited for the officer to appear: “I wasn’t going back to the penitentiary; that was my mind-set. I had made up my mind to use whatever violence I had to. I wasn’t going back. It was going to be either me or you. It was real simple. If it was a situation where I can see an out, I’ll squeeze out any kind of way I can get out. If I got to shoot somebody, kill somebody, whatever. If I’m trying to get away, then get out of my way. It’s real simple, just take me out. Take me down or I’m going to take you down. That was my mind-set. I run around the corner and I waited on him. He came around the corner, and I shot one time. He hollers, ‘Oh,’ and then he starts shooting. He went down; I went down with him. I’m shooting at an angle. He’s still shooting. I run out of bullets. I pop another clip. He’s still shooting. I get up and go back to the hotel.”
An offender who was stopped for a traffic violation: “He seemed very lax, very bored. He didn’t seem like he was keyed in on doing his job. It was just, you know, playing a role, just kind of going along. Because this is the thing he does from 9 to 5 or 7 to 11. It just didn’t seem like it was something he really, really wanted to do. He showed very little, if any, enthusiasm that I recall, very little vigor. Like I said, it was just like plodding along. I don’t remember observing that he was alert in any way. He, it appeared to me that he approached the vehicle like, ‘There’s no way this guy’s going to do anything other than exactly what I tell him to do. Not because I’m in control of the situation but because it’s just the way it is.”
This offender used the skills he developed assessing his robbery victims to assess an officer. “The uniformed officer, his uniform, there were a lot of things about him. Immediately, being an armed robber you have to assess the situation of any armed robbery that you do. So, when I meet a person, maybe it’s the con man in me, maybe it’s the criminal in me, maybe it’s a lot of things, but I assess people, I just do that. His uniform actually looked like it was freshly pressed. That tells you John Wayne syndrome, okay? You’ve got to look at a guy and see what you’re dealing with. I figure this guy is packing a backup piece just simply because of the way he’s standing, his stature.”
Perception and Effects of Pain:
Pain thresholds differ from person to person. The amount of pain depends on such aspects as genetic predisposition to pain, or some people not feeling any pain at all. This can be thought of as the number and quality of pain receptors each person has. The effects of substances on those receptors also play a part in the reaction to induced pain. This is why we often hear stories about offenders and officers alike who received gun shots but never felt the pain until later on. The body will focus on certain situational aspects and can shut down other areas until they come into play later.
Summary and Conclusions:
Perception, even under the best circumstances, is a dynamic process. “This process involves the effects of biology, past experiences, current expectations, biases, hopes, and medical and psychological conditions.” When heightened situations arise, this complicated process of perception can result in confusion, fear and chaos as well. Auditory exclusion, tunnel vision and time distortion are all normal responses to intense situations, especially when a person’s life is on the line.
Appropriate training can help a person to react in a correct and lifesaving manner, not only for the officers but for citizens as well. The studies have shown for years the importance of proper and realistic training for efficient and effective results. The goal is survival and the only way to do that is to learn more, train more…followed by learning more and training more.
Damon Thueson & Steve Beckstead