Deadly Force: Have We Lost Our Senses?

You are sitting in one of the finest restaurants in your city - the sort of place where the a-la-carte side dishes easily push the bill into triple digits. There's reminiscing with old friends at your table. Before you know it, you realize the discussion was so captivating that you haven't tasted your meal since the first bite. How the heck did a $50 slab of meat sneak its way past your taste buds? Better yet, how did you not notice your boss sit down at the next table over...30 minutes ago?

Change the setting: Walking down the sidewalk. You watch as a young bicyclist, darting into the roadway, is struck by a car. The car flees, but you zero in on the license plate. You check on the injured boy. Your fingers tremble as you fumble through three simple and memorized digits.  Until they pull into view, you don't even hear the waling sirens of the ambulance and police car. Weeks, months, or years still remember the numbers on the offender's license plate and the shape of the tail lights.

Change the setting: You are driving home, in the family in the backseat, when you receive an upsetting call on your cellphone. During the call, you instinctually make a familiar turn toward the house you just moved out of six months ago! Ugh. You see the red-and-blue lights in the rearview mirror. You assume the U-turn you just made to correct your heading was illegal. Nope. Thirty miles-an-hour over the speed limit! While pleading with the cop, you don't even realize your kid is kicking the back of your seat.

Change the setting: Home alone watching a scary movie, in the dark. The movie is approaching its climax...when all of a sudden....a voice from next to you asks in a slow, calm voice, "Is something burning?" You realize two things: the frozen pizza in the oven is well-done...and your spouse is home.

If any of the above stories sound even remotely familiar, then you have experienced some of the same naturally occurring human sensory "distortions" as police officers when confronting a deadly attack. With one major exception - in none of them did you fear for your life!

The vast, vast majority of public citizens will never be involved a deadly force situation - like a violent attack, or a shooting, or a knifefight, or a struggle for life, or wartime combat.  Quite actually, neither will most police officers. But that doesn't mean everyone in the human population hasn't experienced, at some point in their life, the same physiological and psychological effects that occur during a deadly force event.

In recent years, various fields of science have become more interested in the study of these odd  phenomenon of the senses. Scientists and researchers have been applying well-documented human perception issues to these traumatic events.

Some of the sensory "distortions" cited by police officers.
Collectively, these "distortions" of the senses are referred to as Selective Attention. This is not some sort of superhuman condition as some have made it out to be. Selective Attention occurs every day, during the most routine and mundane tasks in which a human can partake. The human brain selects which senses to attend to....and which to ignore. It happens whenever a person allots any sort of focus on a stimulus. It just so happens to occur at extreme intensity, speed, and effect when one is thrust into a terrifying life-or-death incident!

The corresponding increase of general mistrust of law enforcement and a rise in video camera usage brings out doubt and disbelief that a police officer's testimony can possibly be the way an event unfolded. When squad car dash camera footage, or a gawker's cellphone video, or an eyewitness account, or physical evidence does not match up with the officer's story, the officer is immediately pegged as a liar. Officers in a deadly force shooting frequently report not hearing their gunshots, or radios, or others screams. They are confused about the sequence and time duration of events. They misreport distances and speeds. They acknowledge not seeing bystanders, or cars, or their partners next to them. And because of these inconsistencies, we label them as being untruthful.

I ask these questions:
Would you be a liar if you said your expensive meal was tasteless? Or you ignored your boss? 
Could you possibly see the license plate of a car speeding away from you? Or how can you be belived if you said the ambulance didn't have its siren on? 
Did you forget where you live? Were you speeding after that u-turn or not? And you say you didn't feel the kicks in the back of your seat...when less powerful foot taps can drive you crazy on a road trip? 
You didn't smell the burning pizza or see the smoke? Didn't hear your spouse open the garage door...even when expecting him/her?
There is a tremendous amount of skepticism surrounding police shootings. A big part of this is because the Selective Attention of the involved officers is so profoundly misunderstood. We are not talking about completely bizarre conditions, that cannot be believed by the general public or news media. But for some reason, those same groups find it hard to accept mistakes or altered perceptions by law enforcement.

Maybe we have been doing a bad job of explaining Selective Attention. It happens while eating, witnessing car crashes, driving home, and watching television. Maybe it happens when someone is trying to kill you too.


Louis Hayes is a systems thinker for The Virtus Group, Inc., a firm dedicated to the development of public safety leadership. He is a co-developer of The Illinois Model law enforcement operations system (LEOpSys) and moderates several courses rooted in its theory and concepts. He is a 17-year police officer, currently assigned to a multi-agency tactical unit in Chicagoland. Lou is a certified Force Science Analyst through the Force Science Institute, a Use of Force instructor, and an informal peer supporter to police officers involved in deadly force encounters. The above ideas form a solid framework of The Illinois Model and are used as main theme for changing police culture. A full compilation of articles on the model can be found here.

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