Police Use of Force Part II: The Human Factors

Part I of this series dealt with the legal parameters that makes up the frame work for an officers use of force. These included case law such as Graham vs. Connor, State Law and police department policies. One of the concepts set in Graham vs Connor and Arizona State Law as well as that of many other states was that of “reasonableness”.

What can we reasonably expect from officers when it comes to use of force? What can we “reasonably” expect from the average human being? We cannot expect perfection from anyone. Perfection is an unattainable ideal, it should be our goal but not our expectation. We also cannot accept actions born from prejudice or malice. There is also a difference of an error in judgement and an error in perception. To appropriately analyze the “reasonableness” of police use for force we have to look at the limits and frailties of human performance.

The human body is an amazing organism made up of multiple complex systems. Our five senses and endocrine system (hormones) are brought into play in a use of force dynamic. Under stressful conditions Information floods in through all of our senses. An Officers ears pick up information transmitted over the radio or provided by a witness. Their eyes take in information as they approach the scene or when they are actually in the event. All of this information is then processed by the brain. The brain comes up with reactions or a “motor programs” on how to respond given the information that has been processed. These “motor programs” involve a complex interaction of the muscles of the body, the eyes, and multiple sections of the brain.

The stress of deadly force encounters cause an activation of sections of our brain responsible for experiencing and expressing emotion. This resides is the limbic system. This system is made of multiple parts such as the thalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus.  Stimulation of these areas can cause a cascading chemical response that will increase heart rate, increase respiration, increase strength, increase endurance, and cause pupil dilation. There is an opposite effect in other areas. We will experience a decrease in fine motor skills as well as decrease in cognitive function. The phrase “scared out of my mind” is not that far off of what can occur. Many will understand this whole process better as an activation of the “fight or flight” response.

From an evolutionary perspective the “flight or fight” response prepared us as humans to perform at high levels in “primal combat”. These types of events involved gross motor skills such as running, kicking, punching, clubbing, etc. These types of movements benefit from the stimulation of what is often referred to as our primitive brain and the changes in the body that occur as a result of the given situation. However, under high stress complex and fine motor skills are negatively affected as is the ability to engage in complex decision making. Deadly force encounters are complex and difficult to navigate, and to pick the best option we need our ability to engage in complex decision making. There is a great article on stress and decision making that is hosted at the Center for Disease Control website it and can be found here.

Under high level of stress the ability to problem solve (decision making) can be compromised when we need it most. The best way to mitigate this is through rigorous training. Training that puts the officer in stressful environments and forces them to make decisions and use the skills they need. This concept of “stress inoculation” in police training is vital in getting the best outcomes when it matters most. Training will be discussed in part 3 of this series.

Many of our decisions are based on the visual sensory information we take in. There are actually two components to the process of ‘seeing’. The first is the sensory aspect of light being transmitted to our eyes. This is affected by lighting conditions and other factors. The amount of light and the direction of light are two aspects to this step in the process. The second is the cognitive aspect of how our brain interprets this information.  Each of this have strengths and limitations.

We think we “see” everything our eyes fall upon. In reality we don’t. How many times have you been looking for the set of keys that is right on the counter in front of you? This is a simple example of our brain missing things in the world even though we should “see” them. Another example of our brain taking information or interpreting it incorrectly is found in sleight of hand magic. We all know what we see is physically impossible in these magic tricks.  Our brain interprets what it “sees” and tries to make sense of it. Sleight of hand magic is not the same as a police shooting, but it does point out the limitations of our vision and how our brain can be tricked to see things that later we know did not or could not happen.

After a deadly force encounter officers will conduct a scene walk through. It is where they will tell the Criminal Investigator and the Police Investigator (Internal Affairs/Professional Standards) what happened. There are times that an officer has to respond “I don’t know” to some of the questions. These questions may be about what later was established as a fact that unfolded in front of the officer. It is not that they are lying or being misleading, they legitimately may not have seen what could be captured on a body camera they wore. We don’t see everything in front of us. As an example, grab a magazine and hold it 18 inches to the side of your head, then ask someone 10 feet away to focus on looking at your nose but try to read the name of the magazine. We don’t have focus vision (foveal vision) on everything in front of us, our focused vison only covers a narrow span of about 1-3 degrees around what we look directly at. This 1-3 degrees of focused (foveal) vision is about the size of a silver dollar held at arm’s length. If we don’t look directly at it, we don’t see the detail or may not see it at all.

Another phrase that is sometimes discussed is “tunnel vision”. It is less about “tunnel vision” and more about changes in our awareness or “attentional blindness”. In a high stress encounter our brain will filter out what it deems not important and focus on details it values most or believes is most critical to our survival.

There is a great article about vision titled “Is it a gun? Or is it a wallet? Perceptual factors in police shootings of unarmed suspects. ” from Dr. Green. This article speaks to the cognitive aspects of vision that is far too extensive to cover here.

As a society, we expect police officers to go in to highly difficult and stressful situations that would cause them or anyone to fear for their safety. This fear drastically effects the way they see, understand and respond to the world around them.

How long does it take an officer to pull a trigger on a gun? How long does it take an officer to stop pulling the trigger once his brain has started the motor program to start shooting until the threat is no longer there?  The Force Science Research Center testing has shown that officers can cycle a trigger on a gun in .25 or ¼ of a second. That means that an officer could fire 4 rounds in a second. At least one valley agency has video of an officer firing 10 center hits on a range target at a distance of seven yards that was only exposed to the officer for 2 seconds. If you factor in a response time to the moment the target being presented of .4 (four tenths) of a second, that means this officer cycled the trigger on his gun every .16 (16 hundreths) of a second. Scientific research has shown the average eye blink is .3 to .4 (3-4 tenths) of a second. This is relevant due to a recent a video showing an officer involved shooting where the subject and the officer are off screen for about 2 seconds. In that particular instance the  prosecutor  stated that there  was no way for the shooting to happen during  the two second time frame as the officer claimed because (in the prosecutors opinion) an officer cannot draw and fire his gun twice in that time frame.

The human body is capable of amazing things. Feats of strength, agility and endurance that seem almost superhuman. This physical performance is awe inspiring in sports, and terrifying when it is in the form of human violence. Some may like the violence that is created for TV/movies but it is not real. Real human violence is visceral, it is hard to watch, and it disturbs us at our core. The reality is that real human violence looks ugly to normal healthy people.

Even “objectively reasonable” force is not always palatable and may not be easy to watch. Many times when we see this violence it causes strong feelings in us, we are in disbelief, we want to rationalize, and we believe there must have been a better way. Some individuals that are violent can be persuaded to stop eventually. These violent subjects have to be able and willing to listen and then choose to stop, but this takes time. The only way to immediately stop human violence requires the use of force equal to or greater than that being exerted by the suspect. This usually comes in the form of the police combining the elements of speed, surprise, and violence of action to dominate and control the situation. To put this in the most basic of terms the only way to immediately stop and control a violent person is with overwhelming violence.

During citizen academy presentations, where videos of officer involved shootings are presented a typical response is “why didn’t the officer just shoot the subject in the arm or in the leg?” This is a noble question from a person who recognizes the sanctity of life, they are just misguided in the understanding of these deadly encounters. Intentionally shooting someone in a small exposed area like the leg, or attempting to shoot a weapon out of a person’s hand is an unbelievably difficult task. The stress levels that occur in a use of force encounter causes chemical releases in the human body that alter our vision and can make it hard to focus on the sights of the gun. These same chemicals that increase our strength now work against us in correctly manipulating the 5 pound trigger on the pistol without moving the sights off target. Police use of force incidents are fluid, dynamic, rapidly changing events that can often begin and end in the span of seconds. They are chaotic and involve parties that are often armed with weapons and who have stated or demonstrated their intent to harm or kill others.  There is movement, yelling and screaming, oftentimes compounded with innocent bystanders being close by, sometimes compounded by bad weather and limited visibility.  Add to this mix that the involved officer knows the stakes are high and the end game could be either him, an innocent person, or the suspect lying dead in the street. What happens if the officer misses that leg, hand or arm and the bullet hits an innocent person? Shooting someone in the leg is in no way a guarantee that they will stop their violence. The internet is full of videos where people are shot multiple times and continue to fight. These people may be dying, but they do not always stop.

The Supreme Court, in deciding Graham v. Connor, understood that officers have to make these types of decisions in “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” situations. “Not every push or shove later deemed unnecessary in the light of a judge’s chambers” violates the 4th amendment. They also understood it is so much easier to make these decisions with the luxury of “20/20 hindsight”, they clarified that it is not appropriate or fair to judge an officers actions from that perspective. It is easy to see and make the most correct, less injurious, best decision when you have all of the needed information, are sipping on a coffee and face no personal risk. It is altogether different when you are ‘in the moment’ and have precious few seconds to evaluate and then make a split second decision that could seriously injure or kill another human being or cost you your life.