A couple of nights ago as I was surfing the news channels I heard various people of differing political views discussing how video is proving that police officers lie constantly. A story in the Chicago Tribune addressed this issue on its front page. On the net I found similar stories where the end results were chiefs and sheriffs firing officers because their accounts of the incidents didn’t exactly match what was seen on a video—even though the questioned use of force was legally and practically acceptable.
Of course, I could find no balance to these stories or the accompanying assertions. It’s now an incontrovertible truth: If the report doesn’t match what can be plainly seen on the video—the cop is obviously lying.
Because, as everyone knows, “seeing is believing.”
Though relatively new as a field of research, much study has been done of late in the area of attention, memory, and recall. Problem is, most don’t know, don’t care, or maybe even don’t want to know about what’s being discovered.
Telling the Truth?
Let me begin by telling the truth about telling the truth: No one can tell it.
Consider the following familiar event.
Have you ever had a 60-second conversation with any one person in a non-stressful environment and then immediately begin arguing about what was just said? If you haven’t you’re probably not married.
“You said you were upset with me about asking my sister over for dinner!”
“No I didn’t. I said I would rather have had you ask me first. That’s all.”
“Oh my God Jim! You said the word ‘upset.’ You said it loud and clear!”
“No I didn’t. I said that I was planning on watching the game tonight so your sister being here may cause me to miss it. But I never said I was upset.”
“You have got to be kidding me! You used the word upset less than two minutes ago! Plain as day! That’s it—from now on I’m taping every conversation we have just to prove to you that you can’t remember anything that you say!”
In the academy I used to show videos to recruit officers that were about 45 – 90 seconds in length: People shouting, weapons drawn, subjects running, shots being fired.
Then I’d tell them to write what should be a very short report, detailing exactly what just happened in the video.
Not surprisingly, if there were 35 in the class, you guessed it: I’d get 35 different versions of the event. Different things heard, in different orders. The numbers of people involved varied widely. The number of shots fired? Just as wrong. Even the words used were way off. Some heard “drop the knife,” while some heard “drop the gun.” Still many never heard anything about a weapon at all.
And these aberrations of the truth occurred when the recruits were experiencing no stress whatsoever. Not only that, but these are young, able, well-rested minds.
Stress Events, Perception and Memory
So imagine now being involved in a real life-or-death event. An event where you may actually die in less than the blinking of an eye.
What level of stress would you be experiencing? What would happen to you both physically and emotionally?
Well, we know that you will experience massive perceptual distortions such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, tactile dissonance, and so forth. While people may be talking, screaming, yelling, and crying, understand that you may actually hear none of it. Oh your ears may pick up noise—verbal indecipherable dins—but, attending to actual words and recalling all of the exact phraseology will be virtually impossible.
The desire to survive will narrow your focus and your brain will be in a state of prioritization, attending selectively to what is the most important thing at the given moment: that which is trying to kill you.
Making a decision, in the blink-of-the-proverbial-eye, will be difficult. You may freeze, immobilized by fear. Or you may act: firing your weapon, swinging a baton, or discharging your Taser. There may be more yelling, more confusion, more people which will cause even more distortion of your senses.
Suddenly you realize the threat has been neutralized. You begin focusing on what it is you need to do next.
Finally your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that kicked in when you needed it begins to wane and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) takes over trying to calm you. You shake, you feel exhausted. You think of your family, you wonder if you did everything right, if you will be supported …
Back-up arrives. Bosses, of course, which may cause a different type of stress. Post-event protocol begins. Your weapon is taken from you. You are placed in a squad or maybe an ambulance.
And now here come the questions, questions that you must answer. The requirement to recount and recall, in detail, and in order, all of the events, all the words, exactly as they happened.
Guess what! You can’t do it. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, could possibly recount that episode correctly and in clear order.
But you try, because you must. So you put in the effort. But there are mistakes. Chronological confusion and time distortion is preventing an accurate recall of the event. You are confused as you attempt recall.
Later, after investigators, bosses, the press get a chance to view whatever video is available. They will view the events from a completely different perspective than you did: No stress, no death staring them in the face. No screaming, no multi-tasking.
They tell you that what you reported doesn’t match with the cellphone, CCTV, or bodycam video they have looked at multiple times.
You turn on the television and see another version of the video, from an angle you don’t recognize.
So they conclude: You’re a liar! That’s what they will say as they sit there in there TV studios, pontificating about the lack of truth and justice because liars populate the police profession. All cops are liars. All while they sip their coffee and smugly believe they wouldn’t have made the decisions you made, believing that they could accurately recount the events in detail.
Which is, of course, complete and utter nonsense. Force Science has been proving this for years. Who’s listening?
Truthfully, I don’t expect the public to know of this. However, those in the profession—the bosses, the investigators, the chiefs and sheriffs—have a moral obligation to study these scientific truths and incorporate this knowledge in their training programs, their investigation protocols and in their use of force policies.
Failure to do so, well, that’s what’s criminal.