Cops Are Not Super-Humans. Understanding the Experts Who Explain That.

May 8, 2023

There are many people—perhaps a shockingly high number—who fervently believe that cops are super-humans. They believe they can override the inherent limitations of their minds and bodies because they’ve been trained to do so. They believe they can move quicker, think faster and see, hear and remember more than any other category of human. In fact, these people don’t feel it’s right to ever measure an officer’s behavior and performance against the standards “normal” humans would be judged by. They believe they should be evaluated through the lens of a special Cop Standard. A standard that reflects limitless physical and mental perfection.

Thankfully, there are scientists and subject matter experts who work to make it clear this is not true by bringing the realities of science to bear when officers’ actions are being evaluated after high-stress incidents. Sgt. Jamie Borden (ret.) is one such subject matter expert. In a larger article, Jamie broadly explored the work, requirements, knowledge and challenges associated with being a Police Practices Expert who applies science to his work.

In this excerpt from that article, Jamie discusses the misguided thinking many experts in this area find themselves up against in court, in the media and in other areas of public consideration. He also discusses what the application of science is designed to do…and what it is not designed to do.

Jamie writes:

As in any discipline, there exists criticism of the science associated with police work. I have experienced and witnessed the criticism on both sides of a controversial case in applying the science. The criticism normally occurs when the science is not helpful to one side or the other regarding the adjudication process.  This interferes with “winning” a case, not necessarily fairly adjudicating a case.  Why is this the reality? The likely answer to this is the perception that “Police officers are highly trained.

The perception is that officers can supersede human limitations based on a perceived level of training. The truth is officers are trained, but most officers in the field are not the equivalent of “highly trained,” (there are exceptions). Because of this perspective, law-enforcement professionals are often expected to exceed the parameters of human ability. The expectation becomes officers should; be predictors of the future, have no fear of danger or death, be capable of inhuman memory storage of all pertinent information; visual, audible, and tactile, with no disparagement, and be capable of an optimal decision in an impossible and often deadly environment.  The myths of this perspective are;

1. “As a trained observer, the officer should have, or could have, seen X, Y, & Z

There exists no level or frequency of training that can change a human limitation. For instance, training does not change the way the eye works as a receiver of visual stimulus.  Training can help officers prioritize visual stimulus based on patterns and context, but the eye itself and the interpretation process (cognitive) largely work the same way.

2. “Officers are highly trained and should have…

We can improve limited ability as a skill through training and conditioning. However, human limitations intrinsic to all humans, not just officers, cannot be improved upon.  For instance, an officer’s ability to maintain a focused level of attention on a threat and subsequently recall information beyond that focus of attention (FOA) is limited.

This is not what being a highly trained observer means in police training.  Regarding FOA, officers are generally trained in these areas; what to look for, what patterns are attributes to possible outcomes, why certain patterns may be important context cues, etc. This training does not give the officer the ability to: intensely focus on more than one thing at a time, recall information that was filtered out due to the FOA and predict the future in unpredictable environments.

3. “The officer should have, or could have known…

This hindsight attribution that suggests an officer should be able to predict an outcome is simply not possible through training of any sort. Knowledge of human limitations simply cannot correct the factor of an unpredictable encounter between a suspect and an officer.  Officers make decisions based upon the context of the environment, the preceding behavior of a suspect, and the probability of the outcome based on the facts and circumstances known at the moment force was used.  This is a decision made based on a “best guess” about what the outcome is likely to be should no action be taken.

4. “The officer should have, could have done…

There are those who seem to believe that, although these factors affect a human being in every other discipline and in everyday life, with science to support it, those factors somehow don’t apply to law enforcement because they are “highly trained.”

Misinterpretations: Excuses v. Explanation

Researchers in this field use a variety of methods, including experiments, surveys, and other observation-based studies to gather data on human behavior, performance, and perception.  One glaring misconception related to the study and subsequent application of these scientific evaluations is that the empirical data derived from these studies somehow excuses poor decision making.  Or, the data is applied only to protect an officer through an excuse in the aftermath of a critical incident (“copsapology”).

Although there may be those PPE’s that misinterpret the application of the studies and resulting baseline data, the application of the empirical data simply explains certain aspects of the event or the behavior, it does not excuse the behavior.

An explanation is not a determination of appropriateness or reasonableness. After a full investigative review and analysis, the established explanation can be used to provide an education as to why a thing occurred. To then balance the adjudication process by providing some insight to those responsible for the resolution as to the consideration of performance issues that are known to exist.

Poor use or improper interpretation of the science can result in misconceptions about the purpose or the validity of the study that is being applied in the analysis.  In short, the application of the data may be improper and criticized in any given incident review. However, the studies and the data, if proven to be methodologically sound through peer review, should not be the focus of criticism.

The application of the scientific principles holds great responsibility to those applying it and should be carefully considered for relevance to the analysis.

Read Jamie Borden’s full article: Police Practices Expertise and the Application of Scientific Principles

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