Working toward the truth in officer-involved shootings memory, stress, and time

Citation metadata

Date: May 2012
From: The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin(Vol. 81, Issue 5)
Publisher: Federal Bureau of Investigation
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,202 words
Lexile Measure: 1570L

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

An important area of psychological research examines "how trauma and other highly emotional experiences can impact perception and memory." (1) Studies indicate that individuals display two distinct ways of processing information into memory: the "rational-thinking mode" during low-emotional states and the "experiential-thinking mode" in a high-stress situation, such as an officer-involved shooting (OIS). (2) This distinction illustrates that the trauma caused by an OIS likely will impact the memories and perceptions of the officers involved.

However, not enough research has been done to determine exactly how these effects distort memories of stressful events.. Many studies relate only to routine memory and eyewitness identification, rather than the use of deadly force. (3) Further research must focus on determining how other variables may cause officers' memories of such incidents to vary from reality. Investigators who interview officers following an OIS should remain cautious because their subjects' memories may have been impacted by their experience in numerous and, at times, unpredictable ways. (4) Law enforcement agencies should acknowledge these difficulties when determining protocol for when and how to interview involved officers following an OIS. (5)

Prior Research

While much study has been conducted on memory and stress, only limited research has focused specifically on how this relates to OIS. (6) These gaps led one researcher to study how memories function differently during traumatic events. To investigate this issue, she surveyed officers over a 6-year period after they had been involved in shooting incidents. Her research found that officers exhibited a variety of reactions and responses to an OIS. For example, more than 60 percent of the officers felt that the incident transpired in slow motion, while 17 percent recalled time speeding up. Over 80 percent of the officers reported auditory lockout, while 16 percent heard intensified sounds. Similarly, more than 70 percent claimed that they experienced heightened clarity of vision and that they responded to the threat not with "conscious thought," but, rather, on "autopilot." Interestingly, almost 40 percent reported disassociation, while 46 percent reported memory loss. tier findings are both important and consistent with other research indicating that officers experience perceptual and memory distortions during a critical incident, such as an OIS. (7)

Another study also deserves attention. Researchers surveyed 265 police officers from the Midwest who were exposed to three stressful conditions: a live-fire simulation, a video of the training that included the shooting, and a video of the simulation scene without sound or a shooting. Most of the officers were not questioned about their experiences until 12 weeks later, but a sample of the officers participated in a "rehearsal" interview--they answered the questions immediately after the exposure and then again 12 weeks later.

The researchers concluded that, overall, stress was positively related to memories of armed people, unrelated to memories of unarmed people, and negatively related to objects. (8) Their findings echoed other research that suggested eyewitnesses focus on the source of the threat or stress (e.g., the shooter) more intensely than the peripheral information about a scene or incident...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A289361602