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71 FBI L. Enforcement Bull. 18 (2002)
Perceptual and Memory Distortion during Officer-Involved Shootings

handle is hein.journals/fbileb71 and id is 334 raw text is: 

  Research Forum

Perceptual and Memory
Distortion During Officer-
Involved Shootings
By Alexis Artwohl, Ph.D.

         f it hadn't been for the recoil, I wouldn't
         have known  my gun was working. Not only
didn't I hear the shots but afterward my ears weren't
even ringing.
    I saw the suspect suddenly point his gun at my
partner. As I shot him, I saw my partner go down in a
spray of blood. I ran over to help my partner, and he
was standing there unharmed. The suspect never even
got off a shot.
    When  I got home after the shooting, my wife
told me that I had called her on my cell phone during
the pursuit of the violent suspect just prior to the
shooting. I have no memory of making that phone
    I told the SWAT team that the suspect was firing
at me from down a long dark hallway about 40 feet
long. When I went back to the scene the next day, I
was shocked to discover that he had actually been
only about 5 feet in front of me in an open room.
There was no dark hallway.
    During a violent shoot-out I looked over, drawn
to the sudden mayhem, and was puzzled to see beer
cans slowly floating through the air past my face.
What was  even more puzzling was that they had the
word Federal printed on the bottom. They turned out
to be the shell casings ejected by the officer who was
firing next to me.
    These representative samples, taken from actual
officer-involved shootings, exemplify the quirky
nature of perception and memory. Law enforcement
officers fully realize that their superiors, legal authori-
ties, and the public they serve will hold them com-
pletely accountable for their every action during an
officer-involved shooting. These same individuals
also will scrutinize the accuracy and truthfulness of
statements made by officers taking part in such
incidents. Therefore, it becomes important to under-
stand that expecting officers to have perfect recall of

any event is not realistic. Indeed, the body of research
on perception and memory supports the fact that
people rarely are capable of total and perfect recall of
    Although the underlying physical processes of
perception and memory continue as a matter of
research and debate, empirical observation of human
behavior can shed some light on the behavioral
consequences of these processes. To this end, the
author focused her research on the self-reported
perceptual and memory distortions experienced by
officers involved in shootings.

    Germane  to this topic is how trauma and other
highly emotional experiences can impact perception
and memory.  A noted researcher in the area of stress
and fear conducted a comprehensive review of this
topic.2 He came to the conclusion that people have
two distinctly different modes of processing informa-
tion. One, the rational-thinking mode, happens during
low emotional arousal states, whereas the second, the
experiential-thinking mode, occurs during states of
high stress and emotional arousal, such as would
occur during an officer-involved shooting.
    He pointed out that when people are not under
high levels of stress, they have the ability to calmly
engage in the conscious, deliberative, and analytical
cognitive processing that characterizes rational
thinking. However, when a perceived emergency
requires quick action, they cannot afford this luxury.
Instead, their cognitive processing system automati-
cally switches over to experiential thinking. He stated
that people are angry, sad, or frightened not as a
direct result of what objectively occurs but because of
how they interpret what happens. The automatic,
preconscious construals that are the effective instiga-
tors of such emotions are made so automatically and
rapidly as to preclude the deliberative, sequential,
analytical thinking that is characteristic of the rational
    He delineated the differences in rational and
experiential thinking, including the concept that
experiential thinking represents a system that auto-
matically, rapidly, effortlessly, and efficiently pro-
cesses information,' an obvious advantage in a

18 / FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

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