IACP 2014: Attention and memory in deadly-force encounters

Intentional focus, perception, and the speed of an event all have an effect on how officers process a deadly force encounter as it unfolds, as well as how they remember it after it’s over

At IACP 2014 in Orlando, Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of police leaders eager to hear about attention and memory issues facing officers under the extreme stress of a rapidly-unfolding and dynamic incident. 

When Lewinski talks, every sentence is rich with heady, thought-provoking information, so in an hour-long seminar there are probably four articles lurking. Consequently, I will focus strictly on his discussion about the effects of intentional focus on perception and memory.

Lewinski began, “I was in Las Vegas two days ago and really prominent West Coast attorney said, ‘In this case, the officer was suffering from tunnel vision.’ That’s a term I though we stopped using in the 80s, because you have tunnel vision right now. You’re intentionally attending to something. Your attention is directed at something. In doing so, you brain is not only facilitating your reception of information, but it’s also suppressing other information so you can focus on what’s critical.” 

Attentional Focus, Perception, and Memory
Lewinski noted that all the studies about cell phone use and driving tell us that we cannot focus on two things intently at the same time. Some people may call that tunnel vision, but in the imperial world it’s called selective attention. Selective attention for a police officer is vital in a deadly threat encounter, and it’s important to understand some of the ramifications of that. 

Lewinski said, “I am often asked, ‘How do we eliminate tunnel vision?’ and my response is, ‘Why would you want to?’ We talk about stress. Think about a batter in the batter’s box. It’s the ninth inning of a tie game in the World Series. It’s a tie game. There are two strikes, three balls, and the next pitch is coming. You want stress? That’s stress. You want great perception? That batter is focused on the grip of the ball in the pitcher’s hand and what the pitcher’s forearm is doing. That’s the best perception they can have at that moment. You don’t want him looking at the second baseman. You don’t want him listening to what’s going on in the crowds. You want them focused on what’s most critically important at that time, and to hell with the rest.”

This is why we want our officers to have that physiological reaction — “tunnel vision” — to the threat they’re facing. We must find a way to educate the public why an officer’s memory of an event may not include a lot of environmental factors and other elements of the event. 

“It is good an officer can’t tell you how many rounds they fired,” Lewinski said. “That’s a good thing because they’re focused on the behavior of the subject and when the threat stops they stop. If they’re counting rounds, they may be paying attention to the wrong thing in a gunfight.”

Introducing, Emily Fox
Using a computer analogy, Lewinski said that human beings have very little RAM and very little desktop space, but a lot of long-term storage/memory. Trouble is, sometimes RAM and long-term storage don’t even have time to synch up. 

Lewinski used an amazing video to illustrate his point. Let’s recreate that here. Watch the video, and then answer the questions below. 

That was Emily Fox. What was the color of her hair? What was the color of the shirt she was wearing? Was there any insignia on her shirt? How many people were in the background? What were they wearing? 

Oh, you were focused on the cups, weren’t you? 

Okay, fine. How many cups were there?

Can’t answer that, can you? And you weren’t even stressed. The speed beat you (don’t worry, it beat me too — and a few hundred other people in the room here in Orlando). 

“In a rapidly unfolding, dynamic, visually complex, behaviorally complex incident there’s something called psychological refractory. Information has to be in our working memory for some period of time before it moves to storage. It is possible for us to see something and remember very little about it. That’s not just because of the influence of the amygdala on the formation of memory —it’s about how we’re able to perceive information in a visually complex and dynamic encounter.”

An officer involved in a deadly force encounter can generally only report on that which they were paying attention to, and details of an event — whether captured on video or seen by other witnesses, may contradict that recollection. 

“We all have focused attention,” Lewinski concluded. “You’re focused on the screen, and you’re focused on me when I’m talking. What’s on the screen while you’re looking at me could change. You can’t report on it. Our brain is actually helping us out by ignoring information that isn’t important to us.”

We must educate the press and the public that this science even exists, because nature hates a vacuum, and misinformation is making its way into the empty space where we’ve failed to spread the word on the great work Lewinski and others at Force Science are doing on things like attentional focus, perception, and memory. 

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