How subjects' perceptions can hamper a police investigation

The following is an example of how each person’s perception can distort the interpretation of an event by participants and witnesses, and consequently create hurdles for the investigators of the incident. This is based on a real case.

You arrive at the scene of a fight in progress. There is a white male and a Hispanic male lying on the ground, unconscious. A black male is sitting on the curb. There are two white males that have obviously been involved in a fight standing in the street, arguing unintelligibly with three white females. 

A sports car is nearby with the doors open. The window of the passenger door is broken and wisps of smoke are coming from the dashboard. You separate all of the people and began to conduct interviews to figure out what happened.

You interview one of the females. She’s named Bridgette. She tells you the following:

“I was walking down the street and heard a commotion. I saw those two white males pulling on those two girls. I thought those guys were going to pull them into that car over there and rape them. I started yelling at the guys to let the girls go and they did. They would have raped those girls if I had not come along.”

After you talk to Bridgette, you go and talk to the other two girls — Marsha and Cindy — and during your interview, they tell you the following story:

“We were walking down the street when we heard some yelling and screaming. When we got here, we saw those two rednecks beating up on those three guys. They were beating them up because they are prejudiced against them. We started yelling at them to let the guys go and tried to pull them off of the guys. They turned around and held onto our arms until Bridgette got here and yelled at them.”

Next you talk to the black male — Eric — sitting on the curb and asked him what happened.

“Jose and I were walking down the street when we heard a fight. We ran to see what was happening. We saw those two white guys beating up on that dude laying on the ground right there. They were beating the hell out of him. We thought they were trying to rob him. So, we jumped in to help the guy get away. When we did, those guys started to hit us. They didn't stop until Jose was knocked out, and the other dude wasn't moving. We stopped them from robbing that guy.”

You talk to Jose. He tries to tell you the same story as Eric. The only problem is, he is still dizzy from the fight and is not making much sense. 

George, one of the two white men, gives you the following story and Billy, the other, agrees:

“Billy and I were going back to my car. When we walked up, we saw these two guys breaking into it. The passenger door was open with the glass broken. One of the guys, not the one here, was trying to pull my stereo out of my dashboard. Billy and I both yelled at them. The guy laying here said something to the other guy. They both ran toward a truck full of guys. The truck started to leave. The guy who was in my car got into the back of the truck — we caught this guy before he got into the truck. We were trying to hold him to call the police. He kept fighting and we fought back. Those two other guys [Jose and Eric] came up and jumped us from behind. We thought they were with the guys in the pickup truck and we fought back. The girls came up after the fight and started yelling at us. The guy on the ground wasn’t in the car. He was standing by the other guy that got away. We think he was a lookout.”

After you confirm the story with Billy, you go to talk to the last subject — John — who is lying on the ground. He gives you the following story:

“I was walking down the street when I saw Mike inside this car. Mike is an acquaintance of mine. I stopped and asked him what he was doing. He told me his stereo was acting up and he was trying to fix it. I was standing there talking to him when these two guys walked up and started yelling. I thought they were going to rob us. Mike got out of the car and started running toward a pickup truck. I ran with him to get away from those two guys. Mike made it to the truck and I didn't. The two guys caught me and the next thing I know I am here talking to you cops. I didn't know Mike was ripping off that car.”

As you can see from this scenario, each principal had a different idea about what was going on and only saw a part of the incident. Each person determined what had happened based on the small part of the incident that they had witnessed. The part of the incident that they witnessed was only a small piece of the overall incident. 

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