5 key factors about ‘looming’ and officer safety from violent attackers

Ever notice how a picket fence along the road appears to be racing by at a blur immediately to your three or nine o’clock, but that same fence directly ahead of you barely appears to be moving at all? This is an illustration of how the eyes and brain use motion to assist us in judging speed and distance, including issues of “looming”

The question of looming has been looming since that Saturday afternoon in August. With the revelation this week that there is substantial physical evidence indicating that a serious physical confrontation took place in that Ferguson PD squad car, the time has come for us to explore the perceptional phenomenon of looming. 

Looming is a perception of size, distance, and rate of closure of a threat. Looming is influenced by a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) visual process, fatigue state, the level of fear or concern, belief of competency to deal with the threat, and a host of environmental factors. 

Looming is based to a large degree on how quickly an object fills our visual angles. An average person’s field of view is about 180 degrees, and how fast a perceived threat takes up a large proportion of that space has a significant psychological and physiological effect on the person being approached. 

Whenever confronted with questions of human performance, science, and deadly-force encounters I reach out to Dr. Bill Lewinski and his team at Force Science Institute. The folks at FSI have intensely examined looming as it relates to approaching vehicles, and as it turns out, those findings can be applied to an attacker on foot, such as the shooting incident in Ferguson.

1. Speed
Lewinski first explained that one key factor in looming is the officer’s perception of the speed at which an attacker is approaching him or her.

“The element of looming primarily refers to an increased perception of threat based on an increased perception of the size of a person and the speed with which they are coming. That perceived speed may not match forensic evidence,” he said. 

“When someone is charging at an officer — whether that’s in a vehicle or on foot — they can increase in size pretty significantly based on the emotional arousal of the officer as that person is running or coming toward them.

“If you consider your forward-facing vision — including focal, parafoveal, and ambient vision — most people have about 180 degrees of vision if you’re not too old. The more something comes at you and crosses those visual angles, the greater is your perception of speed,” — just like the driving illustration at the beginning of this article.

2. Range
The range at which the object in motion begins its motion has an impact on the phenomenon of looming. 

“For instance,” Lewinski said, “a basketball moving from four feet away from you to two feet away from you is going to be judged to be coming at you much faster than a ball moving — at the same speed — from 160 feet away to 158 feet.”

For another illustration, imagine a person’s perception of the ground as they’re falling directly toward it. The perception of speed they have when falling from three feet up is going to be much different from what they will have when falling the same three feet of distance but starting that fall up at 10,000 feet. From three feet up the ground is going to seem like it got on top of you immediately, while in freefall at parachute-jump altitude. 

“The simple rule is that the closer something is, the more enhanced the effect is. The formula is not entirely linear but it does blow up exponentially,” Lewinski said. 

3. Size
Since looming is about how something dominates your field of vision, the larger the object, the greater the impact on your visual field. 

If a person is small in stature (let’s say five feet tall and 150 pounds), it’s going to take them longer to fill a person’s field of vision than someone who is of linebacker size. 

Those two people, moving at the same rate of speed and from the same starting point, will fill up your field of view at different rates. Furthermore, the relative size differential between the attacker and the person being attacked has an amplifying effect on the perception of the threat. 

Let’s say you have an attacker who is six feet, four inches tall and weighs 240 pounds, and a victim (an officer in this case) of the attack who is several inches shorter and dozens of pounds lighter. The perception of the threat will be higher than if the two adversaries are the same size. 

“The extent to which someone perceives a threat to be dangerous is directly connected to — among other things — their ability to cope with that threat. The less they believe they can cope with that threat the greater that the threat level will be enhanced, and the looming effect will be enhanced.”

A person’s speed of closure may be relatively slow, but it’s perceived to be quicker when the attacker is bigger than the victim.

4. Location
Lewinski pointed out that if you are in a confined space or have an otherwise limited ability to move or respond to an attacker, you will have additional layers of perceived threat. 

“There are a variety of ways that officers can perceive that they’re under threat,” Lewinski said. “For instance, environmental factors such as being confined in a vehicle — being belted in and being assaulted — especially when facing someone who is vastly larger than yourself and they’re charging at you. These environmental and circumstantial issues can increase an officer’s perception of threat.”

The confrontation between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson may have ended in the middle of the street, but it’s abundantly clear that the fight started in the front seat of that patrol car. 

5. Fatigue
This brings us to the final piece of today’s examination: Fatigue. Fighting is not only dirty and ugly, it’s tiring as all hell. And most of the time, it hurts like hell. 

There’s a picture floating around the Internet that some have purported to be of a battered Officer Wilson in a hospital bed. It’s not him. 

But it does illustrate — at least a little bit — what it looks like when someone has suffered severe orbital damage, as has been reported to be the case for Wilson, who apparently had an “orbital blowout fracture to the eye socket.”

One can rightly surmise that after sustaining such a blow, a person’s perception of looming will be affected. Further, their ability to fight to defend their life will be compromised somewhat. 

Officer Darren Wilson was pinned in his vehicle and in fear for his life as they struggled over his gun. 

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