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Understanding the psychology behind deadly force encounters

What turns any given police-citizen encounter into a deadly force scenario characteristically involves a complex web of interacting factors

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This book is a useful tool for both law enforcement practitioners and researchers to better understand the intricacies of deadly force by the police.

During the last several years researching and writing “The Psychology of Deadly Force Encounters: Science, Practice, and Policy,” I’ve discovered multiple nuggets of data and insight scattered among disciplines as diverse as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, criminal justice, sociology and politics.

I’ve also come to realize that when you are trying to understand and explicate the scientific and social foundations of life-and-death encounters, you inevitably run up against conflicting opinions and swirling passions that require some measure of time, patience and perspicacity to unravel and comprehend.

To this end, the book endeavors to provide a coherent operational, clinical, legal and policy roadmap. In this article, I present a concise summary of the book’s main themes and messages.

Deadly force is a rare event

Most cops don’t want to kill people, but every officer knows he or she may someday have to make that choice. Police have the state-sanctioned authority to order citizens to do things against their will. Citizens have the obligation to comply with lawful orders by police. Police have the power to use physically coercive force, up to and including deadly force, against citizens, guided by a set of legal standards and their own judgment and discretion. Many citizens don’t know this. Herein lies the potential for misunderstanding and tragedy.

In daily police work, any use of force is exceedingly uncommon (a little over one in a hundred police-citizen encounters), and deadly force is a minute fraction of that. In fact, police are attacked by citizens many times more frequently than police act forcefully on civilians, and many officers hold their fire even when it would have been legally justified to use deadly force.

Recognizing escalating situations

What turns any given police-citizen encounter into a deadly force scenario characteristically involves a complex web of interacting factors, ranging from the biological to the psychological, to the sociodemographic. It is rare for a firefight or grappling match with a suspect to begin immediately. Almost always, there is an emotional and behavioral buildup, an interactional dance that precedes the escalation into a forceful confrontation.

The majority of law enforcement use of force training still focuses on strategies and tactics for safely and effectively subduing dangerous suspects once the battle has begun. Such training programs ideally would also incorporate strategies for recognizing vicious cycles and de-escalating them in order to keep tense situations from tipping over into unnecessarily dangerous showdowns.

The minority of officers who regularly misuse any kind of force, up to and including deadly force, are typically those with a history of problematic behavior in other aspects of their professional and personal lives. We need more efficient methods of screening out potentially bad cops, as well as screening in potentially good ones, and we need effective standards and SOPs for dealing with police misconduct at any stage of an officer’s career.

Perceptions and cognitive distortions

Under emergency life-and-death circumstances, the human brain takes extraordinary measures to allow its owner to survive and, in the case of police officers, to assertively and lawfully respond to a deadly threat. Most officers who have been involved in an officer-involved shooting have described one or more alterations in perception, thinking and behavior that occurred during the event. Most of these can be interpreted as the natural adaptive defensive reactions of a nervous system that is conserving energy and allocating resources under extreme cognitive and emotional demand.

Perceptual and cognitive distortions during the episode include alteration in time perception, with events seeming to speed up or slow down. Many officers report sensory hyperfocus – “tunnel vision” or “auditory exclusion” – in which he or she is sharply focused on one particular aspect of the visual field or set of sounds, typically, the suspect’s weapon or voice, while blocking out everything in the perceptual periphery. The volume, intensity, or sharpness of perceptions may be blunted or enhanced, most commonly involving gunshots muffled into faint pops or a distant voice amplified into a blaring shout.

Some form of perceptual and/or behavioral dissociation may occur during the critical event, usually described as “going on autopilot,” where officer’s adaptive actions seem to have a mind of their own, he or she carrying them out with a sense of almost effortless prowess. In most cases, this is nothing more than the effect of that officer’s diligent training kicking in, following which, he or she may think twice before complaining about all those mandatory drills.

In many life and death emergencies, the brain self-protectively magnifies the perception of threat, and officers who have been involved in deadly force encounters commonly report perceptual and cognitive distortions at the scene that made the suspect appear closer, larger, faster, and more menacing than is later judged to be the case based on witness accounts and/or video recordings. When a use-of-force encounter is contested, this kind of post-hoc analysis may be used as “evidence” that the officer acted negligently or maliciously, when he or she was really responding to the threat as it was perceived at the time.

In fact, disturbances in memory are commonly reported in deadly force scenarios and may involve impaired recall for a particular event during the confrontation or for all or part of the officer’s actions. For example, it is common for officers not to remember how many rounds they fired. More rarely, some aspects of the scene may be recalled with unusual clarity – a “flashbulb memory.” Because all memory is reconstructive, over a third of deadly force cases involve an officer’s account of event differing markedly from the report of other observers at the scene or their video images. In some of these cases, the officer may be mistakenly accused of deliberately lying or covering up events.

Fear of bias

Although there are at least a few racists in any profession, police as a whole do not single out minorities for especially harsh treatment, up to and including deadly force, unless there are behavioral indicators of suspicious or potentially dangerous behavior. In fact, studies that measure electrophysiological brain responses to threatening stimuli in simulated shooting scenarios in civilians and police officers have found that neural systems involved in response inhibition are more strongly activated by experimentally presented images of black citizens holding a weapon than white citizens. This implies that the study subjects are actually hesitating longer before firing at the black images as if their brains are struggling with the conflict of whether or not to take the simulated shot.

In clinical interviews and surveys with officers, a fair number have reported just such feelings of hesitation in these circumstances, many having restrained their use of deadly force, even when it would have been legally justified – sometimes for purely tactical reasons, other times precisely out of concern about later accusations of excessive force or racial bias.

Post-critical incident stress

Unlike TV and movie cops, real-life officers rarely take a deadly force episode lightly. Even in legally justified and administratively cleared shooting, some officers undergo a period of cognitive and emotional destabilization, including rumination, impaired sleep, and sometimes physical symptoms like headaches and stomach upset. Virtually all, however, recover within a few days and are ready to return to work. Many agencies require a post-critical incident psychological evaluation before returning an officer to duty and many agencies try to provide for additional mental health counseling where needed.

In the case of a contested deadly force incident, however, the seismic pressure on an officer accused of such misconduct can be intense, as he or she may face months, if not years, of multi-agency investigations, civil litigation, criminal prosecution, career dissolution, financial destitution, media condemnation, and family disruption. Under these circumstances, special clinical and legal strategies mediated by qualified professionals may be essential to helping that officer maintain sanity and focus on a positive outcome.

Note: the information in this column is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. If you have a question or comment regarding this column, please submit it to this website.

Laurence Miller, PhD is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Florida. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications about the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice and organizational psychology. He has published “Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement” and “Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement.” Contact Dr. Miller at 561/392-8881 or online at