For the day when you need just the right word to enhance a crime scene.
Abrasion Collar – The circular pattern and charred, blackened skin surrounding the area/wound caused by a gunshot.
Adhesive Lifter – Any tape-type material containing an adhesive backing that’s used to retrieve prints from a surface.
Atomized Blood – Patterns of blood stains that appear to have been caused by a fine mist, or spray. Think of the mist that expels from an aerosol can, such as paint or deodorant.
Adipocere – A waxy substance with a texture that’s similar to soap. It’s formed on the dead, decomposing bodies of animals and humans that are typically found in moist, damp locations. Also called Grave Wax.
Antemortem – Before death.
Bilary Tract – Pertains to bile or the gallbladder and the ducts that move bile throughout.
Blow-back – Tissue and blood that’s found on the surface of a firearm that was in close proximity to a victim’s skin when a shot was fired. Blow-back material may also be found inside the barrel of the weapon. For example, a gun barrel is held close to a victim’s temple area when the trigger is pulled. Biological material then “blows back” toward the shooter and the weapon, adhering to those surfaces.
Bradycardia – Abnormally slow heartbeat that sometimes cause dizziness and chest pains due to low cardiac output.
Burking – Smothering a victim in such a manner where there are no telltale signs of the crime. The body is then sold for anatomical dissection.
The term “burking” was named after William Burke, who, in 1815, killed several intoxicated people after following them for the purpose of murdering them. He and a friend participated in the macabre activity. One of the two held a hand over the victim’s nose and mouth, using the other hand to hold the jaw up, while the other sat on the victim’s chest. The held this position until the victim, either a man or woman, died of asphyxia. The sold the fruits of their crimes, the dead bodies, to medical schools in Edinburgh, Scotland.
[Titlow v. Burt, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111459 (D. Mich. 2010)].
Cadaveric Spasm – A rare form of muscular stiffening that occurs at the moment of death, continuing into the rigor mortis stage. In fact, it can and has been mistaken for rigor mortis. The cause is unknown, but is thought to occur with violent deaths in conjunction with intense emotion. Also known as postmortem spasm, or instantaneous rigor.
Some scientists state that cadaveric spasm is a myth.
Bedford PJ, Tsokos M. The occurrence of cadaveric spasm is a myth. Forensic Sci Med Pathol. 2013 Jun;9(2):244-8.
However, in an April 2013 article for Forensic Science and Medical Pathology, Dr. Marcella Fierro, , former Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, said in the 30-years she served as a medical examiner she’d seen the occurrence of cadaveric spasm only three times. Note that she specified “only three times” when speaking of how often she’d seen the condition occur. But she had seen it.
The three cases she spoke of were:
“… a smothered infant who was discovered grasping the asphyxiating blanket enclosing him so tightly in front of his body that it could only be removed with great difﬁculty.”(1)
To take a journey back in time to retrace the footsteps of a police officer would be much akin to cracking the covers of a multitude of books, all of various genres from humor to horror, and then to combine each of the author’s voices along with their collective imaginations. But no tale could ever accurately detail, in writing, such bizarre goings-on created by man and woman, and sometimes beast, or any combination thereof.
Fortunately, crime writers are able to create wonderfully-told imaginary tales from tiny bits of factual intelligence they’ve gathered over a period of time. It’s what they do and to do it successfully they know how to effectively utilize scraps of information by transforming fact into a work of written art that is both realistic and entertaining—words that stimulate images in the minds of readers.
Real life is a writer’s university. It’s never-ending college study without graduation. Every day is a lesson and the world is the classroom.
Today’s convoluted (believe me, it is) article is about taking something very small and using it to transform a humdrum scene into a dazzling array of stunning imagery. Well, maybe not quite that grand, but it will help to take your writing to a higher level. First, though, you must allow your own minds to take you to deep into those crime scenes you write using terms such as fingerprints, gunshot residue, bullet trajectory and, of course, bloodstain patterns. It is the latter, bloodstains patterns, that is the focus of this blog post.
Everyone knows that when a liquid strikes a solid surface it immediately changes shape. Prior to hitting a surface, as they fall, water droplets constantly oscillate between a vertical and a horizontal elongation.
As a result of a water drop’s inertia, its viscosity, or surface tension, the heads of the drops resist changes of shape during a collision with a solid surface.
Of course, the type of surface the droplets strike affects how well, or not, the liquid “dances” across the impacted surface.
Blood behaves similarly … sort of. But then again, maybe not. How’s that for a definitive statement? But I was merely speaking about droplets of falling blood and water.
Actually, blood flows differently than water. It flows viscously and rather inconsistently. Its flow properties change, though, depending on surrounding conditions. For example, it becomes less viscous when pressure increases and it is this that allows blood to flow into the thinnest of capillaries. The flow of water, on the other hand, is largely constant.
Red blood cells account for about forty-five percent of the blood’s volume.
There is no DNA red blood cells
Blood plasma is the liquid in which the blood cells are suspended. It’s made up of approximately ninety-two percent water. Plasma plays an essential role in regulating how blood flows. Plasma displays a sort of elastic behavior when distorted, forming threads that cause it to exhibit an extensional viscosity, a trait that’s typically not seen in water.
And so on and so on and on. Yes, blood behaves differently than water … sort of.
I’ve mentioned all of the above to say this … there’s a new method of crime-solving using blood, which contains a lot of water.
Sure, there are bloodstain pattern investigations that tell us where a shooter stood when he fired a lethal round. Bloodstain patterns tell us where a victim was when he was killed and later dragged to a different location. Blood spatter shows us velocity and angle, and it even tells us if flies trampled through a victim’s blood and then transferred bits of it to a lampshade, an act that could cause a rookie CSI to confuse the groupings of tiny droplets/bloody fly footprints with those caused by high-velocity impacts.
High-velocity bloodstains are created when the source of blood is subjected to a force with a velocity greater than 100 ft/s.
Recently, Paul Steen, a Maxwell M. Upson Professor in Engineering, created a periodic table of droplet motions that was inspired by similarities between the symmetries of atomic orbitals.
An atomic orbital is:
- derived using the mathematical tools of quantum mechanics
- a representation of the three-dimensional volume (i.e., the region in space) in which an electron is most likely to be found
While an atomic orbital cannot be observed experimentally, it is possible to experimentally observe the density of an electron.
And, while it is not possible to define the exact location of an electron in an atom, the probability of finding an electron at a given position can be calculated.
The higher the prospect of finding an electron at a given location, the larger the electron denseness at that position.
Okay, I know that’s about as clear as mud, but the brains behind this new “periodic table” used this to atomic orbital gobblygook to measure the effortlessness with which droplets move back and forth across a surface.
The scientists then realized that the routine motions of specific types of droplets could be classified by their distinctive shapes and similarities. For example, droplets that form the shape of a orange stars would all be in one group, while droplets that form the shape of yellow quarter-moons would be in another group, and so on. They call those groups “motion-elements.”
Possible uses for this periodic table, for example, could help scientists and crime scene forensics experts understand where a particular droplet comes from by applying the table’s classifications to the found blood sample pattern, along with the relevant surface (from a list of standards) to identify the powers involved. Then they might have an idea as to what caused the spatter patterns found at a crime scene.
I have to say, writing this gave me a bit of a headache, thinking about what it took to come up with this method—all the research, atoms, tables, math, and chart, and science and labs and buzzing and whirring equipment.
Then it hit me.
They spent all that time, money, and energy to basically deliver a description of the marshmallow treats inside a box of Lucky Charms.
Why not stick with the old-fashioned method of … the hole in the dead guy’s forehead was caused by the gun found in the possession of the jealous lover. Works every time.
Atomic orbital … puhleeze.
In August, at MurderCon, renowned instructor David Alford will present a spectacular hands-on class on bloodstain pattern investigation.
A Bloody Mess: Search, ID, and Document Blood Evidence
MurderCon attendees will be exposed to proper methods to locate, identify, and enhance blood evidence. Also included in this workshop are chemical search methods using luminol and Bluestar. Attendees will also receive an introduction to blood patterns and what they can tell an investigator about a scene, as well as instruction regarding the identification of blood by using chemicals to enhance suspected blood patterns.
David Alford is a retired FBI Special Agent with 21 years of experience investigating violent crimes, terrorism and other cases. He was one of the founding members of the FBI Evidence Response Team (ERT) and conducted crimes scene searches on domestic and international violent crimes and bombings, including the Polly Klaas kidnaping and murder, the Unabomber’s cabin and the 9/11 Pentagon scene. He worked in the Denver and San Francisco field offices and completed his career at Quantico in the FBI Lab ERT Unit. During the 6 years in the FBI Lab, he was primarily responsible for overseeing and teaching basic and advanced crime scene courses throughout the US and many other countries.
In the 6 years before the FBI, David was a Forensic Serologist, Hair and Fibers Examiner and Bloodstain Pattern Analyst for the Kentucky State Police Crime Lab. After retirement, David taught crime scene courses around the world on behalf of the FBI and US State Department. David has been with Sirchie as an instructor and sales representative for Sirchie’s RUVIS and ALS products for the last 10 years. David loves teaching and allowing students to learn through hands-on training.
Sign up today while there’s still time. Believe me, you do not want to miss this rare and exciting opportunity. You may not have this chance again!
Killers, both fictional and the real-life murderers who live and walk alongside us as we carry on with our daily activities, will seemingly do anything to cover their tracks in order to avoid capture by the police. They flee the country. They lie. They stage alibies. And they sometimes use fire to conceal their crimes.
Setting aside fictional characters for a moment, let’s examine the very real case involving Gwendolyn Bewley, a 67-year-oldCleveland, Ohio woman whose charred remains were found on the kitchen floor inside her burning home. At the time of death, the body was in such poor condition that the medical examiner was unable to determine the actual cause of death.
Investigators thought it likely that Gwendolyn Bewley might have been strangled to death before her killer arranged paper and pieces of cardboard on and around her body before setting them ablaze. The purpose of the fire, they believed, was to destroy any possible evidence.
In the weeks prior the deadly fire, a man named Timothy Sheline moved next door to Ms. Bewley, into a home owned by his brother. Sheline’s broad criminal history included a 1989 aggravated arson conviction.
A couple of days after the fire and the discovery of Bewley’s body, police saw Sheline driving a car that Bewley had rented. They learned that one day after the fire Sheline had called Bewley’s sister to inquire about a lockbox Bewley kept inside her home. After further investigation, police discovered that Sheline had been using the dead woman’s credit cards to obtain cash. They also found her computer in his possession.
He was arrested and charged with unauthorized use of the car. He was also charged with the use of Gwendolyn Bewley’s credit cards.
Due to the lack of adequate cellphone tracking at the time of the arson, detectives were unable to tie Sheline to the scene of the crime. The alibi he offered appeared to be legimate. But investigators, having that “cops’ sixth sense” kept the file open, hoping to someday tie Sheline to Bewley’s murder.
Ironically, during Sheline’s trial for the use of the credit cards and unauthorized us of the car, prosecutors questioned the son of a woman who dated Sheline several years earlier. He described to the court how Sheline stole money from his mother and when she found out and confronted him about the missing cash, he set fire to her house. The blaze killed their family pet.
As time had passed, the team of investigators working this case grew to include local detectives, the State Fire Marshall’s Office, and the FBI, and it was, in 2014, approximately seven years after the initial crime occurred when new technology to cull data from cellphone towers became available. Experts received the break they’d been hoping for and immediately called on forensics expert Eric Devlin, who was able to successfully track Sheline’s cellphone. He discovered it had pinged off a tower less than two-tenths of mile away from Bewley’s house shortly before the time of the fire.
By utilizing that brand new cell-tracking technology process detectives were able to prove Sheline’s alibi was bogus. He was not out-of-state at the time of the murder as he’d claimed. The finally had the last piece of the puzzle needed to place Sheline behind bars for Bewley’s murder, the full “MOM”—motive, means, and … opportunity. He was in the area which meant he did indeed have the opportunity to commit the crime. The discovery shattered Sheline’s alibi.
Fire had not been enough to prevent this killer from serving the rest of his life in prison, where he now sits, day-in and day-out—24-7-365.
Arson Investigations Are Tough Work
Arson investigations are not fun. Not at all. Especially when they involve a murder where the killer used the fire to conceal the crime. Arson scene are extremely messy, smelly, and the evidence is unpleasant to handle and process, especially when the victim is badly burned. It’s horrid, actually, and the experience is one that is unlikely to leave the mind.
I’ve always said that it takes a special person to work an arson case. It also takes a special writer to effectively set those scenes to page, one who’s willing to do a bit of homework.
There’s science and a distinct discipline behind the solving arson cases. There’s an art to it, actually—to be able to iron-out the details and bring them all together to form a conclusion as to how fires start and the patterns that expose their sources.
That part I liked—the puzzle-solving that involves the combination of investigatory skills and experience along with modern forensic tools and equipment. After all, those puzzle pieces are in place at the precise moment the first ember begins to glow. They’re all there, ready for bagging and tagging, as long as everyone involved in the case does their part, correctly.
So how should authors approach writing about such complicated crimes? For starters, please do not rely on the internet to help you with developing sensation and emotion because you won’t find anything remotely close.
Sure, you’ll read about burn patterns and the tools used to delicately search through charred rubble in a search for evidence. But that’s not enough to take your readers inside a burning home where a murder victim was left behind to be destroyed along with a thirty-year old couch and the family photographs.
Why Attend the Writers’ Police Academy?
When we designed the Writers’ Police Academy, the very first one, we did so with writers in mind. We examined what it is that’s often lacking in so, so many books—real life experiences. The experiences that bring to mind the odor of burnt gunpowder (NOT cordite), the gut-wrenching feeling that occurs when a little one dies in your arms after being abused by a drug-addicted, extremely high parent. Yes there is a specific reason behind each and every session offered at the WPA, and typically each one has to do with something we’ve seen written incorrectly in someone’s book. We also keep writers up to date on the latest technology and procedures.
Bullets and Heartbeats!
The sound of bullets pinging and popping into the fender of a car you’re crouched behind as a crazed gunman lobs round after round in your direction. The sensation of your heart thumping against the inside of your chest wall as you search for an armed robber inside a dark abandoned warehouse.
Feeling the searing, unbearable heat that singes your eyebrows and warms your skin to temperatures you’re almost certain could fry eggs. The sight of what used to be a teller at a downtown bank, reduced to a blackened lump that resembles an adult-sized lump of scorched and charred charcoal. Fingers and toes separated from limbs due to ligaments and tendons having been burned away.
Seeing orangish-red flames undulate and spread across what was once a bedroom where a grandmother lay sleeping after enjoying an afternoon with her family. Those same flames push you back and back and back, choking off your oxygen and filling your throat and lungs with what feels like cotton soaked in molten lava.
You try and try and try until you succumb to the painful reality that there’s no chance whatsoever at saving the life of the elderly dear woman. You stand there gasping for fresh air while choking back tears, tears that when they’re finally released create tiny, curvy creeks in the soot staining your face.
But, unless you’ve, as they say, been there done that, you can only imagine what it’s like to experience these horrors.
So, that’s how and why we bring the Writers’ Police Academy to you each year. We want your stories to evoke emotion from your readers. We want your readers to know that you’ve done all you could possible do to entertain them in the ways they should be entertained. They’ll know this when they suddenly realize they’ve been reading your latest book until the wee hours of the morning, nonstop. Page after page after page.
We do our job so you can do yours. It’s as simple as that.
This year we’ve gone way over the top of what even we imagined eleven years ago when the WPA was nothing more than a wild idea in my mind. We’ve teamed up with a giant in the field of forensics and crime scene investigation, Sirchie, to offer to you, MurderCon, a special hands-on training event for writers of all genres, with a specific focus on solving the crime of murder.
Included in the MurderCon program is a one-of-a-kind class called Burn baby, Burn!!! Arson Investigation.
This is an outdoor session with live demonstrations of actual burns. Attendees will experience the effects of burning various pieces of evidence. Participants will learn the fundamentals of fire science, recognition of fire behavior including burn patterns and aftermath, and how fire is utilized by perpetrators during the commission of violent crimes and murder to attempt to conceal and/or destroy evidence.
Yes, you will receive instruction that not only covers the knowledge portion of fire and how it’s used to conceal crimes, we’re taking you on an adventure. A journey that delivers to you the sensations of touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight.
You’ll also experience a bit of emotion as you witness actual burns while using your writers’ imagery to picture what it must be like to be a victim who’s trapped inside the flames and heat and smoke. You’ll hear their cries (in your minds) and their pleas for help. You’ll sense what it’s like to be the officer on the outside looking in, helpless against an inferno. And you’ll imagine the body of a murder victim burning along with floorboards and window and door trim.
Burn Baby, Burn is a hands on training event that’ll surely help you breathe life into what should be an emotional rollercoaster ride for your readers.
This exciting session is taught by Ken Andrews.
Ken has over 30 years of fire investigation experience, including 28 years as an agent with the ATF and as a private consultant. He is an International Association of Arson Investigator’s (IAAI) Certified Fire Investigator and Certified Fire Investigation Instructor.
Ken was a member of ATF’s elite National Response Team (NRT) and an ATF Certified Explosives Specialist for 18 years. He has conducted investigations related to fire and explosions involving vehicles and residences as well as large industrial and commercial scenes. Ken has also instructed fire and explosion investigators nationally and internationally. During his career with ATF, he was a regular instructor at the National Fire Academy, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the International Law Enforcement Academy in Bangkok, Thailand.
To register for MurderCon and to learn more about the exciting 2019 classes and workshops, please visit our website at …
Writers’ Police Academy Anthology Full Details Released Today!
Writers’ Police Academy Anthology Full Details Released Today!
Details also include a short story contest that lands you in a published book, with foreword by Lee Child. Yes, YOU could have YOUR story published in this thrilling collection of tales written bestselling mystery and crime authors, top television writers, true crime experts, a Nashville music legend, and more.
Contest winners receive an invitation to sign copies at a book launch party taking place at MurderCon. Launch party and reception sponsored by the publisher, Level Best Books, and the Writers’ Police Academy.
AFTER MIDNIGHT: TALES FROM THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT
Edited by Phoef Sutton – Phoef Sutton is a New York Times Bestselling author and winner of two Emmy Awards for his work on the classic television comedy CHEERS. Phoef also won a Peabody Award for the popular legal drama BOSTON LEGAL starring James Spader, William Shatner, and Candice Bergen.
About the book – The curtain rises on this collection of twisted tales, revealing the words of bestselling thriller author Lee Child. Child sets the stage for a series of mysterious and strange goings-on that occur between the hours of midnight and dawn … the graveyard shift.
Skin, as you all know, is the largest organ of the human body. It’s the non-manmade tarp that covers our insides—organs, bones, and all the other goopy-gooey stuff that autopsies and surgeons expose when those needs arise.
Our skin protects us from microbes and the weather. Obviously we wouldn’t want rain, snow, and sleet pounding on our stomachs and livers, nor would we want hot summertime sunshine baking our spleens, or cold wintertime air forming icicles that would hang precariously from our ribcages.
Skin helps regulate body temperature and permits us to enjoy the pleasures of a warm embrace and the sensation of brisk and cool fall air.
The covering of our bodies may look smooth, but of course it’s not. Wrinkles and creases work similar to the flexing baffles of an old pump organ, or an accordion. Those instruments work by using air pressure that’s created when bellows are expanded and contracted. The laugh lines around our eyes and the folds at our elbows, for example, allow the skin there to move and stretch.
A close look at our hands and feet reveals ridges and sweat pores that allow the hands and feet to grasp surfaces firmly. Without those, picking up or grasping smooth objects could become nearly impossible.
Skin helps homicide detectives solve murders
Friction ridge skin has distinct features that remain from before birth until after death when our bodies go through the decomposition process.
When those unique features come into contact with various surfaces they leave impressions of those corresponding unique details. These impressions are, of course, fingerprints, the characteristics that helps investigators find criminals by comparing prints found at a crime scene with those of a known suspect.
So how and when do we first develop those identifiable fingerprints?
During the third month, the embryo’s nervous system and sense organs develop. Arms and legs begin to move and reflexes such as sucking are noticed. Facial expressions can be visualized at this stage of growth.
This is also when early fingerprints begin to take shape—friction ridges begin to form at about 10.5 weeks estimated gestational age (EGA).
Prints continue to mature in depth as the embryo passes into the second trimester.
Second Trimester: Fingerprints are Here to Stay
Significant growth occurs within The second trimester. Bone growth is active, the body becomes covered with fine hair. Friction ridges continue to grow until approximately 16 weeks EGA. That’s the point when the minutiae, the specific, fine points in a finger image that identifies one person from another, become set.
It is at this stage of life—16 weeks EGA—when this little person who has not yet been born now has an identity all its own.
Yes, Baby, it’s You!
Billy Buck’s heart pert-near stopped cold when he realized he was out of bullets. He frantically dug his grubby and stubby fingers down into each of the pockets of his crud-caked moldy jeans. Nothing. No bullets. He’d have to bare-knuckle and BS his way out of this one. He straightened his back and stood tall while squinting his eyes until they were practically shut, just as he’d seen Clint Eastwood do many times. Hey, it worked for him. Maybe …
Okay, what’s wrong with the above text (other than the poor writing)? I’ve seen this faux pas in several published works, and so have you, I’m sure..
Yes, bullets are only a portion of a complete round, not the entire item. If you already knew this then you’re ahead of the game.
So, while we wait to see if Billy Buck makes it out of this post alive, let’s examine a few other details about ammunition you may not know or have forgotten.
Bullets are Only Part of the Story
Acetic acide – reagent used in in the Griess test for detection of gunpowder residue. It’s also used for determination of nitrite in drinking water.
Action – The working mechanism of a firearm. For example:
- Automatic – A firearm that feeds cartridges, fires, extracts, and then ejects spent cartridge cases. It will continue to do so as long as the trigger is fully depressed and there are cartridges in the feed system. These weapons are sometimes called “Full Auto” or “Machine Guns.
- Lever – The breech mechanism of the firearm is cycled by the shooter who operates an external lever that’s typically located below the receiver. Operating the lever ejects a spent round on the way down and feeds a new round into the chamber on the way back up, if the gun is designed to do so. (Think old western TV shows where the cowboy fired his rifle by operating a lever action).
- Revolver – A firearm with a cylinder having several chambers that rotate around an axis with each pull of the trigger .
- Semiautomatic – A repeating firearm that requires a separate pull of the trigger for each shot fired. These are the typical pistols and rifles carried by police officers, recreational shooters, homeowners, concealed carry folks, etc. They are NOT fully automatic. Semi-autos operate by using the energy of each fired/discharged round to operate a sliding mechanism that discharges and loads each round, until the weapon and magazine are empty.
Bore diameter – Diameter of a rifled gun barrel, measured from the tops of the lands. In a non-rifled barrel, such as a shotgun, the diameter is measured from inside wall to inside wall.
Breech loading – A breech-loading weapon is a firearm (a rifle, a gun etc.) in which the bullet or shell is inserted or loaded at the rear of the barrel, or breech; the opposite of muzzle loading.
Buckshot – Lead pellets ranging in size from .20” to .36” diameter. These are typically loaded in shotshells used by hunters, target shooters, and police.
Bullet – an elongated missile of some type (lead, etc.) that’s to be fired from a firearm.
Bullet, armor piercing – A bullet consisting of a hardened core other than lead or lead alloy.
Bullet, exploding – A bullet containing some sort of explosive that’s designed to explode upon impact.
Bullet, hollow point – A bullet with a cavity in the nose that’s designed to expand on impact.
Bullet, ogive – The curved forward part of a bullet.
Bullet, tracer – A bullet featuring a burning compound in its base. The hot and clearly visible flaming trail permits the shooter, and others, to view the bullet’s flight path.
Bullet penetration – The distance a bullet travels within a target material.
Bullet splash – The fragmentation and scattering/spattering of a bullet upon impacting a surface, such as metal or wood.
Bullet wipe – The discolored area around the immediate periphery of a bullet hole. It’s the smear/staining left surrounding the hole, caused by a combination of bullet lubricant, smoke components, lead, and even jacket material.
Cannelure – A groove or other mark surrounding the outside of a bullet that’s usually knurled, although, sometimes they’re plain. Cannelures are used to assist in crimping and identification of rounds.
Cartridge – A single piece of ammunition. One round.
- Centerfire Cartridge– Any cartridge with its primer located central to the axis in the head of the case.
Rimfire Cartridge – A flange-headed cartridge with the priming mixture contained inside the cavity of the rim, such as .22 ammunition.
Chamber – The rear part of the barrel bore that accepts cartridges. Revolver cylinders have several chambers, for example (six shooters).
Chambering – Inserting a cartridge into the chamber. Officer Al Bundy, ready for a night of walking his downtown beat, loaded his 9mm and then chambered a round. He looked toward his partner and said, “Let’s rock.”.
Cordite – A double-base smokeless powder. It’s made of gun cotton, nitroglycerin, and mineral jelly. The mixture is molded and shaped into long cylindrical strands. Which are packed into individual casings. Cordite use and manufacturing ceased near the end of WWII. It’s not used in modern ammunition; therefore, modern day characters in novels and on TV cannot smell it when entering a crime scene. NO CORDITE in your stories!!!!
Cylinder – The rotating part of a revolver that contains the chambers (the individual slots where rounds are inserted).
Ejection – Expel a cartridge case, live or fired round, from a firearm.
Ejector/Extractor – The mechanism that expels cartridges or cartridge cases from a firearm.
Ejector/Extractor marks – Toolmarks on a cartridge case produced from contact with the ejector. Ejector/extractor marks are typically found near the rim of the cartridge and can sometimes be used to match a spent cartridge with the firearm that made the unique scratch, dent, etc.
Feeding – The insertion of cartridges into the chamber, either by hand or by magazine.
Feet per second – The unit of measurement used to express the speed of a projectile’s rate of travel.
Firing pin drag marks – Toolmarks produced during the extraction, ejection cycle, when a firing pin contacts a cartridge case. The same occurs when ejecting shotshells from a shotgun.
Firing pin impression – The indentation of the primer of a centerfire cartridge case, or on/at the rim of a rimfire cartridge case. The mark is made when the firing pin strikes the cartridge.
Billy Buck’s partner in crime, Onion Jenkins, tossed him a handful of cartridges (not bullets) just in the nick of time. So yes, he made it out of here in one solid, non-perforated piece.
Many of you have heard me tell the story of the day I shot and killed a bank robber during a pretty intense shootout. If you haven’t heard the story in person you may have read about it here on this site in one form or another.
But there’s a part of the tale I haven’t shared, and today I’ve decided to open the door in the back corner of my mind where this story lives. I’m doing so because those of you who write truly need to hear it. I say this because these are often the tiny details missing from your tales.
I’ve talked about the bullets zinging past my head with some striking the metal and glass of a nearby police car. I filled you in on the slow motion and my inability to hear that began the moment the robber fired his first round. I mentioned the 68 rounds that were exchanged (I fired five with all five striking the point of his body for which I aimed—one to the head and four practically dead center of his chest).
I told you about the dog barking. Of the bad guy folding like a carpenter’s ruler each time one of my 9mm bullets struck him, and then each time he popped back up like a clown in a jack-in-the-box to fire still more rounds at me and the other officers who’d arrived.
I turned to see one of the backup officers take cover beneath his vehicle, rolling under it in the same manner as a child would while playfully tumbling down a hillside. I saw members of a state highway construction crew quickly climb into the back of a dump truck just seconds before gunfire struck the vehicle. The big truck’s metal body served them well.
I described the man’s final charge with gun in hand when I and a sheriff’s captain tackled the robber at which time I saw the barrel of his pistol aimed point blank at my face while he frantically and repeatedly squeezed the trigger, hoping to kill me. I let you know that I still sometimes hear the repetitive click, click, click of the hammer falling each time he pulled that trigger.
Then I handcuffed him, and he died.
What I haven’t described to you is what took place after I cuffed him, knowing that a man I’d shot died while wearing my handcuffs.
After He Fell
I stood watching as EMS personnel frantically did their best to keep the 22-year-old bank robber alive. Sure, they contaminated the scene with empty gauze packaging and plastic wrappings and tubes and IV stuff, and with foot and knee prints in the soil. And they moved the man to slide a backboard beneath his body, and then then I saw them start chest compressions, and rescue breathing using an Ambu bag. But they were doing their best to save a then rapidly dying man.
The air was still, hot, and extremely humid immediately after the man fell for the last time. When he did, my hearing returned as did real-time motion.
Since I was a detective on my way to a court proceeding when the robbery occurred, I wore a sports jacket, white shirt, khaki pants, a tie, and dress shoes. The robber had on a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes with no socks. Perspiration dampened my shirt. Blood soaked the robber’s.
At the time, I was working a special assignment and had grown out my hair a bit to better blend in with a particular group of bad folks. At the scene, due to nerve- and heat-induced sweating, I’d pulled the sides of my perspiration-dampened hair behind my ears. Still, sweat rolled down my cheeks like tiny waterfalls. It’s one thing that, for some reason, stood out to me. One of the many little things that did and still do.
The ambulance left the scene with red lights flashing and siren wailing. I stood on a grassy hillside surrounded by bullet casings, rescue debris, dozens of police cars with blue lights winking and blinking, scores of police officers from several agencies, news media, a crowd of citizen looky-loos, one police car with the windshield and side glasses shattered by incoming gunfire, and puddles of drying blood.
I watched until the ambulance drove out of sight.
I’d never felt so alone in my entire life.
When all was said and done at the scene, I drove back to my office where I was asked to give a statement to the investigator who’d handle the shooting. Other investigators from the outside agency were on hand as well, demanding my gun for comparison. They unloaded it and immediately counted the rounds left in the magazine and the one in the chamber. I was issued another weapon since they’d keep that one until the investigation was complete.
All I wanted to do was to go home to be with my wife. I needed calm in the midst of chaos.
However, instead of allowing me to decompress, my immediate supervisor, the chief of police, told me to go to the morgue to video and photograph the dead robber, and to collect my handcuffs.
What happened next is a macabre and blurred memory that will remain inside my skull until the day I die.
I and another investigator who, at the time, was assigned to a drug task force, drove to the morgue. He had one of those huge and clunky VHS video recorders in his unmarked car.
We arrived in separate vehicles and he waited for me to pull up beside his car and park so we could enter the building together.
I still had on the same clothes, the jacket and tie. He wore his typical jeans and t-shirt with a gun hidden somewhere beneath. His hair was long and curly and he had a thick, dark beard that nearly touched his chest. He was a huge man who stood at six-feet-eight-inches. He died a few years ago in a car crash while en-route to assist an officer. My detective partner at the time has also passed away. So has another officer who was there “that” day.
I approached the doors to the morgue. Head-high square windows near the top of each door allowed a view directly to the front of room. He was there, on his back, shirtless.
Cool sweat began to flow down my back (perspiration seems to play a big role in these memories). A lightheadedness set in as I pushed open the green double doors and stepped inside using what felt like rubber legs to push me forward. The undercover guy had already begun filming the body and narrating what he observed.
Seconds later, and I do not remember walking over, I stood beside the guy I’d killed an hour or so ago, looking at what I knew would be cold flesh. His chest and face were badly bruised and covered in streaks of dried rusty-brownish blood. Chest and belly hair stuck together in clumps matted together by more of the dried fluid that trailed from four nearly perfect round holes at the center of his chest. Holes I placed there with 9mm bullets fired from my pistol.
Another neat and perfectly round hole—an entrance wound, the first shot I’d fired—was an inch or so from his left ear, just above his cheek. A trail of clotted blood went from there down to his jaw where a single drop had hardened before it could fall. I vividly remember placing my sights at that very spot, the one near his ear. It was center mass of what I could see of the man as he hid behind his car, an old station wagon that belonged to his father.
He crouched beside the car while lobbing rounds at police officers who’d positioned themselves atop a small hill. His head was all I could see and his head was for what I aimed.
In my mind I saw the entire event again as I stood there, as motionless as his dead body. I saw him go down after the round struck the side of his head and I was stunned to see him pop up to begin firing again.
I walked around the stainless steel gurney and saw the reason why that round didn’t kill him. Since he was positioned at the bottom of the hill my shot entered the target at a downward angle. The bullet went in near the ear and exited in an ugly tearing of flesh and bone just below his right lower jaw.
When he stood and turned toward me to fire even more rounds was when I started perforating his chest, answering his bursts of gunfire with a round of my own, each time he stood to shoot. He fired and I placed a shot dead center of his chest. He fell. Then he popped back to fire and I’d fire another round and down he’d go. I fired four rounds into his chest, all eventual fatal rounds, yet he still managed to get up and charge at officers.
And that exchange of gunfire, my precise shooting, was what brought me to the point of slipping my handcuff key into the lock of my, what were then extremely bloody handcuffs. I released the catch and for what I believe was the first and last time that the person wearing them did not rub their wrists after they were removed.
No, “Thank you.”
No, “Glad to get those off.”
No, “I want my lawyer.”
No, “I’ll have your badge.”
Just the sound of my pounding heart.
And a dead guy.
A man I killed.
Even now, as I write this, the emotion is there. My heart feels these words. My mind sees the dead robber just like he’s here beside me helping to tell the story.
But there are no words.
Just five little holes.
Well, six, if you count the hole in my soul.
The one he fired when he decided to use me to end his life.
"You get always what you want from me You can make it easy, can't you see You shot a hole, hole, hole in my soul." ~ C.C. Catch
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Actually, there’s more to it, but for the purpose of today’s post I’m focusing solely on the part—the Double Jeopardy clause—that protects us from the government trying us for the same crime twice.
But does it actually do what those words indicate?
The 5th Amendment
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Ordinarily, yes, the clause does indeed stave off overzealous prosecutors who cannot stand losing a case. Think about it for a moment. If defendants were not protected by The Constitution the government would have free reign to try cases over and over again until they reached the verdict they’d hoped to achieve. After all, it looks bad for government attorneys when they lose cases. A spotless win-win-win record is the brass ring in their world. The same, I suppose, is true for defense attorneys. After all, who’d hire the lawyer who never won a case?
So, with this in mind, possibly, the Framers of The Constitution added this safety net of sorts to protect us all from the “gotta win no matter the cost” possibilities that could, can, and do arise during criminal trial proceedings. However …
In the early 1920s, the Supreme Court allowed an exception the Double Jeopardy clause that permits state and federal prosecutors to bring separate charges for the same crime as long prosecutors are from separate sovereigns. I guess you can see where this is headed.
Yep, the separate sovereigns rule absolutely allows consecutive prosecutions by both state and federal authorities— for crimes arising out of the same conduct. Yes, this exception to The 5th Amendment, the rule that “GUARANTEES” us the right to not be tried twice for the same offense, says’ “oh well, too bad, we’re doing it anyway” because the prosecutions are conducted by separate sovereigns.
Federal and State gov’ts are separate sovereigns; Each has separate zones of authority ~ Black’s Law Dictionary
A great example of how this separate sovereign exemption works is a multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force operating under the umbrella of a federal agency, such as the DEA, FBI, or U.S. Marshalls. The federal agency is in charge and, of course, its agents have arrest powers throughout the U.S. Local officers who serve as members of the task force are sworn/deputized as Special Deputy Marshals, etc.
Let’s refer to United States v. Davis as a good example, where officers and prosecutors failed to successfully win the case at the local level. Therefore, when the Greene County Court ruled to suppress the evidence because the court believed arresting officers/task force members did not have proper and reasonable/probable cause to stop the car operated by the defendants, the prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges and then referred the case to federal authorities so they could pursue the case. The defendants were then tried a second time for the same offense, only this time they were found guilty in a federal court.
The overlapping of many local and federal laws (appr. 4,500 federal laws are now on the books) over the years has made it easy for federal agencies to prosecute even minor crimes such as the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
This is not how the system was originally designed. Instead, state and local court were set up to handle local crime, not the feds who were supposed to focus on things such as terrorism, securities and tax law violations, weapons, interstate drug crimes, immigration, and civil rights violations. But now the feds have morphed into a huge conglomerate that overshadows local law enforcement, almost to the point of seemingly having to take on the smaller crimes simply to meet and justify their growing payroll.
In 2008, Terance Gamble was convicted in an Alabama court of second-degree robbery, a felony. Convicted felons may not possess firearms. Therefore, seven years later when Gamble was stopped by officers who found illegal drugs along with a 9mm handgun in his vehicle, he was prosecuted under Alabama’s “felon-in-possession” statute. The conviction earned him one year in state prison.
But Gamble’s troubles didn’t end there, because the U.S. attorney also charged Gamble with the same offense under federal law. A federal judge sentenced Gamble to 46 months in prison … for the same crime.
Gamble appealed the “dual sovereignty” exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause, but, because of the exception per the Supreme Court ruling, the Appeals Courts had to ignore Gamble’s objection of being tried twice for the same crime.
As a result, the ACLU and ACLU of Alabama, the Cato Institute, and the Constitutional Accountability Center“ filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to look at the case with hopes of ending the dual sovereignty exception/loophole.
On the opposite end of the Gamble spectrum is the state of New York. They’re fighting to add to/amend New York’s double jeopardy laws so their prosecutors can bring charges against people who receive presidential pardons.
Having see first-hand how these cases come about and are tried, I’m anxious to see how all of this plays out. How about you?
*Please, no politics!
It was the late Hans Conried who provided the voice of Snidely Whiplash, the main antagonist of the cartoon, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.
As a stereotypical villain, much like those portrayed in today’s novels, he wore a tall black top hat and cape and had a long nose and a mustache.
Okay, present day authors may not dress their villains in such attire but the premise is the same … they’re evil, often dark, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goals, even if murder is the only thing standing between them and getting what they want, and, of course, their freedom after the deed is done.
Therefore, it’s up to the hero of the story to save the day.
In Whiplash’s time it was Dudley Do-Right who rescued Nell from oncoming trains and other hazards. Nowadays there’s Reacher, D.D. Warren, Joanna Brady, Ellie Hatcher, Harry Bosch, Lincoln Rhyme, Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska, Dave Robicheaux, Eve Dallas, and, well, the list goes on and on. But in the end, the hero always wins, leaving the villains and/or antagonists to say, as did Whiplash, “Curses, foiled again!”
I imagine that’s what went through the mind of Peggy Jo Tallas, an ex-convict, just prior to being shot and killed by four Tyler, Texas police officers after she pointed a handgun at them. The shooting occurred after Peggy Jo made her escape after robbing the Guaranty Bank shortly after 11 a.m. that morning. Police later identified Tallas’ weapon as a toy gun.
In the early 90’s, a polite and quiet man with a pot-belly and graying hair, who wore sunglasses to hide his eyes and a ten-gallon hat perched backward on his head, robbed several area banks. The suspect never looked at the security cameras and was careful about checking for dye packs (more on dye packs in a moment).
Nothing the robber did stood out to investigators. No odd manners of speech (he didn’t say a word, making the demands by way of written notes). No fast get-a-aways (no tire tracks or identifying marks on the pavement). Always had stolen plates on the get-a-way car making it difficult to track.
However, when Cowboy Bob robbed the First Interstate Bank in Mesquite, Texas, he’d left on the actual license plates assigned to his Grand Prix. When police tracked down the vehicle belonging to a man named Pete Tallas, a Ford factory worker, Pete told investigators that he’d given the car to his sister, Peggy Jo. So off they go to pay a visit to Peggy Jo Tallas, expecting to find the mysterious pot-bellied, sunglass- and ten-gallon-hat-wearing man with graying hair hiding out in the apartment. Instead, they found Peggy Jo and her mother.
During a look around the apartment, the officers located a mannequin head with a fake beard, and a big ol’ bag of cash. The items had been stashed away in a bedroom closet. They pressed Peggy Jo about the possibility of a boyfriend and his location. She denied knowing either. It was at this point when one of the detectives noticed a bit of dried glue hanging from her lip AND, flecks of gray dye in her hair.
Cowboy Bob was actually Cowgirl Peggy, obviously, and for her crimes she served a whopping three years in prison. When she got out she bought an RV snd robbed another bank. This time, though, and perhaps she wanted to be caught, she wore sunglasses and a big floppy hat—no male disguise—, she spoke to the teller instead of passing a handwritten note, and she didn’t bother to check for dye packs.
Peggy Jo walked across the street to her RV. On the way, a dye pack exploded. She climbed into her RV and drove away. Police were notified and were provided a description of the RV. It was only a matter of minutes before a pursuit began and ended shortly after it started. Peggy Jo emerged from the camper with gun in hand, pointed at the officers and she dared them to shoot her. They granted her request by responding with four rounds fired from the sidearms.
Peggy Jo “Cowboy Bob” was dead.
“Curses, foiled again” ~ Snidely Whiplash, stereotypical villain whose hobbies were tying women to railroad tracks and bank robbery.
Dye packs help officers locate both the robber and the stolen loot.
The packs look like real money, but they’re designed to stain stolen currency by exploding a colored substance, typically red dye 1-methylaminoanthraquinone (MAAQ), that covers the cash and often the robber as well. Depending upon the timing of pack’s explosion, it’s possible that it occurs inside the suspect’s vehicle, which stains the seats and other portions of the interior. It’s messy.
Tear gas is included in some dye packs, making the device doubly effective. Now you have a grown red guy who’s bawling like a baby.
Should the crook successfully make his escape, the dye does not easily come out during even several washings. The same is true when contacted with skin. The stuff is extremely difficult to remove, especially in places such as nail beds and ridge areas of fingerprints.
If a suspect is located, an examination of clothing found would be conducted in a laboratory. The testing is as follows.
Fabrics are examined visually and/or microscopically.
If the telltale red or pink staining is observed, dichloromethane is used extract it from the material.
Red dye 1-methylaminoanthraquinone is soluble in Dichloromethane.
If the tested material is indeed soluble in dichloromethane, it’s then examined by Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry and/or Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy.
A positive result indicates the material was exposed to the red coloring in the bank’s dye pack.
Bingo! You have your bank robber.
Apply cuffs and take the crook directly to jail.
How a Dye Pack Works
A dye pack consists of a hollowed-out stack of real bills. Inside the stack are the red dye, tear gas, and and electronics used to activate the explosion.
The dye pack remains in “safe mode” resting on a magnetic plate inside the teller’s cash drawer.
When a robber approaches and demands money, the teller simply slips the dye pack in with the rest of the cash.
When the pack is lifted from the magnetic plate, the pack is “armed,” or activated. It’s then ready to do it’s job.
Somewhere near the exit doors are activation points and, as the robber and his sack of money pass by on his way outside, a timer inside dye pack’s explosive device is automatically activated. It’s set to allow the robber to get a bit of distance away from the bank before going Kaplooey!
I’ve seen this first hand and the results are impressive. The packs basically render the stolen cash useless since it’s all stained a bright reddish-pink color, as is the robber.
You’ve most likely read about the shootout I was in with the bankroller, right? Well, the cash he stole was indeed red when we recovered it. He, too, had reddish stain on his face, hands, arms, legs (he wore shorts) and his tennis shoes. The pistol he used to fire at me also had bits of dye on the grips, a transfer from the palms of his hands.
“I need backup.”
“In the alley behind Joe’s Pawn Shop.”
“He’s shooting again.”
Then, “Man down! Send paramedics … NOW!”
And then it starts. The looky-loos come out of the woodwork with cellphones and cameras in hand. The cop-haters who’re looking for an excuse to lob a few rocks and bricks and circle around the officer who’s bleeding, and scared.
The wounded cop’s adrenaline is in crash mode and his emotions are speeding to places they’ve not been before. Time is in full herky-jerky mode, speeding up to catch up to realtime after its abrupt switch to slow motion when the action first fired-up its engines. Sound returns slowly after a bout of “tunnel hearing.”
“If I Only Had a Brain” ~ The Scarecrow, from The Wizard of Oz
Each of us, hopefully, has a functioning brain (there are exceptions for politicians) and it’s that mass that fills the space between our ears that controls everything we do. It’s also in charge of our emotions. More specifically, it’s the amygdala section of the brain that’s assigned charge of emotional responses. The amygdala typically works and plays well with the other parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex that, by the way, controls complex decision-making.
However, when the brain perceives danger, the typically smooth-running operation inside our skulls goes a bit wonky because the moment danger is detected a major dam located in the adrenal glands is breached. This sudden discord sends out adrenaline to flood our systems.
Adrenaline, the hormone that boosts blood circulation, increases breathing rate and metabolism and causes our muscles to rise up and prepare for battle. Then all hell breaks lose.
The amygdala section of the brain decides it wants to be in charge and leads a successful coup against the prefrontal cortex, taking control of the making of decisions. Since the amygdala has not been properly schooled in decision-making skills, the results are kaleidoscopic and slightly out of whack responses to various situations. It distorts and narrows our visual and auditory senses to the point where we often focus our attentions on a single point, skipping over other often important things taking place around us.
Fellow author, friend, and police psychologist Ellen Kirshman summed up the experience as it relates to police officers as, and I don’t recall her exact words, but were something like, “Police officers are called upon to do the unnatural. They run toward danger, not away from it.” I read her quote in an article a while back about the deputy in Florida who failed to act during the horrific school shooting that occurred there. She also said something similar to what I’ve said here on this blog time and time and time again … no one but the officer who’s at the scene at the precise moment the danger takes place knows exactly what happened. (Ellen, I apologize if I’ve misquoted you, but I couldn’t locate the article).
In other words …
Monday Morning Quarterbacks Lack the Touch, Taste, Smell, and Motion to Know with 100% Certainty What Took Place
It’s easy for the public to render judgement regarding an officer’s actions, or lack of action, by switching on the TV or their computers to view a video recording of an event. Commentators often offer slow-motion replays, rewinds, zoom views, and various angles, and their opinions as to what happened and/or should have or shouldn’t have happened.
The officer on the scene, however, views the situation in real time, within a time period of a split second or two, while their brain is sending adrenaline throughout their system, with parts of the mind taking charge over other parts that typically supply reason based upon well-thought-out decisions, decisions that take time and energy before an action is performed.
The body of an officer involved in an intense shootout is undergoing many changes all at once. There’s the whole adrenaline thing, of course, while the brain is rapidly switching back and forth between tunnel vision to tunnel hearing, meaning that during the times they’re visually surveying a scene the volume of their auditory functions is greatly reduced, or nonexistent. They cannot use both tunnel vision and tunnel hearing at the same time. The brain does not allow it during times of extreme stress.
Furthermore, during times of extreme stress, the brain may completely shut off auditory functions which is the reason that in post shooting interviews some officers report not hearing the sounds of shots being fired.
I, for one, am a perfect example. During a bank robbery shootout, I saw puffs of smoke (in slow motion) rise from the robber’s handgun, but never heard a single sound. Not even when I returned fire. Actually, from the moment the situation turned violent until I chased the wounded man and tackled him, I don’t recall hearing anything until I rolled him over and then heard the “click, click, clicks” as he pointed his gun at me and repeatedly pulled the trigger. I’ll never forget those sounds. Not ever.
Thankfully, he’d fired the last round before making his final charge. But until that point, it’s like we were in a vacuum.
This experience and others like it explain why so often police officers simply do not recall hearing a specific number of shots fired. In the world of neuroscience this total shutdown of hearing is called auditory exclusion.
A police officer’s overall situational awareness can become dulled to the point of totally blocking out things going on in their periphery, which presents a huge problem for them if the field of danger extends beyond the point of their focus/attention, and it often does—more than one attacker, threat, etc.
Filling In the Blanks
Officers are human, a fact which seems to escape some people. And being human prompts the desire for them to believe they “should have” both heard and seen the action as it unfolded. Therefore, their very human minds attempt to supply the missing information—the sound of gunfire or seeing the man with a gun standing to the side.
To fill in these voids the brain creates a memory by drawing on context and even experience (“I know that’s what a gunshot sounds like therefore I must’ve heard that sound today”).
The same is true in reverse. The officer who’s incapable of remembering a crucial bit of information that occurred during a stressful event, while their attention was distracted, actually may not believe it happened, despite clear and concrete evidence to the contrary.
This, the brain creating “fill in the blank” memories is one reason why so many Monday morning quarterbacks immediately jump to the unfounded conclusion that an officer must be lying or attempting to cover up a misdeed. But it’s just not so. Sure, sometimes people lie. I won’t discount that fact. But in the vast majority of stressful encounters, law enforcement or otherwise, the amygdala section of the human brain is the culprit.
Anyway, the only true means to judge any situation is in real time surrounded by all the sights, sounds, tastes, and emotions that come with it, along with access to the officer’s thoughts and emotions as the event unfolded. Attempting to do so on Monday morning while watching a replay of video is not the same.
Not even close.
Nor is it possible.
For the the purpose of this brief peek into the minds of police officers who enter into stressful situations such as a violent riot, or a gun battle with bullets whizzing by their heads, we’ll use Officer Sam as our guinea pig. Joining him in this discussion his partner, Officer Pam.
Sam is a bit of a worrier and, thanks to his parents, his name is coincidentally an acronym for three distinct reasons why officers, as well as other people, perhaps sees things differently when the weight of world seemingly comes crashing down around them. More about the acronym a bit later.
Pam, on the other hand, is a seasoned veteran who’s “been there, done that” a thousand times. She sincerely believes she’s impervious to stress.
Let’s dive right in by first setting the stage. Sam and Pam have been called to the scene of a bank robbery where the masked bandit has decided to not be taken alive. Therefore he begins lobbing .45 caliber rounds at the two responding officers who immediately take cover and immediately return fire.
The intense shootout lasts two minutes before both Pam and Sam fill the desperado full of government-purchased lead. He dies as a result of the aerating of his torso by a baker’s dozen of neat, round puncture wounds delivered by the officers’ sidearms.
The shift commander assigns a pair of internal affairs investigators to take the statements of the two heroes who saved the bank employees from what could have ended up as a mass funeral for the seven cashiers and an elderly security guard named Rufus.
The two IA detectives separate Pam and Sam and then take their statements. Later, the “suits” compare notes and, unbelievably, the officers’ stories vary … a lot. In fact, it’s almost as if Pam and Sam told tales that took place at two different locations and they’d practically described two entirely different events. Yes, they were that far apart.
So how could this happen, you ask? Well, let’s closely examine Sam’s name to see if we can arrive as some sort of answer that makes sense out of the discrepancies/distorted realty.
“S”, in my own little and limited warped mind, stands for “Secure.”
To start the ball rolling, the brain first must “SECURE” information. However, the human mind can receive only so much at once, so it decides what is important and then discards all of what it deems as unnecessary details.
This is where repetitive training plays a vital role, because repeating the same action over and over again (draw, point, shoot, draw, point, shoot, for example) helps the officer to react instinctively rather than having to rely on a brain that immediately discards some details, such as “the guy has a gun!”
During a stressful event the human mind does strange things
Human brains do not have a far-reaching ability to observe, meaning we see either a forest or we see a group of individual trees, or a lovely meadow or individual grasses. A crowd of people, or individual humans. But not both at the same time (forest AND trees, etc.). The brain focuses on one or the other, making it difficult to process many details. And, when two humans are observing the same grouping of objects, one’s focus may be on the guy with the gun while the other’s is trained on the woman holding a cigar-smoking baby.
“A” = “ABSORB,” meaning the retention of what the brain decides to secure. Unfortunately, our minds operate on a selective basis and we absolutely have no control over this weird phenomena. It is the brain that picks and chooses what it is they want to absorb, and often those human computers focus on one non-essential thing while totally disregarding another more important detail. Again, the woman holding a cigar-smoking baby instead of the far more important and dangerous guy with the gun. This is the reason why Sam may see one thing while Pam’s mind secures and absorbs something entirely different.
The proper terminology for what to pay attention to and what to disregard is “selective attention.”
*For more on selective attention, click here.
“M,” the final letter in Sam’s name, we’ll identify as “MEMORY.”
Memory, simply put, is the brain filing away all of the details about the stressful event that it deemed as unimportant. Then, what’s left are the elements that stood out. The ones that, due to selective attention, seemed vividly specific. However, those details may have been perceived differently than they actually were and that’s because not all surrounding information was retained, which can and often does distort reality.
The latter being the case in situations where officers fail to recognize an object in a fleeing suspect’s hand as a cellphone instead of a firearm. The same is true in reverse, when the officer mistakenly believes an object is a cellphone when in reality it’s clearly a pistol. These false negatives are caused by a human mind rejecting something that should have received and accepted for what it is/was. In the case of officers involved in deadly force scenarios, these mistakes could and often do result in life-ending occurrences.
Training does assist the brain with making these decisions by allowing it do its thing while the officer simply reacts without having to take the time to first SECURE, ABSORB, and then pull the needed information from their MEMORY. Instead, they see a gun and draw, point, and shoot. It’s what they’re trained to do, and during their time in the academy that’s exactly what they do, much like training a dog to sit.
How many times have we all said to little Rover …
“Sit, boy. Sit.” “Sit, boy. Sit.” “Sit, boy. Sit.” “Sit, boy. Sit.”
Well, that’s how cops are trained, and it’s by design to help keep them alive.