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“Shots fired!”

“I’m hit”

“He’s running.”

“I need backup.”

“In the alley behind Joe’s Pawn Shop.”

“He’s shooting again.”

Silence.

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.

Perception is key. How did the officer perceive the encounter? Did she fear for her life or the life of others?”

Many of you have heard me speak about the deadly shootout I was in back in the 90’s. Others have read the story here on this blog. In both I tell of the involuntary engagement of a “slow motion switch,” and the switching-off of all sounds.

The shooting seemed to occur in slow motion while in a vacuum where sounds were not permitted to enter.

car.jpg

The robber’s car.

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A police car destroyed by gunfire. That’s me in the foreground, with the porn star/cop mustache and my sweaty hair pulled behind my ears. It was an extremely hot August day and I’d worn a suit. I was preparing to go to court when the call came in, a 10-90—robbery in progress.

FROM MY EARLIER ARTICLE:

“The sound of his gunshot activated my brain’s slow-motion function. Time nearly stopped. It was surreal, like I actually had time to look around before reacting to the gunshot. I saw my partners yelling, their mouths opening and closing slowly. Lazy puffs of blue-black smoke drifted upward from their gun barrels. I saw a dog barking to my right—its head lifting with each yap, and droplets of spittle dotted the air around its face.”

During the exchange of gunfire, I saw the mouths of partners moving and I saw a dog barking, but I did not hear either. The reason I didn’t—auditory exclusion.

Auditory exclusion, like it’s first cousin, tunnel vision, can and does often occur during moments of intense stress, such as life-threatening situations including shootouts or potential shootouts. Actually, guns don’t have to enter the picture for these stress-induced phenomena to occur. However, that’s the focus of this article so that’s the path we’ll travel today.

Stress can interfere with our physiological ability to receive and act on information

In very simple terms, stress can interfere with our physiological ability to receive and act on information received by the brain. Basically, we’re wired to survive and we do so by fighting or fleeing and sometimes freezing in place/not reacting during dangerous situations.

Typically, when faced with danger our bodies automatically increase the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which produces an uptick in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, pupil size, perspiration, and muscle tension. Blood flow to the brain, heart, and large muscles is accordingly increased. However, fine motor skills that require hand/eye coordination begin to deteriorate. This decrease in the functionality of fine motor skills allows the continuation of the more effective (at the time) gross motor skills that help when running or fighting.

One way our bodies react to intense stress is to induce inattentional blindness, a phenomenon that reaches across all senses, including vision (tunnel vision) and sound (auditory exclusion). In short, the brain processes only what the person/officer is focused on, such as a potentially deadly threat. In my case, it was a bank robber who was firing a gun at me and I know that auditory shutdown is a very real thing during high-stress situations. Again, this is from my own personal experience.

NOTABLE POINTS REGARDING PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO STRESS

  • Optical affinity can occur—increased ability to see things at 20 feet and beyond while closer objects may seem blurry, if seen at all. The same is true for near shutdown of periphreal vision. The latter is due to vasoconstriction of the blood vessels on the periphery of the retina (tunnel vision).
  • Perceptions are often distorted, such as the ability to correctly perceive a danger.
  • Sounds are processed by the brain faster than what we see. Touch is the next fastest, and smells reach the brain the quickest.
  • Motion is recognized faster than than color, and shape is slowest of all sights processed. Yellow is the fastest color we can identify. Darker colors being the slowest.
  • Furtive movement – done in a quiet and secret way to avoid being noticed (Webster’s).
  • During stressful encounters, such as those involving deadly force, furtive movements (see above definition) are sometimes perceived incorrectly, such as the movement of hands holding a dark object whose shape somewhat resembles a firearm. but understandably so when factoring in physiological phenomena such as auditory exclusion and tunnel vision.

Remember, darker colors are identified at a slower rate than bright colors, acute vision at closer distances is greatly decreased, sounds have all but ceased to exist, adrenaline and heart rate are higher, officers are trained to fight not flee from danger, and officers are trained to react to threats. And all of this occurs in a the blink of an eye. There is no time to sit down, discuss, plan, and map out the premium response. This is wholeheartedly in contrast to the armchair cop experts who chime in after the fact with the uninformed, misinformed, social-media-educated, and inexperienced “cop’s are too quick to shoot”comments.

  • Our minds, during stressful situations, see what they expect to see. We expect a man suddenly pulling a dark object from his pocket after repeatedly telling him to not put his hands in his pocket, all while knowing he matches the description of a guy who’d just shot and killed four people, well, our minds are telling us he’s going for a gun.

If the object he brings from his pocket is dark, such as a cellphone, a vaping pen that looks like a gun barrel, especially when held like a gun and pointed at officers, a BB gun that’s nearly identical to the officer’s duty weapon, or even a bare hand that comes up and out of pocket rapidly, and the movement is in contrast to the officer’s direction and expectations, and it all occurs within a split second, well …

Remember, sound is perceived before sight, motion is perceived before color, and color is perceived before shape. These differences can and do greatly affect how an officer perceives and processes what’s unfolding in real time. And, those perceptions will definitely affect and/or control the officer’s response(s).

I can say from experience that during a potentially life-threatening situation, barking dogs, screaming officers, sirens, and gunshots are sometimes the loudest sounds you’ll ever NOT hear.

robber.jpg

After an intense shootout with an armed bank robber, I shot and killed the man (68 rounds were exchanged—I fired 5).

Even today, at this moment seated here at my desk, I can hear the deafening quiet of that morning. And I still view parts of the scene in slow motion.

Click here to read about the shootout.