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Related to Lethal Force Encounters


By Bill Lewinski, Ph. D.

The Police Marksman May/June 2002 pgs 22-28


 It should have become increasingly clear that a characteristic of performance in lethal force situation is going to be memory problems.  In Dr. Artwohl’s study, she found 52% of officers had a memory loss for parts of the event; 46% even had a memory loss for some of their actions; 21% had memory distortions in what they saw, heard or experienced during the event.  Contaminating their performance and memory, are the intrusive distracting thoughts that 26% of the officers had in the midst of a deadly force encounter.  Even in the midst of doing what they needed to do to survive, officers found they were distracted.  In itself this is not unusual and is the equivalent of “seeing your life flash before your eyes.”  I have found three kinds of memory problems to occur in lethal force encounters.


 This final memory problem exemplifies another interesting aspect of lethal force encounters.  The only way we can face this kind of threat is if we believe that we can control or manage the threat, at some level.  We need to have the power to control the unknown.  For an officer who cannot remember what happened that control is not possible.  For some of those officers, unconsciously, it is better to create a fictional fact about what might have happened than to live with the unknown.


Is Stress in Your Mind or Body?

 In this article, the emotional condition of the officer and its impact on his perceptions and thinking was emphasized.  When I am referring to stress here I am referring to psychological distress.  In other words, even if your pulse is up, you may not necessarily be experiencing psychological distress or even a loss of fine motor skills.  Biathlon competitors routinely fire their weapons with a pulse of 180 beats a minute.  I have sprinted hills and gotten my pulse up to over 200 beats a minute, yet had no trouble working the small buttons on my wrist/stop watch.  I also did not have a funnel of concentration, auditory distortions, etc.  But, inversely, it is not unusual for me to drop my car keys or fumble with a lock in an urgency to get inside a door in a rush, with no correlate increase in pulse.  So, for the purposes of the article, the distress referred to psychological.



 I have interviewed, advised or counseled over 700 officers who have been in lethal force encounters.  If you have learned anything from this article, it is because those officers who have been there have taught me all about it.  One final lesson that they, and my over 50 years of athletic competition have taught me – the more someone understands, uses, and even exploits these adaptive stress reactions, the more successful they will be.


1. An officer cannot remember and report what he does not perceive.  There are a lot of details in a lethal force encounter that (for a variety of reasons) do not get an officer’s full attentions and subsequently will never get remembered.  The complications could occur from the crisis mode of the senses to the funnel of concentration of a mind in distress.  Even an officer who is in the zone, for instance, might not even remember when or how he drew his weapon.  If he dissociated enough so he went into panic or paralysis his focus would be inward to his own reactions.  Therefore, he would be incapable of telling anyone what was going on outside his own mind.  An officer, who is intently focused on the subject’s gun, might not even hear his own weapon discharge.  Regardless of the reason, what is not perceived is not remembered.


2. An officer may experience something so difficult to deal with that he unconsciously represses it and is literally incapable of even remembering that he knows it – or he might also consciously suppress it.  In other words, it is so difficult to deal with what he experienced that he refuses to remember it.  Several years ago I interviewed an officer who accidentally shot and killed his own partner.  The partner died in his arms within seconds from a severed aorta.  The surviving officer just could not talk about certain parts of the event.  He was afraid that even facing those in his memory would create so much pain that he would go crazy.


3. The third kind of memory problem is actually the reverse of the above.  In this problem the officer creates memories that he then believes to be real.  These are usually out of logic, but sometimes out of perceptual distortions.  For instance, the officer who cannot remember part of his own behavior or part of the incident will fill in the blanks with what seems reasonable.  The more he thinks about the event or retells it, the more he believes it happened, sometimes even in spite of physical evidence to the contrary.  This appears to happen less with officers who do a walk through shortly after the incident and before they make a formal statement.  A couple of years ago I interviewed an extremely credible officer who swore he was locked eye-to-eye with an armed subject he had fired three rounds at in self-defense.  The autopsy revealed the subject was shot in the side and the back and the shooting could not have happened as the officer remembered it.  Fortunately for the defense, the jury believed the results of my study on subject movement and officer reaction shooting situations, as well as my explanation as to why the officer believed he had seen something that could not have happened.





About the Author


A police psychologist and professor of Law Enforcement studies at Minnesota State University at Mankato, Bill Lewinski, holds a Ph.D. in Psychology with a concentration in police psychology from Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. His is also a trained hostage negotiator; testifies extensively in the field of performance psychology in force-related matters, and is currently researching police response to emotionally disturbed persons.