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Force Science Students Put Their Knowledge To Use (Part 2)

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Force Science students put their knowledge to use Part 2 of a 2-part series

In Part 1 of this series we discussed the Force Science Certification course that was recently held in London, England. As part of that class, those who pursued certificates of completion were required to take a written test and participate in a practical exercise that challenged them to apply the Force Science concepts they had just learned to an actual case.

Students were split into groups and given one of several cases to evaluate. One of those cases involved the incident shown in the following video footage:

Watch the footage now

In our last transmission, we detailed the background of this incident and the accusations that followed.
The students were challenged to explain how it’s possible that Officer Hale could be telling the truth when he said that he saw, and actually felt, a gun in the offender’s waistband that turned out not to exist. Further, they were asked to explain how the officer realistically was unable to recall some of the critical details of the incident–like when he yelled out to other officers that he saw a gun and how many times his fellow officer, who was in such close proximity to him–swung his flashlight at the offender.

Here’s what the students had to say:

Confirmation Bias

Students felt that one of the most crucial elements in this case centered on the phenomenon of confirmation bias, in which a person projects certain existing beliefs on to an unfolding event in a fashion that results in a confirmation of those beliefs. That confirmation can be actual, meaning the pre-existing beliefs were accurate, or perceived, meaning the pre-existing beliefs weren’t accurate.

In the case of Officer Hale, the pre-existing belief that he brought to the unfolding event of pursuing Miller, both in his vehicle and on foot, was that the suspect had a gun. Students felt that in Hale’s case, confirmation of that belief came in stages.

Stage 1:

Miller was a car thief who knowingly drove to a gang-filled neighborhood where guns are prevalent to the point that more than 500 people are shot in that area each year. The idea that Miller was armed would not be unreasonable. Hale knew that, and kept it in mind.

Stage 2:

During the vehicular pursuit, officers in the lead vehicle radioed back that Miller was reaching under his seat. Students felt that this in itself was another illustration of confirmation bias. They felt that the officers in the lead vehicle were most likely of the same belief as Hale as described above. Those officers presumably believed, which is to say they were biased to the idea, that Miller had a gun. Students felt that a level of confirmation came when the officers, who are trained to recognize certain suspect movements as being indicative of certain things — like a pending attack — saw Miller reaching for something under the seat. In this instance, the students noted, the officers knew:

  • Miller had stolen a car and he was running. He did not want to be arrested and sent to jail. It would be reasonable to believe that he may take violent measures against police to further his escape efforts. Those measures could involve a gun.
  • Car thieves are often armed.
  • Car thieves have been known to hide guns under seats with the thought that they won’t be seen in the event they get pulled over for some reason by an officer who doesn’t realize the car is stolen.
  • Miller was reaching under his seat for something…and that was likely a gun.

Did the officers see a gun? No. But, the students asked, was it reasonable for them, given their professionally trained bias, to believe that Miller was reaching for a weapon and to radio to fellow officers that he was arming himself? The students concluded that yes, this was reasonable.

Stage 3:

As they watched the footage, students noted certain behaviors at the point where Miller bails out of the car and begins running:

  • As he runs, his right arm is energetically pumping up and down as you would expect to see when someone is sprinting. His left arm, however, is not moving in that fashion. Instead, Miller is keeping it tucked in the direction of his waistband.
  • Also as he runs, Millers glances back at pursuing officers. Again, trained to be biased toward believing certain suspect behaviors can be indicative of a pending attack, students felt that the pursuing officers likely believed that he could have been trying to locate their positions so he could more quickly and effectively get on target should he choose to draw his gun and fire on them.

Stage 4:

About 200 yards into the foot pursuit, Miller stopped, put up his hands and began to turn around. When the first pursuing officer reaches him, he draws his sidearm and points it at the suspect. Hale sees this, which, the students concluded, deepened his belief that Miller has a gun.

Stage 5:

At the point where the first officer is directing Miller to the ground, Hale, who is still approaching, claims to have seen a bulge in the suspect’s waistband area, which was covered by a shirt. Hale said that he believed this was a gun. In their analysis of the situation, the students noted that the lighting of the area varied due to the movement of a spotlight being projected by a helicopter trying to illuminate the early morning, low light scene. This light play, the students felt, could have caused a shadowing effect that to the eye could have projected the image of a gun-shaped bulge. Further, they concluded, Hale’s existing belief that Miller had a gun in his waistband would have caused him to immediately conclude that any bulge was a weapon.

Stage 6:

The minute Hale reaches Miller, who is now face down on the ground with his arms under him, the officer extends his right arm and forcefully shoves it under the suspect. When he does so, Hale said that he felt a hard, metal object which he immediately took to be a gun…the final confirmation.

So from the point the idea that Miller was armed entered Hale’s mind, the students noted, the officer received numerous moments of confirmation of that “fact,” up to and including the point at which he believes he actually made physical contact with the gun itself.

Students also pointed out that as you watch the footage, you will see Hale deliver a punch to Miller’s ribs while he is prone. This blow was initially determined to be excessive force given the fact that Miller was considered to be compliant. The students concluded that this blow was in fact a further illustration of the fact that Hale truly believed Miller was armed. They proposed that Hale was delivering a distraction strike in an effort to prevent him from accessing the weapon he believed the suspect was trying to access.

The two-dimensional nature of video

The students felt that another key element in this case centered on the two dimensional nature of video. The officer swinging the flashlight at Miller was accused of striking the suspect multiple times in the head and was fired. When the students watched the video, they agreed that it certainly does look like that’s what’s happening.

The number of times Miller was actually hit in the head? Zero.

The actual damage to Miller? Two small bruises on his shoulder.

The students pointed out that viewers’ visual perception of what they are seeing in that footage does not reflect reality. That perception, however, apparently played a role in the decision to fire that officer.

[Be sure to read Force Science News #76 for additional information on the dangers of relying too heavily on video footage to help you establish the “facts” of what happened in a case.]

Attention and its impact on memory and recall

Students concluded that at the time Hale reached Miller, his attention was focused on one primary task: getting to the gun he believed was secreted in the now face-down suspect’s waistband. He was not focused on observing the actions of the other officers nor trying to take note of and making a conscious effort to remember the exact details of the event. His focus, the students concluded, was dictated by the belief that if he did not get to the suspect’s gun, his life and the lives of other officers could be in jeopardy. Therefore, things outside of this focus, like what the officer swinging the flashlight was doing, were not of immediate and critical importance to Hale. His sensory resources, particularly those of sight and touch, were fully allocated to the immediate task at hand: finding the gun Miller was believed to be carrying.

Given this, the students then concluded, Hale’s inability to recall the number of flashlight swings his fellow officer took was understandable, regardless of how obvious and easily recalled a detail those evaluating this incident felt that should be. Why didn’t Hale have the ability to recall the number of flashlight strikes? He simply wasn’t paying attention to that.

Additionally, Hale was asked to recall exactly when he alerted other officers to the fact that he believed Miller had a gun. Initially, Hale said that he yelled a warning prior to making contact with Miller. Later in his statement, after seeing the video footage, Hale recanted, now claiming that he yelled the warning after making contact with Miller and after the other officers had also made contact.

Hale himself admitted that this change of statement didn’t look very good, but was he lying? The students felt he wasn’t. In fact, they concluded, his first true recollection during the statement process was that he had yelled the warning before contact. They felt that this was in fact what he recalled, not what he fabricated. Then, after seeing the footage, he realized that this wasn’t accurate.

What did they learn?

At the end of their four-day Force Science training experience, students learned – and through their involvement in the practical exercise, essentially lived – the fact that what you see, hear, perceive, recall and even wholeheartedly believe to be true may not, in fact, reflect reality. Under stress, a multitude of visual, auditory, chemical, psychological and behavioral anomalies come into play. In order to thoroughly and accurately reconstruct the events in many high-stress incidents, investigators, administrators, attorneys, review boards and even officers themselves, must understand these Force Science realities and make sure they’re integrated into the evaluation process.

“This inaugural presentation of the Force Science Certification Course was a great success,” Dr. Lewinski told Force Science News. “Our intent was to educate students on the important concepts of Force Science and then give them a chance to immediately apply what they learned to a real-world scenario. To do so accurately and thoroughly is challenging, but in situations where an officer’s career–and potentially his very freedom–is on the line, it’s critical.

“The students in this class rose to the challenge and did an outstanding job of articulating what they learned and illustrating their ability to apply that knowledge,” Lewinski continued. “We were all impressed.”

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