Gaps, inconsistencies, and errors in officers’ accounts of high-stress events may look like evidence of lies and deception. But a recent blog posting by an Advanced Force Science Specialist explains why leaping to that conclusion is likely to be wrong.
The article, “Imperfect Recall: How Memory Impacts Police Use of Force Investigations” by Jason Helfer, can be accessed free of charge by clicking here. Helfer, deputy chief in the IA Division of the Greece (NY) PD, wrote it for the blog on “hot topics in public safety” conducted by Lexipol, the law enforcement policy advisory and risk management organization.
Drawing on his Advanced Specialist training, Helfer explains how innocent shortcomings of memory—not just in cops but in human beings generally—can falsely convey sinister implications if not fully understood.
“It’s not uncommon for an officer’s recollection of an incident to contain inconsistencies when compared with witness accounts, the recollections of other officers, and video and audio footage,” Helfer writes. “But when we consider the science of memory, we should probably be more suspicious of recollections that exactly match one another.”
When an officer’s “misleading, incomplete, or false recollections” are considered deliberate or collusive, “we fail to acknowledge an established body of science proving that memory…is far from the robot-like qualities we expect,” he writes.
From there, he explains ways in which memory differs from “a record of reality, like a video recording.”
He elaborates, for instance, on the phenomenon of “selective attention.” Under stress, he explains, a natural “filter” kicks in so that only “information that we deem important gets through” to the brain. “Information that is filtered out is no longer available to us,” so it simply isn’t possible to remember it later.
In life-threatening situations, officers automatically “selectively focus on items and behaviors crucial to their safety and performance,” such as weapons or a suspect’s movements, leading to “inattentional blindness” to other elements considered less important at that given moment. “We won’t remember seeing something, even if we are staring right at it,” Helfer writes.
Because of that and other processing-related reasons, an “officer’s recollection of [an] event may seem inaccurate when compared with other accounts or video evidence. And that, in turn, can make the officer seem untruthful to those not aware of the scientific principles” involved.
In one section of the article, Helfer deals with video evidence and the temptation to regard it as “unbiased and free of human perceptual distortions.”
Of course video recordings, he acknowledges, have “proved critically important in many police use of force cases.” But, he cautions, force investigators and reviewers need to be aware of the “inherent limitations” of such recordings.
As explained in Force Science’s classes on body cameras, these shortcomings include the potential for distorted images, the inability of the len’s field of view to capture an event in its entirety, the failure of a camera to exactly mirror an officer’s visual perspective, and so on.
“Inconsistencies between an officer’s recollection and that of video recordings is not necessarily indicative of deception,” Helfer notes.
Helfer concludes his article with suggestions for dealing with the flawed realities of memory.
First, he writes, in fairly assessing an officer’s truthfulness “anyone involved in a use of force investigation—including those responsible for relaying the process to the media and the public—must understand that…the very nature of perception and memory can affect an officer’s ability to recognize, effectively process, store, and recall sensory input associated with an event.”
Next, “we should look for ways to help officers improve [their] recollection of events.” That would include delaying an officer’s formal statement about a critical incident to allow time for “emotional decompression and memory consolidation,” and then employing “cognitive interview strategies by a trained investigator familiar with the science of perception and memory.” This approach, he says, can help officers recall information more accurately and comprehensively.
Finally, “it’s important that officers themselves understand the forces affecting their ability to recall.” Otherwise, contradictory video or bystander accounts can add to the stress of an incident and “bring about guilt and doubt” that could lead to an officer changing his true recollections in search of consistency.
“Understanding that inaccurate or missing details…are perfectly normal can help [officers] emerge from critical incidents in a more emotionally healthy state,” Helfer writes, as well as help them provide valid testimony about what they do remember of what happened.
For additional recent articles from Lexipol about use of force and other important law enforcement issues, go to: www.lexipol.com/in-the-news. Dpty. Chief Helfer, who wrote the article in his capacity as a professional services representative for Lexipol, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Our thanks to Dr. Ed Geiselman of the Force Science Analysis certification course faculty for his help in presenting this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Final results are in from a new memory-related study by a Force Science research team. The study concerns the ability of officers to recall critical details after a high-stress event and the implications these findings may have for officer-involved shooting investigations.
Full details will be reported in a forthcoming issue of Force Science News.