Human Factors, Officer-Involved Shootings, and Suicide-By-Cop
A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the famous NY Times columnist and author of such books as “Blink” and “Tipping Point.” Mr. Gladwell had been following my forensic research on how human factors and psycho-physiology affect police officers during officer-involved shootings. He also wanted to discuss my research on “Suicide-by-Cop” or “SBC.” So he flew out of New York where he is based and we spent the day together discussing all of these topics and unpacking a couple of my most famous cases.
As you can imagine, talking about something is far different than actually experiencing something. So, I asked Mr. Gladwell if he would be up to the challenge of going through some life-threatening scenarios as a police officer. To his credit, he agreed. Within ten minutes, I had Malcolm suited up as a police officer with an inert training pistol at our outdoors human factors lab (the rear yard of our officer property outside of San Antonio, Texas).
I presented Malcolm with three actual case scenarios that had been already adjudicated. In fact, I had our staff amass the actual case files with dashcam video(s) for his review later. We were going to test vision, inattention blindness, diminished hearing and best of all, action-reaction perception lagtime. (Although he didn’t know that at the time!)
In the first scenario of stopping a person suspected of brandishing a gun, Malcolm was killed outright before he was even able to clear leather. Lesson learned about always watching a person’s hands because “hands kill.”
In the next scenario, he was again killed. Lesson learned – never unnecessarily compress time and distance. This is referred to as “The Reactionary Gap.”
In the final scenario with a suspect suddenly pointing a “gun” and then abruptly turning around as Malcolm fired, he learned three important lessons after shooting the suspect in the back: #1 from a distance of 20 feet in a millisecond, you can’t identify a real gun from a fake plastic gun; #2 a suspect’s action will always be faster than an officers reaction to a life threat; and #3 a suspect can abruptly turn 180 degrees in only .025 seconds; while it takes an officer .56 seconds to make the decision to fire and another .33 seconds to depress the trigger of a gun. Hence, suspects who face an officer with a gun sometimes get shot in the back after the quickly turn away from the officer. It was a “Perry Mason moment” for this famous writer.
In short, Malcolm Gladwell, who has often written articles and at least one popular book which in part has been critical of officers during officer-involved shootings learned that a police officer’s job is extremely dangerous and life and death decisions are often made literally in the blink of an eye. Afterward, I had a discussion with Malcolm about the Graham v. Connor factors that include that, “officers are often faced with making deadly force decisions during circumstances that are rapidly-evolving, tense and uncertain.” Nothing like experiencing Graham first-hand.
When the role-playing was concluded, Malcolm and I adjourned to our deposition room where staff had displayed a couple of cases, complete with a laptop video set-up, so the writer could observe and actually participate in what a forensic criminologist and death investigator who specializes in officer-involved shootings does. Two of the cases we unpacked together were the Michael Brown vs. Officer Darren Wilson “Hands up; don’t shoot” OIS, and the Navarro vs. State of New Mexico State Police SBC officer-involved shooting that I experted in and prevailed.
Better than me simply writing about the Navarro and Brown cases, I thought you might be interested in listening to the actual radio program. Now Malcolm did not accurately portray the real circumstances of the Michael Brown OIS, but as a NY Times journalist, old habits are hard to break. He did get the Navarro case right though.
Why don’t you take just 45 minutes of your time to learn a few important things about human factors and SBC events as Malcolm Gladwell and DrRon let you in on our forensic conversation.
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