Virtually all controversial police shootings arise from misperception and over-reaction to the situation. These are results of bodily tension and high adrenaline levels, which in turn cause perceptual distortions and out-of-control shooting. The good news is that adrenaline levels can be recognized and monitored on the spot. And methods now exist for reducing one's adrenaline to a manageable level.
From studies of violent situations, we have learned the following. Face-to-face conflict raises bodily tension. At high levels, opponents become clumsy and inaccurate. This happens through a sudden rise in levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. These are triggered by the primitive fight-or-flight center of the lower brain, an undifferentiated arousal for rapid action that can go either way.
Heart rate is an easily accessible measure of adrenaline arousal. Ordinary resting heart rate is about 60 BPM (beats per minute) in adults, about 100 BPM in moderate exercise. Optimal athletic and physical performance is around 115-145 BPM. As heart rate goes up, the big muscle groups are energized, while fine muscle coordination is progressively lost. You can see this for yourself at the gym on a machine that monitors heart rate: trying writing with a pen when your heart rate is 145 or more. The effect of emotional tension and fear are stronger than vigorous exercise alone.
At levels around 150-175 BPM, perceptual distortions tend to happen. These experiences are typically reported by combat troops and police who have been in shoot-outs. Time becomes distorted-- both speeded up or seemly slowed down to dreamlike walking under water. Vision becomes blurred, surroundings are lost, tunnel vision narrows in. Hearing tends to shut down-- a cocoon-like experience in which one can't hear the sounds of one's own gun, or the voices of people around you.
Virtually all controversial police shootings show signs of these perceptual distortions. A traffic stop in which the officer misperceives the driver reaching for his wallet as reaching for a weapon. In the Tulsa, Oklahoma shooting of Terence Crutcher in September 2016, the officer said she temporarily lost her hearing just before she fired-- even though there were sounds of sirens and a police helicopter overhead. I am not addressing the point here of whether this makes her legally culpable or not, but noting that it fits the pattern: perceptual distortions are the immediate flashpoint for out-of-control shootings.
Having more police on the scene increases the chances of uncontrolled shooting. Tension is contagious. Cops who are tense tend to make officers around them tense.
On New Years night 2009 in Oakland, California, a white police officer put a gun to the back of the head of a young black man who was lying of the ground being arrested, and killed him with one shot. The incident began with reports that groups of young black men were fighting on the train; at the station, four police began making arrests. There was much loud shouting on both sides, about who was or was not involved in the fighting. The young men argued and struggled with police officers; one of the four cops, not the officer who did the shooting, was particularly aggressive, throwing black youths against the walls, pushing them down, and yelling the word ‘nigger’ at them. The officer who eventually shot his pistol was relatively restrained, trying to calm both the excited cop and the men being arrested; one photo of him, a minute before the shooting, shows a perplexed expression on his face. The officer said afterwards he thought he was reaching for his Taser but pulled his pistol by mistake. In a state of high adrenaline arousal, this is entirely plausible. If the most out-of-control cop in the group had been calmer, the killing most likely would not have happened.
Some officers get impatient about what they feel as indecisiveness or confusion, and act to resolve the situation by opening fire. This is apparently what happened in the Charlotte, N.C. September 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was apparently high on drugs, possibly displaying a gun, and ignoring police orders. The shooting officer had initially been calm, waiting until other police business had been taken care of. Several officers first watched their suspect before finally attempting to get him out of his car. As the situation became more stalemated, it also became louder. More officers arrived, as well as the suspect's wife who kept telling the officers he was harmless and also on medication. One officer (a plain-clothes black cop) who had been there since the outset apparently grew exasperated to the point where he couldn't control himself.
To these kinds of distractions, add the effect of adrenaline arousal on hearing. In the cocoon of high tension, voices disappear. The more persons who are present-- cops, suspects, friends and family members, vocal bystanders-- the more likely sounds blur into a babble of raised voices. Clear communications break down.
With more people on the scene, the higher the tension of the police officers, and the higher the chance that one of them will begin firing. This can set others off as well: the sound of firing may be misperceived as coming from the suspect, or directly by emotional contagion. In the Charlotte incident, the standoff comes to a climax just after another officer (who has arrived to support) tries to break the windshield of the suspect's vehicle with his baton-- a loud crashing noise. The officer who has been on the scene the longest now fires a burst from his pistol, even though the suspect has made no sudden move.
Such circumstances are also dangerous for the police themselves. When a suspect is surrounded by large numbers of police in different directions, police sometimes shoot each other, especially when they are in plain clothes. About 10% of police killed or wounded on duty are victims of friendly fire.
A sign that the shooting is caused by out-of-control adrenaline is overkill: when an officer fires many more shots that necessary to disable the apparently threatening suspect. In New York City, February 1999, four undercover police looking for a rapist saw a man duck back into a hallway, then reach for what turned out to be his identification. The four cops rushed from the car and fired 41 shots at a range of 3 meters; 19 of those shots missed. Both the poor aim and the overkill are results of adrenaline rush, amplified by contagion among the four officers. (case of Amadou Diallo)
Overkill usually brings public outrage, and tends to be interpreted as evidence of police racism and malice. Such controversies are hard to settle. Whatever else it is, overkill is a sign of adrenaline rush.
What can be done?
First, recognize the danger of perceptual distortions in high-tension situations. Recognize the danger of getting confusing non-verbal messages and emotional contagion from fellow officers on the scene, and from other people present.
Second, check your adrenaline level and bring it down to the level of effective performance and clear perception.
A method for reducing heart rate is via breathing. (The following is from US Army psychologist Dave Grossman.)
breathe in four counts;
hold your breath four counts;
breathe out four counts;
hold your breath four counts;
repeat until heart rate comes down.
This does not mean simply "take a deep breath." The key is to repeat the entire sequence until a slower bodily rhythm is established, with feedback to bring down the adrenaline level. The periods of holding your breath between breathing-in and breathing-out are crucial.
Practical steps for more cool-headed cops
Wear a heart rate monitor. These are easily available now, on wrist devices used for exercise.
Practice observing one's own heart rate in various situations. You can train yourself to recognize high adrenaline levels by the feeling in your body--- especially the feeling of one's heart pounding and the quality of one's breathing.
Practice the four-part breathing exercise to reduce heart rate.
In a tense situation, check your heart rate, and bring it down if necessary.
But what if there is no time for this? What if it is an immediate, kill-or-be-killed situation? In police work, sometimes this may be the case. But such situations do not arise very often. Many instances of police shootings-- and especially those which turn out to be based on misperceptions-- take time to develop. The Charlotte N.C. confrontation built up over an hour, and could have been resolved peacefully with better management of emotions.
Some officers speed up the situation unnecessarily. In Cleveland November 2014, the officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.
Checking your heart rate and controlling it by a breathing exercise may not be possible in some fast-moving situations. And some victims collude in their own death, in suicide-by-cop, by pretending to aim a weapon at officers in order to be shot. Some such events may be inevitable. But even here, very situationally-aware officers may be able to sort some of them out.
The large majority of the police do not shoot anyone. Among those who do, some are unlucky in being in a bad place at the wrong time; some are the workaholics of the force; some are tough guys looking for action; some have poor control over their tension levels. Research by sociologist Geoffrey Alpert on escalated police encounters found that cops who handle situations better have a better sense of timing. Many cool-headed cops exist, who have better situational awareness, better control over their tension levels and adrenaline arousal. Our aim should be to increase the proportion of cool-headed cops.
Police shootings of unarmed or unresisting persons have brought huge controversy. Most proposed solutions focus on more body cameras, more release of video data to the public, and more criminal prosecution of officers. These proposals have spiraled into more conflict, in the form of demonstrations, riots, and angry politics on both sides. In the balance of political forces today, none of these has been successful in reducing police shootings.
Another route can be tried. Rather than reacting after police shootings happen, and concentrating on ways to pin the blame in court, we can take steps so that out-of-control behavior in police encounters does not happen in the first place. We do not have to solve huge problems like racism or political gridlock to achieve this.
It is in the interest of all police officers to ensure that their tension-control skills are high. Individuals cops do not have to wait until a government agency, or their own police chief, orders them to wear a heart-beat monitor. Everyone can get it yourself easily enough; and do your own training in controlling heart rate and adrenaline level.
Thinking outside the box is often advocated. But most policy people automatically think in terms of top-down solutions. It is at the bottom level-- each moment people encounter each other on the street-- that the problem arises. Better emotional awareness can help to head it off, on the spot.
Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Dave Grossman. 2004. On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.
Jennifer C. Hunt. 2010. Seven Shots.
David Klinger. 2004. Into the Kill Zone. A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force.
Note: Research by Min-seok Pang and Paul Pavlov ("Armed with Technology: The Impact on Fatal Shootings by Police", 2016) has shown, paradoxically, that police wearing body cameras act more aggressively than those without, because they believe the video will back up their perception of the situation. In other words, their emotions tend to overrule their perceptions here too.