Attention, Experience, & Recall in Critical Incidents

Part Two of the Two Part Series: The Totality of Facts and Circumstances from the Officers PerspectiveInvestigation and Evaluation of Use-of-Force - considering attentional resources and the associated memory issues from an investigative perspective

Investigating and evaluating Use-of-Force, considering attentional resources and the associated memory issues, and understanding how perceptual phenomena are related should be addressed. These Phenomena are often represented by a discrepancy in the objective facts and the individualized perception (the subjective experience) and can impact an officer's decision-making. Developing a process is crucial for enhancing investigations and fairly evaluating the reasonableness of incident outcomes. In the unpredictable world of law enforcement, split-second decision-making can mean the difference between life and death. As an officer, attending to and accurately perceiving a critical incident's details is paramount. However, over 100 years of research,[1] both within and outside of law enforcement, have identified perception as prone to error. [2] When faced with a fast-moving, high-stress situation, human perception is influenced by many factors, including the focus of attention, current goals, and expectations, as well as familiarity with the context of the incident.

Case Study

Case studies are often used to analyze, interpret, and ultimately understand factors that influence real-world outcomes. The current case under review ( represents a well-known and widely accepted perceptual phenomenon of a "failure to see." The case involves a traffic stop where an officer asks a passenger to exit the vehicle. The passenger produces a weapon and attempts to shoot the officer from inside the car.The officer, clearly identifying what would be considered a threat to life, drops his flashlight, draws his weapon, and fires several rounds while simultaneously moving backward. The passenger is struck by gunfire and immediately drops the weapon outside of the vehicle as the officer is firing. The video provides visual and audible information about the weapon falling and hitting the concrete outside of the vehicle. The weapon's final resting place is visible on the video, lying just feet from the officer.The officer yells commands at the suspect; however, being struck with multiple rounds, the suspect is unresponsive but still presenting a possible deadly threat.

The shooting officer's partner approaches and tells him to move to a better position. The involved officer appears to begin deep and deliberate breathing to combat the effects of stress on him.While holding the passenger at gunpoint, the shooting officer can repeatedly be heard telling his partner, "The weapon is still in his lap." The partner officer shines his light on the weapon lying on the pavement and asks, "Is that the weapon?"The involved responds immediately, "Yes, that's the weapon; I didn't see him drop it!"Through the course of the event, the shooting officer was likely focused on where the weapon had been (based on the officer's response) and that the suspect had the weapon in his hand. Yet the shooting officer somehow had not seen or heard the weapon fall from the vehicle.[3]For upwards of a minute, the officer stood with the suspect's weapon lying just feet from him, plainly visible in the video evidence, but did not see or acknowledge the weapon's presence until his partner pointed the weapon out to him. How can this happen?

An officer's ability to attend to specific details in a complex environment should be considered a fundamental aspect of split-second decision-making and a significant component of evaluating police action. Research has shown that an officer (any human being) can only effectively process a limited amount of information at any given moment, usually including the information perceived as consequential or essential at the time, while effectively filtering out lower-priority information.[4] An officer faced with multiple sources of stimulus may not see everything within their field of view. Therefore, it should be recognized that an officer may not perceive a change that could impact their decision-making process. In this case, the weapon may appear visible to the officer from an observer's or camera's perspective. Moreover, how an officer perceives these details can be influenced by various factors, such as stress, fear, adrenaline, and anxiety, which can affect their ability to assess the situation accurately, much less accurately recall the details of the associated decision(s)—understanding how focus and perception work, (system 1 and system 2,[5]) hand in hand with split-second decision-making is essential in the investigation of critical incidents. The subsequent tasks of evaluation and critique, identifying what needs to be replicated, changed, or avoided ("RCA"), are the instrumental pieces of the puzzle in bettering law enforcement moving forward.

The impact of focus and perception on split-second decision-making is further compounded by the need for officers to process information rapidly and accurately based on the consequences of survival or the need to protect others from harm or stop an ongoing imminent threat. In this example, the officer's ability to perceive and interpret rapidly evolving details can mean the difference between a successful resolution and a potentially tragic outcome. Therefore, the role of focus and perception in split-second decision-making is not just about the ability to see and hear but also about the cognitive processes that allow an officer to make sense of the information available to them (OODA Loop).[6] By understanding the intricacies of how focus and perception affect split-second decision-making, investigators can navigate the hindsight attribution, anchoring bias, and outcome bias.

Understanding Perceptual Phenomena in Critical Incidents

In the heat of a critical incident, officers often face perceptual phenomena that can significantly impact their decision-making process and ability to recall certain aspects of the event. These phenomena result from the brain's natural response to stress and high-stakes situations (consequences). Understanding them is crucial for improving an investigator's perspective regarding the involved and their ability to make split-second decisions.

Tunnel vision - One such phenomenon is the "tunnel vision" effect,[7] where the focus is primarily on a situation's most immediate and threatening aspects. Tunnel vision can lead to a loss of awareness of peripheral information and a decreased awareness of surrounding and apparently salient details,[8] potentially impacting the officer's ability to accurately assess the totality of circumstances when critical decisions are made. This has been referred to as the "tunnel of attention." This is the most common description of tunnel vision, however, the vision does not actually "narrow." Tunnel Vision means that visual data outside the specific focus of visual attention will likely be filtered out of the processing and encoding process (potentially affecting encoding and retrieval). In the principles of vision, it is not whether the weapon was visible; instead, was it seen? As in this case example, the weapon was visible in the hindsight evaluation but not seen initially by the officer involved, "failure to see."This exemplifies the difference between a person engaged in decision-making as an involved actor in the event and an external observer. This is what Sydnee Dekker refers to as being inside of the tunnel.[9]The person conducting the review and analysis, as an observer, is outside of the tunnel. In these conditions, the involved officer often has a decreased ability to recall data that was not attended to, perceived, or possibly filtered out through the cognitive process. The officer naturally prioritizes consequential information[10] and makes decisions on that detected and prioritized information, not attending to other peripheral or what the actor considers to be "less important" data.

Auditory Exclusion - Another important perceptual phenomenon in critical incidents is "auditory exclusion," where an officer's ability to recall auditory stimulus (hearing) becomes limited or distorted due to attentional issues. In other words, if it is not heard or some distorted version of the stimulus, it will affect the recall of the stimulus.Remember that the question is not whether the sound occurred (objective data) but whether the sound was heard (subjective experience). Auditory Exclusion can result in a loss of, or filtering out of, crucial auditory and visual information, such as verbal communications, warnings, or other audible data that becomes important in the hindsight evaluation of the incident. In the case example, the officer did not hear or see the weapon fall from the vehicle. Where this information may be deemed important to the outside reviewer, it is seemingly invisible to the actor in the incident tasked with making data decisions visually and auditorily, where the scene is complex, fast, and dangerous. This can further complicate the decision-making process. These perceptual phenomena highlight the intricate ways an officer's perception can be altered in critical incidents, underscoring the need for investigators to develop awareness and training regarding associated human factors and these perceptual phenomena to mitigate the negative impact on the investigation.

Understanding perceptual phenomena in critical incidents involves recognizing the influence of and understanding the complex interplay between perceptual phenomena, focus of attention, expectations, limitations, distortions, decisions, actions, and outcomes; importantly, identifying how these phenomena tie into the circumstances from the officer's perspective.

The Impact of Attention and Reaction Time in Crisis Situations

The ability of an officer to maintain attention and react swiftly in crises is the primary focus of the investigation, resulting in an evaluation or scrutiny and critique. Recognizing attentional issues related to reaction time in split-second decision-making is vital, as these factors directly influence an officer's ability to assess and respond to a rapidly evolving incident. Attentional capacity, or the ability to focus on relevant details while filtering out distractions or lower-priority information, plays a crucial role in an officer's decision-making process. However, in hindsight, it can appear that the officer's behavior was reckless or substandard because important information in the objective evidence was missed in the real-time assessment ("RTA") and decision-making process. Considerations in this phenomenon are the components of attention and behavioral sequence; recognition, situational awareness, response selection, response, and all the components involved in the response; perception, reaction, decision, and movement (action).[11] In a high-stress environment maintaining attention can be particularly challenging considering the more complex the environment, the more deprived attentional resources become as outlined in "Hicks Law."[12]

The impact of reaction time in crisis situations is crucial in analyzing officer-involved critical incidents. The ability to react effectively can mean the difference between preventing a dangerous situation from escalating and the officer being caught off guard. In this case example, the officer appeared to be focused on the right thing at the right time (the hidden hand) based on the effectiveness of his response and the visible outcome. Although the attack was unpredictable, the officer was able to respond effectively, avoiding being shot by the suspect. However, the potential impact of stress and perceptual phenomena on an officer's reaction time cannot be ignored. In high-stress or complex decision-making environments, the time required to decide and act can be affected, potentially leading to delays in decision-making and action.[13] Understanding the impact that focus of attention has on an officer's reaction time in crises from the investigative perspective is essential for developing training and techniques to help officers maintain focus and respond effectively in critical incidents.

Another important aspect of attention and reaction time in crises is the need for officers to balance the concept of action (pro-active intervention) versus reaction (response to behavior). In rapidly evolving incidents, officers must make split-second decisions about when to act and when to wait and assess the situation. Assessing a rapidly evolving incident is unpredictable in any critical incident and is a "best guess" based upon myriad factors. The balance between waiting (assessment), proactive intervention, or a reaction to a perceived malevolent act requires a high level of attentional resources and focus. As well as the ability to rapidly assess and make sense of the totality of circumstances (orientation) to determine the most appropriate course of action. Remember, this is the core of the calculus for objective reasonableness.[14]

CTA: Join Critical Incident Review L.L.C. for the Enhanced Force Investigations Course and Force Analysis; Forensic Video Review and Examination in 2024  

Authored by:

Sergeant Jamie Borden (Ret.)

CIR® Founder

Special thanks to Danny King ( / and David Blake, Ph.D., for reviewing this work.

[1] Purves, Wojtack, & Howe (2008) point out that our perceptions were never intended to reflect the physical world but to interpret it to help us perform. They state that illusions are not imperfections of perception but part of the brain's core strategy. Schacter (2001) agrees with this assessment. He states that: It is a mistake to conceive of the seven sins [of memory] as design flaws that expose memory as a fundamentally defective system. To the contrary, I suggest that the seven sins are by-products of otherwise adaptive features of memory, a price we pay for processes and functions that serve us well in many respects.

Artwohl Ph.D., Alexis; Christensen, Loren W.. Deadly Force Encounters, Second Edition: Cops and Citizens Defending Themselves and Others (p. 170).

Artwohl Ph.D., Alexis; Christensen, Loren W.. Deadly Force Encounters, Second Edition: Cops and Citizens Defending Themselves and Others (pp. 186-187). (Artwohl, 2002, 2003; British Psychological Society Research Board, 2008; Chabris & Simons, 2010; Deffenbacher, Bornstein, Penrod, & McGorty, 2004; Fisher & Geiselman,1992; Lacy & Stark, 2013; Morgan et al., 2004; National Research Council, 2014; Sapolsky, 2004; Schacter, 2001; Sharps, 2010; Sharps, Barber, Stahl, & Villegas, 2003; Sharps, Janigian, Hess, & Hayward, 2009; US Department of Justice; 1999, Wells & Olson, 2003; Wells & Quilivan, 2009; Wise, Sartori, Magnussen, & Safer, 2014).

[2] A Potential Case of Change Blindness in an Officer-Involved Shooting - Jeffrey A. Martin, J.D and Joel Suss, Ph.D

[3] A Potential Case of Change Blindness in an Officer-Involved Shooting - Jeffrey A. Martin, J.D and Joel Suss, Ph.D - Change blindness (CB) ". . . is the striking failure to see large changes that normally would be easily noticed" (Simons & Rensink, 2005, p. 16) and has been identified in the literature as such since 1997 (Rensink et al., 1997). CB is generally considered a perceptual failure related to inattentional blindness (Jensen et al., 2011). Inattentional blindness has been identified in the analysis of failure-to-see incidents involving law enforcement officers.

[4] Attention, however, is an imperfect mechanism. Sometimes there is more relevant information than a person can handle, so the filter must make a choice. Sometimes the attentional filter chooses incorrectly, blocking critical information. This does not necessarily mean that the person acted badly, even if hindsight makes it appear that way. The important questions are whether the person 1) made a conscious decision that led to lower attentional capacity and 2) allocated attention in a reasonable manner given the context and what was possible at the time. The answer to these questions lies in the normal operation of attention.This

Green, Marc; Allen, Merrill J.; Abrams, Bernard S.; Weintraub, Leslie. Forensic Vision with Application to Highway Safety, 3rd Edition with Supplement (p. 101). Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[5] In the picture that emerges from recent research, the intuitive System 1 is more influential than your experience tells you, and it is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make. Most of this book is about the workings of System 1 and the mutual influences between it and System 2.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 13). Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[6] It shows a very large orientation part of the cycle. Becoming oriented to a competitive situation means bringing to bear the cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experiences, and analysis / synthesis process of the person doing the orienting—a complex integration that each person does differently. These human differences make the Loop unpredictable.

Coram, Robert. Boyd (p. 335). Little, Brown and Company.

[7] There are a wide variety of circumstances where a person may fail to see an object because attention has filtered it away. One well-known phenomenon is "tunnel vision," or "perceptual narrowing,"7 which is an exaggeration of the normal concentration of attention around the sightline.The viewer tightly focuses attention and shrinks the "useful field of view" so that objects in the visual periphery are unseen. Several factors promote perceptual narrowing, including stress, poorviewing conditions, expectation,

Green, Marc; Allen, Merrill J.; Abrams, Bernard S.; Weintraub, Leslie. Forensic Vision with Application to Highway Safety, 3rd Edition with Supplement (p. 30). Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[8] The term "perceptual narrowing" is often used as a synonym for tunnel vision. In the original meaning (Estabrook, 1959), however, it is general restriction on the sources of informationused in decision-making. He meant a cognitive as well as sensory narrowing.

Green, Marc; Allen, Merrill J.; Abrams, Bernard S.; Weintraub, Leslie. Forensic Vision with Application to Highway Safety, 3rd Edition with Supplement (p. 43). Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[9] The "tunnel." Understanding 'human error' is about understanding the "inside" perspective—not the outside or hindsight one.

Dekker, Sidney. The Field Guide to Understanding 'Human Error' (p. 8). Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[10] Detection is preattentive, occurring before the attentional filter operates on the input. Since people only consciously perceive objects that engage attention, the detection of an object does notensure that the viewer should or will consciously perceive it. Detection sets the bound of the possible but does not necessarily imply that conscious perception is likely. If an object is below detection threshold, then it cannot be consciously perceived. If it is above threshold, it may or may notbe seen. In fact, people usually fail to see the information that they detect.

Green, Marc; Allen, Merrill J.; Abrams, Bernard S.; Weintraub, Leslie. Forensic Vision with Application to Highway Safety, 3rd Edition with Supplement (p. 29). Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc..

[11] 1.2 Embedding Vision In Behavior A. Open-Loop and Closed-Loop Behavior B. Cognitive Information Processing C. Behavioral Sequences 1. Search and Vigilance 2. Detection/Sensation/Visibility 3. Attention and Conspicuity 4. Recognition 5. Situation awareness 6. Response Selection 7. Response. Green, Marc; Allen, Merrill J.; Abrams, Bernard S.; Weintraub, Leslie. Forensic Vision with Application to Highway Safety, 3rd Edition with Supplement (p. 18). Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc.

[12] Soegaard, M. (2020, July 26). Hick's Law: Making the choice easier for users. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.

[13] It is influenced more by immediate contextual cues, emotions, and the demands of a rapidly unfolding situation as opposed to reflection, introspection, and delayed action. It is instinctive and associative rather than sequential and logical, meaning the person very quickly sizes up the situation without going through an orderly, linear process. Intuitive decisions are more likely to be based on habit and experience rather than creative thinking. It is more externally task-focused rather than abstract and hypothetical. (Epstein, 1994, Kahneman, 2011, Klein, 1998). Artwohl Ph.D., Alexis; Christensen, Loren W. Deadly Force Encounters, Second Edition: Cops and Citizens Defending Themselves and Others (p. 200).

[14] The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 388 (1989). Patrick, Urey W.; Hall, John C. In Defense of Self and Others . . .: Issues, Facts & Fallacies -- The Realities of Law Enforcement's Use of Deadly Force, Third Edition. Carolina Academic Press.

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Tuesday, 25 June 2024

The CIR Team has logged thousands of hours of continued and focused education in the field of Human Behavioral Sciences as it relates to law enforcement and has also logged thousands of hours of documented instruction time with multiple law enforcement entities as instructors, lecturers and authors.