New Series: Force Science Successes In Real-World Cases

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“Looming” looms large in review board decision

The young suspect behind the wheel of the stolen Saturn tried his best to lose the two city detectives in hot pursuit behind him, but not only did he fail to get away, he got shot in the process. And that caused a potential problem as the officers faced their department’s shooting review board.

The chase one afternoon last spring sped along a roadway that flanks a creek as it meanders through an affluent residential neighborhood in Merced, CA. Around one curve, the detectives lost sight of their quarry for just a flash. When they regained a visual, they saw he’d just crashed into an oncoming bus.

As they bailed from their unit, guns drawn, to apprehend him, the Nissan began backing toward them. Leaping clear would have meant jumping into a traffic lane for the driver detective, dropping 20 feet down an embankment to the creek bed for the passenger.

Instead, both opened fire, hitting the driver in the arm and shoulder. The vehicle stopped after hitting the detectives’ unit.

After the smoke cleared, the detectives, both veteran LEOs with exemplary records and one a firearms instructor, swore they’d been in fear for their lives, with the car coming toward them at what seemed like “a high rate of speed.” But video taken by an impact-activated camera on the bus raised doubt.

The Saturn appeared only to be rolling backward slowly and nonthreateningly, almost as if in recoil from the collision. A mechanical inspection showed that the car’s reverse gear was, in fact, disabled. And the 27-year-old suspect, whose only past violations were minor drug offenses, insisted he’d not attempted a deliberate vehicular attack. Indeed, he apologized to the detectives.

Lt. Tom Trindad, a watch commander who was transitioning into investigations, was tasked with reporting on the case for Merced PD’s shooting review board, a panel of four supervisory personnel. “The board would rule on whether the detectives’ shooting had fallen within policy,” Trindad told Force Science News. “If not, a full IA investigation would be launched.”

About two months earlier, Trindad had earned certification as a Force Science Analyst, having financed the tuition out of his own pocket. It was during that intensive five-day course that he first heard about the phenomenon that he now decided most likely held the key to the pursuit shooting.

In the class, instructor Chris Lawrence had explained an optical trick-of-the-mind called ‘looming,’ which is well-documented in scientific literature, Trindad explains. “When an object like a vehicle is coming directly toward you, the amount of space it occupies in your visual field expands exponentially, so the object appears to be moving much faster and looming much larger than it actually is. In high-stress situations, the effect tends to be aggravated.”

Lawrence had distributed a chart that relates visual expansion to closing distance, illustrating how officers in stressful circumstances could innocently miscalculate the imminence and degree of threat they were experiencing.

“I was confident that this explained the urgency the detectives felt in deciding to shoot and accounted for the apparent disparity between their subjective perception and what the video objectively showed,” Trindad says.

When he presented the chart and described the workings of looming to the review board, panel members agreed that “the shooting made a lot more sense.” The detectives’ actions were ruled within policy. Later, the county prosecutor concluded that there was no basis for criminal action against the officers.

“I wanted to do the best job I could do before the board,” Trindad says, “because I felt I was holding the careers of two fine officers in my hands. Thanks to what I learned from Force Science, I was able to offer a perspective on what happened that wouldn’t otherwise have factored into the board’s decision.”

At age 48 and a couple of years from retirement, Trindad is working on a master’s degree in criminology. His wife, who shares his fascination with human performance, is pursuing a degree in cognitive science. Their future goals, he says, are to “find ways to improve training so officers make better decisions” and to “improve education for the public so civilians better understand the realities of policing.”

Lt. Trindad can be reached through the editorial e-mail address: editor@forcescience.org. All messages will be forwarded.

Where grand juries give cops applause & hugs

Half a continent away, in Kansas City, MO, Patrol Capt. Matthew “Tye” Grant is bringing Force Science education to influential civilians, one grand jury panel at a time.

In cooperation with local prosecutors, Grant, a certified Force Science Analyst and a former KCPD academy supervisor, spends three to four hours with each grand jury in his jurisdiction that is scheduled to pass judgment on an officer-involved shooting. His role: give the jurors an eye-opening and unforgettable immersion in cop reality before they vote on the OISs before them.

“I’m not trying to bias them but to inform them of fundamental truths that critically influence officers’ performance but that most of the jurors and other civilians have absolutely no knowledge about whatsoever,” Grant told Force Science News.

Although Kansas City currently averages about two OISs a month, Grant does not discuss any particular case with the jurors. The information he conveys relates to common deadly force issues–“situations officers typically get involved in and have to make decisions about and things citizens wonder about.”

For his sessions, Grant is sworn in before the 12 jurors as a subject matter expert on use of force and police training. Then in hands-on exercises at the academy, he exposes them to how the street feels from behind a badge.

He likes to start by asking those who have witnessed more than 10 OISs to raise their hand. When no one does, he chides them for their lack of candor. “Actually, you’ve all seen thousands and thousands of police shootings,” he declares. “You see them every day, on TV shows and in movies.”

Then, drawing heavily on Force Science data, he sets about correcting the misconceptions bred in Hollywood.

“They come with questions about real-life shootings,” he says. ” ‘Why don’t you shoot a suspect in the arm or leg?’ ‘Why do you shoot so many times?’ ‘Why don’t you let the other guy shoot first since you wear bulletproof vests? How could you possibly shoot a juvenile who just has a bb gun?’

“That’s the typical person’s mind-set. In police work, we completely forget the perception of normal citizens who don’t have the training and experience of law enforcement.”

So, equipping them with training guns and exposing them to scenarios via a Virtra simulator, Grant gives the jurors a few doses. Both those who participate in a given exercise as “officers” and those who merely watch as “witnesses” gain new insights into the realities of decision-making and performance, he says.

For example:

  • When those playing cops can’t react fast enough to keep from being shot even when they’re facing an offender with their gun drawn and their finger on the trigger, Grant describes Force Science studies of action and reaction times and the nature of decision-making in sudden, unexpected, life-threatening circumstances. “They begin to see how officers are always behind the reactionary curve and the importance of split-second decisions to their very survival,” he says.
  • When jurors shoot a subject who’s pointing a cell phone that they mistake as a gun, Grant is able to get into concepts like schemas and contextual cues that he studied in the Force Science certification course. And when they shoot the wielder of a replica weapon, he shows them an array of real and look-alike fake guns and asks them to quickly decide which is which.
  • When “witnesses” and “officers” are debriefed after a shooting and discrepancies arise between what each saw and remembers, he talks about Force Science findings regarding the effect of stress on memory. This leads to discussions of phenomena like inattentional blindness, perceptual issues, selective attention, and narrowed angle of focus. “Experiencing it first hand, they begin to understand that not remembering something that happened or remembering it wrong doesn’t necessarily equate with cops lying–and they understand the science underlying it,” Grant explains.

“By the end of the training, they have a completely different picture of law enforcement, and when they leave the room, they look at a police shooting in a totally different light. They’ve gotten information they’ve never had an opportunity to see or think about before. Even people who right off the bat seemed anti-police and anti-shooting tend to be affected.”

His background as a SWAT sergeant, he believes, builds credibility that “I have experienced what I talk about. It helps open their minds to a different way of thinking.”

After Grant’s training, when it’s time for a grand jury to hear a police-shooting case, the PD’s shooting team supervisor presents the facts to the panel, and the jurors generally have enough information at that point to make a decision, Grant says.

Since he began his educational sessions, “I am not aware of any officer even having to formally testify in front of the grand jury,” he says. “The jurors simply bring the officers in to tell them thank you for their service, give them a round of applause and sometimes a hug, and tell them they hope the officers never have to go through a shooting again.

“Instead of the stress of having to explain discrepancies in statements, multiple rounds, choice of aim, justification to fire, etc., the officers are able to leave feeling their work and sacrifice are appreciated. Not only does this reduce the officers’ stress, it also greatly minimizes the questions to the prosecutors and their need to clarify ‘Hollywood Factor’ expectations.”

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