Law Enforcement Memory of Stressful Events: Recall Accuracy as a Function of Detail Type

Law Enforcement Executive Forum

Law Enforcement Executive Forum

Authors: Mark E. Hartman, Dawn A. O’Neill, John O’Neill, William J. Lewinski

As required by the law, officers must report and document deadly force encounters. Discrepancies between an officer’s report and contradictory forensic evidence may jeopardize the officer’s credibility, implying purposeful omission or distortion of information. The primary purpose of the present study was to examine the relationship between types and accuracy of details reported by officers following a physiologically arousing simulated deadly force scenario. Specifically, we assigned officers to four groups based on overall accuracy quartiles to determine if high performers report different details than lower performers. We replicated and extended the classification of detail types employed by Hope, Gabbert, and Fraser (2013) and Hope et al. (2016) to include details about verbal interactions and critical details (i.e., hidden hand and number of shots fired). Free recall accuracy and the impact of video review were assessed at a four- to tenweek follow-up. Overall accuracy levels were high and did not significantly change over time. Reports with more details contained more errors. Errors were most likely to occur for verbal details. Roughly half of the officers recalled the hidden hand. Those who did reported fewer verbal details and more location details. Officers recalled approximately half of the actual number of shots fired. Video review may have positively influenced accuracy, but findings were limited by the small sample of follow-up data. These findings suggest that those involved in the analysis of officer memory should be aware of how the amount and type of details reported may impact recall of critical information.

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