Hands Up, Don’t Shoot

Decision making in life or death situations.

Posted Mar 08, 2015

Ferguson. The name of this small town in Missouri evokes strong emotions and has galvanized a grass roots movement to better understand, regulate, and control the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.  All too frequently, we read and view accounts of law enforcement officers applying deadly force under circumstances that appear nebulous to the average citizen.  Each case must be thoroughly and fairly investigated and criminal charges pursued against officers that violate policy and law in using deadly force.  Corrupt law enforcement agencies must be identified and made to reform, and racist, violent officers must be removed from the profession. Nothing less is acceptable.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Are the officers involved in these incidents simply “bad apples,” or are there other, possibly preventable factors that contribute to the misuse of deadly force? There are certainly many causes for these incidents ranging from the dynamic forces operative in each given situation to broad social/cultural issues that reflect larger flaws in society.  A holistic approach to solving this problem will require an integrative and unified effort by the judicial system, law enforcement agencies, and scientists – chiefly psychologists – who study human behavior under dynamic, threatening situations.

Military psychology can provide some understanding of factors that affect the decision to employ deadly force.  At first glance, the military may not seem to provide a valid analogue to civilian law enforcement.  For example, in the Battle of the Bulge, there was little constraint on soldiers from either side in the use of deadly force.  If you saw the enemy, you tried to kill him. But even in full-out war, there are legal constraints to the use of deadly force.  For instance, the killing of civilian non-combatants or prisoners of war is illegal.

In the wars of this century, the “rules of engagement” have become even more challenging to follow.  Enemy combatants do not wear uniforms, and often embed into their community, mixing with ordinary citizens.  How certain must a sniper be that a potential target is indeed an enemy before lethal force is applied?  Soldiers working checkpoints may order a civilian vehicle to stop.  What if it doesn’t?  Is it driven by a suicide bomber intent on blowing up a command post, or is it a situation in which the civilian driver simply does not understand English, is frightened, and fails to stop?  It puts the soldier in a bad position.  Fail to stop a suicide bomber and the people you are trying to protect die.  Fire on the confused and scared driver and an innocent civilian and his passengers die.

Military psychologists have studied decision making under extreme stress, of the sort that soldiers and law enforcement officers must be prepared to make.  Joseph Pfeifer, a senior commander of the New York Fire Department and a battalion chief (at the time) who responded to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and James Merlo, a former U.S. Army infantry officer and decorated combat veteran, have identified three general barriers to effective decision making in life or death situations.  These include physical, cognitive, and organizational limitations.[i]

In understanding the decision to use deadly force, we often fail to consider the physical environment and its impact on the ability of the soldier or law enforcement officer to see, hear, and communicate with others.  Under high stress, attentional tunneling may occur, resulting in the actor failing to notice critical aspects of the environment that might alter a decision to shoot or not to shoot.  Sensory overload, coupled with fear, make it challenging to think in a fluid and objective manner.

Cognitive limitations may also hinder decision making.  Pfeifer and Merlo identify 19 decision making and behavioral biases that impact the ability of a soldier or law enforcement officer to render fast and correct decisions.  These include attentional and perceptual bias, denial, professional deformation (looking at things from one’s own professional orientation; ignoring broader perspectives), neglect of probability, and zero-risk bias, to name a few. Collectively, these combine – especially under conditions of high threat – to impair decision making and can lead to the misapplication of deadly force.

Organizational limitations are very troubling.  Law enforcement organizations or military units that fail to establish or maintain strict rules of engagement, or that allow a culture of cynicism, distrust, and paranoia provide fertile grounds for generating illegal or inappropriate use of force incidents.  In civilian law enforcement, in particular, there is the tendency to develop “homophily,” where officers come to identify and bond primarily with other officers, and to view others, including the general public, with distrust and sometimes antipathy.  Mix in a culture of racism and you have a high potential for deadly force incidents such as was seen in Ferguson, Missouri.

Understanding the factors that may contribute to the use of deadly force are instrumental in decreasing its misuse.  Law enforcement officers need better and continual training in making decisions in chaotic, highly threatening situations.  Going to the range and shooting paper targets is not sufficient.  Sophisticated simulations allow officers to learn to deal with noise, threat, and distraction in an appropriate manner, before having to respond to a real life situation.

In a similar way, better training in the classroom, the field, and in simulations may help law enforcement officers think more clearly in real life, high-threat situations.  They may be trained in behaviors that compensate for attentional narrowing, allowing them a clearer picture of the external situation.  Ameliorating the cognitive barriers to effective decision making should greatly enhance the ability of officers to make correct decisions such as shoot-don’t shoot.

It is the organizational level that may be most important in constraining the use of deadly force. Law enforcement organizations and their leaders must strictly enforce codes of conduct and at the same time promote a culture of inclusion and fairness in dealing with the public. It is the organization that can change the attitudes of its officers away from an “us versus them” world view.  Clearly stated vision and mission statements and overt and public adherence to principles of conduct that promote both officer safety and the dignity and rights of the citizens they serve is essential. To do this, law enforcement organizations need to ferret out its members that do not adhere to these ideals, and to replace them with officers who represent and serve their community.

“To Protect and to Serve” is the motto of all civilian law enforcement agencies.  Psychologists can help law enforcement agencies select, assign, train, and develop officers who will be better able to achieve this simple, but admirable mission.

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

[i] Pfeifer, J. W., & Merlo, J. L. (2011). The decisive moment: The science of decision making under stress. In P. J. Sweeney, M.D. Matthews, and P.B Lester (eds), Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders. (pp. 230-248). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.