The Science of Why Cops Shoot: A NuSkool Special Report

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Racial injustice and shooting violence are nothing new, this is not even the first time we’ve addressed these topics on NuSkool. However, the questions are becoming harder to answer. How do we respond when a young person asks, “Why are the police shooting us?”. It would be simple to write off all of the recent police involved shootings as the good guys getting the bad guys, but those lines have blurred. Nor can we paint everything with the brush of racism and bias.

We attempted to get to the root of the problem by conducting a scientific investigation into why police are deciding to take lethal action in so many scenarios that seem like they could’ve been handled without loss of life. One major takeaway to consider, deeper than any racial bias – subconscious or otherwise, is the human body’s most basic and biological response to danger, fear and self-preservation. Police officers, criminals and innocent victims, all react to fear as either fight or flight, and sometimes to their detriment.

Here are the highlights of what we found after digging through dozens of research articles, scientific studies, police training videos, and testimonies from police and neuroscience experts.


Police Officers are Trained to Shoot First

Police officers are being told that they are justified in shooting first, based on the findings of a study on reaction time in live shooter situations. Shooting a suspect first and taking preemptive action is considered ‘reasonable’, according to a study on shooting reaction time. In this study, conducted by J. Pete Blair at Texas State University and published by Police Quarterly, it was found that a suspect without a gun revealed or a gun to their side can fire a shot quicker than a well-trained officer can react and shoot, even with the officer’s gun aimed at the suspect ready to fire.

In the experiment, officers had their gun up and on target from the start and were instructed to “attempt to shoot first” as soon as they “perceived” a move to shoot them. The research team then analyzed video recordings of 159 of the shooting exchanges, frame-by-frame. The reaction-time results showed that the suspects on average were able to fire from their side in just 0.38 seconds. Officers fired back in an average of 0.39 seconds after the suspect’s movement began.

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The researchers concluded that “many of the elements that occur in real-life shootings” would no doubt add significant time to the average officer’s reaction time. “The process of perceiving the suspect’s movement, interpreting the action, deciding on a response, and executing the response for the officer generally took longer than it took the suspect to shoot a gun, even though the officer already had his gun aimed at the suspect.” If you take this study and apply it to real life-or-death situations, racial prejudice, fear, stress, fatigue can all further affect an officer’s reaction time, thus causing the officer to preemptively react even earlier or slower than they normally would.

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This study conducted by Blair, who also happens to train thousands of Law Enforcement, is used to help clear officers in cases when police use deadly force. This study is used as the ‘reasonableness’ standard by examining the ability of police officers to respond to armed suspects. New officer trainings also stress the importance of being alert for and responding to early indicators of imminent threats, such as nervous or suspicious movements and other potential early warning signs of potential violent attack, rather than waiting for immediate threats such as a gun being pointed directly at them. Police trainer and scientist, Bill Lewinski of the Force Institute, believes it is “lunacy” that there are still departments that insist by policy that officers cannot legitimately shoot first to defend themselves unless an offender is actually pointing a weapon at them.


Police Officers Shoot Black Targets Faster than White Targets

Investigators in the Stereotyping and Prejudice Research Laboratory at the University of Chicago have been working to develop and refine a first-person-shooter video game, which presents a series of images of black and white men—some armed, some unarmed— in realistic backgrounds such as parks or city streets. The player’s goal is to shoot any and all armed targets but not to shoot unarmed targets. Half of the targets are black, and half are white. The game was to investigate whether shooting a potentially hostile suspect can be influenced by the person’s race.

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The results were upsetting and, quite frankly, tough to swallow. The study found that local police officers, national police officers and even community participants showed significant bias in their reaction times, and the groups were all faster to shoot an armed black target than an armed white target, and uniformly faster to press the “Don’t shoot” button for an unarmed white target and slower to press “Don’t shoot” relative to an unarmed black target.
Community participants were faster to press “Shoot” in response to an armed target if that target was black rather than white, whereas they were faster to press “Don’t shoot” in response to an unarmed target if that target was white rather than black.

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The community participants were also more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed target if he was black rather than white. This finding alone is reason enough as to why we don’t need armed citizens walking the streets. Overall, they were slower and more likely to make mistakes in response to targets that deviated from racial stereotypes, such as unarmed blacks and armed whites.


Fear Causes Police Officers to Experience Memory Loss and Sensory Distortion

Crazy things happen to the body in a state of fear, most of us respond in one of three ways, fight, flight or freeze. You would hope that trained professionals are able to deal with fear differently, but nothing can truly prepare you for a life-threatening situation.

Fear is the body’s way of telling itself that his or her life is in danger and immediate action is required, chemical changes alert only the parts of the body you need to survive the situation. Blood flow is enhanced to the large muscles, it is diverted away from other areas of the body. The brain receives less blood and has reduced the need and ability to think or reason. The ability to distinguish time, colors and distance are all diminished and your body reverts to ‘auto-pilot’, acting on learned habits, training and instincts without thinking. Without proper training, which is in the range of performing the act 3,000 to 5,000 times, the body will likely rely on instincts in a crisis.

Police officers experience Perceptual Distortion, a number of perceptual changes as a result of fear. This can affect not only the outcome of the crisis, but their ability to recall key details as part of the investigation of a fatal shooting incident.

72 police officers who had been involved in a shooting were surveyed and the following results were found:

Diminished Sound: 88% did not hear sounds such as gunfire, shouting, or sirens, or the sounds had “an unusual distant, muffled quality.”

Tunnel Vision: 82% reported that their “vision became intensely focused on the perceived threat” and they lost their peripheral vision.

Automatic Pilot: 78% reported responding “automatically to the perceived threat, giving little or no conscious thought” to their actions.

Heightened Visual Clarity: 65% reported being able to “see some details or actions with unusually vivid clarity or detail.”

Slow Motion Time: 63% reported that “events seemed to be taking place in slow motion and seemed to take longer to happen than they really did.”

Memory Loss for Parts of the Event: 61% reported that, after the event, there were parts of it that they could not remember.

Memory Loss for Actions: 60% reported that, after the event, they could not remember some of their own actions. 33% in another study of 90 cases studied found police officers could not accurately recall the number of shots fired in shootings. officers were much more likely to underestimate the number of shots fired than to overestimate that number.

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During the events leading up to a shooting, the officer must process a variety of data, some of it important while much of it will be chaos. Responding to a perceived threat requires cognitive processing and decision making. There are three categories for human reaction: simple, choice, and recognition.

Simple response: involves only one signal and one response. It often appears in the form of a stand-off between police and an armed suspect; police wait until the suspect makes a single threatening gesture such as pointing a firearm before firing.

Choice response: is when the officer has to process multiple signals, each of which may require multiple responses. An officer may, for example, have to decide whether to fire his pistol, use his Taser, Pepper spray, or engage the suspect in hand-to-hand combat based on the person’s actions and other environmental factors such as innocent bystanders.

Recognition response: an officer must process multiple signals but with only one response; this is the typical shoot/don’t shoot scenario, where there are many signals to process but the decision comes down to whether or not to pull the trigger and fire at the suspect.


The Force Institute uses Science to Clear Police Officers of Wrongdoing in Shooting Cases

The Force Science, run by Executive Director Bill Lewinski, PhD. — a specialist in police psychology — has spent the last decade training police officers and conducting unique scientific lethal-force experiments to help clear officers from being charged criminally after a fatal shooting incident.

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One experiment tried to explain how shooting a suspect in the back can actually happen unintentionally at no fault of the officer. Lewinski says. “The officer may make a decision to shoot when the suspect is facing him and threatening deadly force, but before the officer’s gunfire reaches the suspect, he has turned to run and unavoidably is hit in the back. This movement can happen in 14/100 of a second and is so fast that many times the officer doesn’t even realize the suspect has turned and is mystified by where the bullets end up hitting.” These findings were later credited with preventing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by the suspect’s family and kept the case from being brought to trial.

Lewinski also attempts to use physiology and brain science to explain how “extra” shots can be fired by officers after a threatening suspect is neutralized. This experiment explains that once the brain receives the stimulus message to stop shooting in a high-stress situation, a typical officer will still squeeze off two to three additional rounds before the message to stop transmits from his brain to his trigger finger. “In just one second an officer can shoot a semi-automatic pistol four times,” Lewinski claims. “It’s not a case of malicious overreaction. It’s a law of physiology.”

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The Force Institute presents their findings on behalf of officers under legal scrutiny after a shooting, Lewinski has explained his unique findings to internal affairs and homicide investigators, medical examiners, prosecutors, grand juries, judges, civil rights lawyers, civilian review boards, criminal- and civil-court jurors, and others who are responsible for assessing officers’ judgment in street conflicts. His documented work has kept a number of officers from going to prison or being found liable in civil lawsuits.


Shooting a Gun Helps Officers Perform at their Best

Shooting a gun restores power and focus back to the officer. Just as blood flow to the brain is lost as a result of fear, blood flow is regained after a dopamine injection from firing a gun, restoring thinking and reasoning capacities.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. We feel dopamine releases as engagement, excitement, creativity, and desire. The dopamine chemical is released when we win in sports, do well on a task, achieve a goal or even collect coins in a video game. Drugs create artificial releases of dopamine, creating the urge for the body to seek out more and more doses of the dopamine release. Motivation and addiction both come from the body’s internal desire to continually seek out dopamine releases. The act of shooting a gun and hitting a target both release a significant amount of dopamine into the bloodstream.

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The best dopamine release is when the reward follows the stimulus by roughly 100-200 milliseconds. Firing an automatic weapon is instantly gratifying and ideal for dopamine rewards since an assault weapon can fire a round every 100 milliseconds. This means firing automatic weaponry can resemble addictive behavior and dopamine abuse.

Contrary to what we learned about fear depleting the body of key senses, the act of firing a gun and getting a rush of dopamine actually restores key brain functions and improves awareness. This helps the brain perform when we we take risks and helps us survive that behavior. Dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition in the brain. It also improves heart rate, blood pressure and muscle firing in the body. Dopamine serves as an important skill-booster and can counterbalance the detrimental affects of fear.

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Lesson tags: brutality, Cops, criminal justice, Current Events, Featured, police, protests, Racial issues, Science, shootings, social justice, STEM

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The NuSkool Team The NuSkool editing team is made up of highly qualified educators, researchers and pop culture experts. The team works collaboratively to critically deconstruct pop culture and find the teachable moments in all forms of media and entertainment.