It must be a constant source of humiliation for journalists that have to pretend to swallow something obviously absurd, so that they can appear to be impartial. As we’ve seen since 2018 that does not result in good public policy unless your idea of good public policy comes from a Monty Python sketch.
So, there’s a theory mooted about that giving police officers a “cooling off period” in which to de-stress after a high-stress event will improve their ability to recall that event. High-stress events, mostly, being when the officer used force on a civilian.
Let’s walk through that, shall we? Officer Fred sees someone scary and guns them down. Officer Fred gets several weeks to regain composure, consult their lawyer, and write a report once their composure is regained. Meanwhile, Bob the friendly dope dealer gets grabbed, thrown in a car, and hauled to a small room for questioning. Both situations are stressful, but Fred’s memory is believed to be improved while Bob’s memory is, uh, also improved by the proximity of the questioning. Meanwhile, the reporters covering this story have to pretend that the whole thing is not obviously self-contradictory.
The Washington Post reports [wp]
For years, the accepted wisdom in the police community has been that the officer should be given time to calm down from the traumatic event and that full sleep cycles once or twice before an interview will enhance his or her recall of the episode. Some jurisdictions have rules or laws mandating a waiting period, and some departments have reached similar agreements with police unions.
“Officers should have some recovery time before providing a full formal statement,” the International Association of Chiefs of Police states in its “Officer-Involved Shooting Guidelines.” The guidelines say, “An officer’s memory will often benefit from at least one sleep cycle prior to being interviewed leading to more coherent and accurate statements.”
Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it. ‘More accurate and coherent statements’ means ‘cross-check our stories and make sure Officer A doesn’t contradict Officer B.’ Donald Trump could have explained it to them pretty quickly, back in the days when he cared about making his lies plausible.
Even though officers who were questioned shortly after emerging from a high-stress scenario “felt heightened anxiety, and reported less confidence in their cognitive ability,” the study found that those factors “did not seem to impede officers’ ability to recognize details of the scenario, or form new memories and perform in the cognitive tasks.”
When I was a psych undergrad, back in the 1980s, we were taught that it was already an established fact that a big dose of adrenaline boosted the heck out of short-term recall. That says to me that a cop should be immediately debriefed at the scene, then allowed to spend a few days
concocting a story calming down and asked again.
The study also built on a commonly held perception about memory. “One of the most fundamental laws of memory,” said Stanford professor Elizabeth Loftus, a renowned expert on human memory, “is that it fades over time.” She noted that memory “not only fades, but is also vulnerable to post-event contamination, or eroding.” Loftus said that “we couldn’t see any good reason for this kind of long delay” in conducting police interviews.
“post-event contamination” being when Officer A asks Officer B, “you saw him point what looked like a gun at me, didn’t you?”
There is more in the article, including typically lamentable social science – things like giving officers multiple-choice tests to check their recall (if you can’t see what’s wrong with that, raise your hand) in various circumstances:
Another issue with interviewing officers after a shooting is that they are entitled to the same protections as any citizen, namely the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself. Although officers are required to speak with internal-affairs investigators, those interviews are usually conducted much later and cannot be used against an officer in a criminal case. Officers typically consult a lawyer soon after a shooting, and those lawyers typically advise the officers not to talk.
The deck is stacked in favor of the officers in multiple ways, in other words. They are given plenty of time to lawyer up, consult with a lawyer, adjust their memories, and decide whether they are going to talk or not.
Here’s a suggestion: why not decide on the officer’s actions based entirely on circumstantial and non-hearsay evidence? Officer A’s gun’s bullets are in an unarmed person, Officer A said the unarmed person pointed a weapon at them, Officer A is lying and is guilty. That’s the same standard of evidence that anyone else gets. The testimony of officers should never be contradicted by dash-cam videos or by videos shot by uninvolved observers, because, if it is, they are lying. If I drive through a stop sign I am not able to say “I don’t recall seeing the sign” – it doesn’t matter, I get a ticket for what I did or did not do.
There is this elaborate superstructure around police crimes, in which they are called not-crimes. There is a separate system of justice – and a separate system of justice is not a system of justice.
For years, the accepted wisdom in the police community has been that the officer should be given time to calm down from the traumatic event and that full sleep cycles once or twice before an interview will enhance his or her recall of the episode
And real memory researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus and many others, will tell you that memory is malleable and fallible. Every time one recalls a memory there is the chance that it will be corrupted, totally inadvertently. Given a shooting incident where the officer may be held at fault—duh. And that is not even suggesting an intent to lie or distort the facts.
That, with a chance to collude with fellow officers surely will bring out the truth! See the Robert Dziekański case in Vancouver BC for this. I believe that case also pointed out that RCMP officers should not copy verbatim from one another’s notebook entries.
When I was a psych undergrad, back in the 1980s, we were taught that it was already an established fact that a big dose of adrenaline boosted the heck out of short-term recall.
I am not sure that this still holds. AFACK, a lot of what we thought of memory in the 1980s was as valid as Plogiston Theory is today. People like Elizabeth Loftus (maybe Nick Spanos at Carlton?) showed some of the problems with believing memory was etched in steel. It is more like engraved in whip cream. And it can be molded.
I am not aware of any studies on the big boost of adrenaline idea but my uneducated guess is that if the short term recall was good, it would decay very rapidly, probably in seconds if not milliseconds. Short-term memory to a perceptual psychologist (now retreaded as cognitive scientists in many cases) is not what it may mean to we normal humans.
I though I had heard of Bill Lewinski before. Ah yes, another totally immoral expert witness one sees some times https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/canada-warned-about-controversial-police-shooting-expert-1.1374682.
Some casual attempts to find out something about him did yield this blurb “Dr. Bill Lewinski is one of the world’s leading behavioral scientists”. http://www.billlewinski.com/about.html Duh, I, in the course of a misspent life, have actually have met a few of the “world’s leading behavioral scientists ” of the past 50 years. Somehow he was not on the radar screen.
Most of the research that I am aware of, and it is not a primary area of interest, is that eye-witness accounts of an occurrence are the least reliable and valid way to evaluate it. In a high-stress situation, the reliability and validity probably nose-dives. I’m with you, hard evidence rules.
As a follow up on my comment re ” another totally immoral expert witness”.
I have read/seen on tv a couple of these hired gun experts. They are admirably loyal to their paymasters.
One testified that the videos he had seen showed XXX. It was a bit later that the judge established that he had never viewed the videos.
In anther case, the “expert'” testified, based on a book he had not read since he could not read the language in which the book was written.
Marcus Ranum says
As a follow up on my comment re ” another totally immoral expert witness”.
I have to assume that the judges (and hopefully juries) realize to some degree what’s going on, and discount them heavily or even count them as evidence against what they say. I hope so, anyway.
I’ve done non-testifying research work for patent cases involving security technology (it turns out that someone who follows the “publish everything you know” model really throws a wrench into the patent collectors game) – I’ve had expensive lawyers try to coach my determinations of fact and when they do I have always quit and told them to find another expert.
Marcus Ranum says
Given a shooting incident where the officer may be held at fault—duh. And that is not even suggesting an intent to lie or distort the facts.
I’m willing to assume that this is all a thin cover for corruption, but I could imagine that two cops who got a chance to discuss an incident could unintentionally polish their stories to be more compatible. I interpret these policies as deliberate opportunities for collusion – but it seems that it could also happen inadvertently. If you’re willing to toss in the idea that cops may tend to be sociopathic and not have a good connection to truth, anyway, it gets worse.
AFACK, a lot of what we thought of memory in the 1980s was as valid as Plogiston Theory is today. People like Elizabeth Loftus (maybe Nick Spanos at Carlton?) showed some of the problems with believing memory was etched in steel. It is more like engraved in whip cream. And it can be molded.
OK, that’s good. Back then they were also backing a theory that amphetamines worked enough like adrenaline that they also had memory effects, which would be a severe problem given the way the military is still handing out ‘go pills’ and its potential connection to PTSD. As I indicated, my knowledge there has gone all kinds of stale.
The real issue, for me, is that cops should be treated as suspects in a crime, if a citizen is killed. Give them all the opportunities to exonerate themselves that a citizen would have. When a citizen uses deadly force in self-defense they are placing themselves in a great deal of legal jeopardy; I see no reason why a cop should be indemnified in advance against making mistakes.
Sunday Afternoon says
“There is this elaborate superstructure around police crimes, in which they are called not-crimes. There is a separate system of justice – and a separate system of justice is not a system of justice.”
Echoing thoughts expressed by others elsewhere, the ubiquity of smart phones with video capabilities is helping to expose at least some of these problems.