Published in print format in the
Law Enforcement Executive
Volume 3, Number 2, Pages 41-49 (2003)
© Copyright 2003 by Alexis Artwohl and the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board
It is possible for police officers to discharge their weapons in the line of duty yet have no memory of having done so. Case histories of such events are presented. Research on perceptual and memory distortions during critical incidents is reviewed, along with the research on involuntary discharges. Both areas of research offer explanations why it is possible for officers to fire their weapon during a critical incident yet have no memory of it. The implications for the training police officers and the investigations of officer-involved shootings are discussed.
The following are actual case histories of police officers who discharged their weapons during the line of duty but have no memory of having done so:
Three patrol cars blocked in the car of suspect they were attempting to apprehend. The suspect began to ram the vehicles, presenting a deadly threat to some of the officers on the scene. Three officers opened fire on the suspect. The suspect jumped out of his vehicle, refused to show his hands, and continued to behave in suspicious manner. The officers continued to fire until the suspect gave up. He was taken into custody with minor injuries. A sergeant was standing in the vicinity of the three officers who initially opened fire. When the homicide detectives arrived the three officers who fired reported discharging their weapons. The sergeant did not report firing his weapon nor did any of the officers report hearing the sergeant’s weapon go off. After providing a brief description of his involvement in the incident, the sergeant went home and performed his cursory daily wipe down of his weapon then went to sleep. The next day he was called in by the detectives to explore the possibility that he had fired his weapon at the scene. The sergeant reported no recollection of firing his weapon but conceded it was, of course, possible. It became apparent that the detectives had obtained physical evidence indicating that the sergeant had indeed discharged his weapon. They did not believe the sergeant could not remember having done so and immediately suspected him of untruthfulness. They were further bothered by the fact that the sergeant admitted wiping down his gun and believed this was part of his cover-up. The sergeant was placed on administrative leave and within a week received a notice of intent to terminate letter based on the allegations that he had been untruthful and had attempted to cover up firing his weapon. His association informed the police department they intended to file legal action on the sergeant’s behalf for unlawful termination. A deal was truck to delay the sergeant’s termination and he was granted a stress-related medical retirement.
A deputy stopped a drunk driver as the driver was pulling into his home’s driveway. The driver got out and went inside his home. The deputy called for back-up and asked the driver to come outside. The driver refused, telling the deputy to come inside, which he did. The deputy found the driver sitting on a couch with a gun next to him. The deputy retreated, yelling for the driver to not touch the gun. Confused, the deputy wound up going into the basement. The driver followed, gun in hand. The deputy called for help and got out of the basement. The driver was found dead at the top of the stairs. The deputy swears he did not shoot, but it was later discovered the deputy had in fact fired four rounds. The deputy saw the muzzle flashes but thought they were coming from the driving shooting at him. The deputy was cleared but retired because of stress.
A male gangster was holding a couple in their 90's as hostages. A patrol sergeant shot the suspect along with two other officers. He remembers seeing a muzzle flash and thought it was the suspect firing at him. He was shocked to find out the suspect had not actually shot at him. It was really his own muzzle flash that he saw. He had to look at his own magazine to see if he had really fired or not.
An officer stepped out of his squad car after pursuing an offender who spun out on a slick entrance ramp. As he stepped out he slipped and fired a round through the offender’s windshield. The round barely touched the offender’s neck. The officer insisted he did not have his finger on the trigger or consider shooting.
An officer shot a suspect twice with a shotgun to prevent him from entering a residence and taking a hostage. It was a justified shooting but the officer only remembers firing one of the two rounds. The shooting review board found one round “in policy” and one round “out of policy”. Their reasoning was that both rounds were justified, but since he couldn’t remember one of them, it must be out of policy.
There were two incidents in which officers fired unintentionally and did not immediately realize they had done so. But once their brains sorted out the incoming data (i.e., I’m bleeding, my gun is smoking, and there is no one else here) they realized what had happened.
An officer was involved in a shooting with another officer and suspect in which over 20 total rounds were fired. Immediately after the shooting she couldn’t remember if for sure if she had fired her weapon.. She remained unsure until around one hour later when she and her lieutenant checked her weapon and actually counted the rounds.
Additional cases are available in the research report written by Klinger (2001). His extensive interviews of 80 officers involved in 113 separate shootings revealed additional cases of officer who fired their weapons but did not realize they were doing so as it happened:
An officer was shot at close range by a suspect who then immediately fled the location. The suspect was captured nearby after losing a gun battle with the injured officer’s partner. It was discovered during the post-shooting investigation that the first officer had fired one round that struck the suspect during the initial confrontation in which he himself had been shot. However, the first officer had no recollection that he had fired his gun.
In one case the only reason an officer knew that he had fired four rounds is that he knew that he carried four rounds in his shotgun, which he emptied at the suspect. He did not recall firing four rounds, he just deduced from his empty shotgun he had done so.
In another case, an officer knew that he had fired his semi-automatic handgun only because when he looked down the frame to obtain a sight picture on an armed suspect he saw that the hammer was cocked back, which could only have happened if he had already fired.
Solomon (1997) reported two additional cases:
Two officers confront a suspect who takes one of them hostage. The suspect forces the hostage officer into the police car with the officer behind the wheel and orders him to drive off. As he turned on the ignition the other officer shot the suspect through the windshield. The next thing he remembers is helping the officer out of the car. The suspect is dead. The investigation revealed that the suspect was killed by shots fired through the drivers side window. However, the officer said he only fired through the windshield and did not know shots had been fired through the side window or who could have fired them. However, the hostage officer confirmed that the officer had in fact fired two shots through the side window after firing through the windshield. The officer had no recollection of going to the side of the car or firing his weapon there until six years later at a critical incident workshop.
Several officers were in pursuit of an armed suspect, when he crashed his car. As an officer approached the car the suspect got out, weapon in hand. The next thing the officer remembers is standing over the suspect who was fatally shot. Witnesses and physical evidence clearly show the officer shot the suspect. The officer, however, does not recall shooting him.
In addition to these on duty incidents, Trooper Mike Conti of the Massachusetts State Police Academy reported the following in a personal communication:
Have built a new firearms training program for Mass State Police; the “New Paradigm” we call it. Incorporated in the program is a Stress Inoculation Training program called the “House of Horror”. Over 2300 people trained so far, one at a time. Six minutes long. Eight stations where they must decide on what to do while operating with a pistol in their hands. True high arousal state induced 100% of the time. Physical and Psychological effects consistently observed. Documented memory gaps experienced by 85% to 90% of all who have participated. Not remembering what they did, if they shot at particular stations, etc. THIS IN TRAINING, never mind actual situation. Also tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, etc., experienced by all who participate.
Trooper Conti and his colleagues are to be commended for their innovative and reality based training program.
RESEARCH ON PERCEPTUAL AND MEMORY DISTORTIONS
Research by Artwohl (1997, 2002), Solomon (1986, 1997), Klinger (2001), Grossman and Siddle (1998), Honig and Roland (1998), all confirm that officers experience perceptual and memory distortions during critical incidents, including officer involved shootings.
Artwohl (2002) in her survey of 157 officers involved in shootings, found that 52% of the officers could not remember some of the event and 46% could not remember some of their own behavior. Solomon (1986)) reported that 32% of the 44 officers whom he studied who were in on-duty shootings could not remember some parts of their experience. In addition to memory gaps, 21% of the officers in Artwohl’s study experienced memory distortions in which they saw, heard, or experienced something during the event that they later found out had not really happened.
This lack of recall of one’s own behavior can include inaccuracies in the recall of how many rounds were fired and even the failure to remember having fired one’s weapon at all. Klinger (2001), in addition to his above reported cases where officers were unaware of firing their weapons, found that in 33% of the 113 shootings he studied, officers could not accurately recall the exact number of rounds they had fired. He found that the accuracy of officer’s recall decreased as the number or rounds went up: from 81% accuracy when officer fired five or fewer rounds, down to 29% accuracy when they fired six to nine, and down all the way to 0% accuracy when they fired 13 or more. His research confirms the clinical experience of police psychologists who routinely observe during debriefings that officers frequently cannot accurately remember the number of rounds they fired during an officer involved shootings. Artwohl (2002) found that 84% of officers involved in 157 shootings experienced the perceptual distortion of diminished sound, meaning that they could not hear loud sounds such as gunshots that ordinarily would not be missed. The failure to hear the gunshots could contribute to the officers not realizing they had a weapons discharge or not knowing the exact number of rounds that were fired.
The distorted and/or missing memories that officers experience during critical incidents is not surprising given that the basic research on memory has confirmed that human memory is rarely perfect even under the best of circumstances. This includes eyewitness testimony in legal cases (Terry, 1997). Furthermore, as multiple researchers have pointed out, memory impairment is an in inherent part of critical incidents. The memory of a highly stressful event can often be fragmented, disorganized, out of order, or contain gaps where the person has no memory at all. DSM-IV (1994), the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, points out that one of the features of post-traumatic stress disorder is the “Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma.”
Epstein (1994) a researcher in the area of stress and fear, points out that when people are in a highly emotionally aroused state they process information in fundamentally different way than they do when they are in a low state of arousal. Their reactions under stress are more likely to include decreased conscious awareness, fragmented memory, perceptual distortions, and be based on instinct and previous learning experiences instead of rational conscious thought. All of these documented phenomena could contribute to the failure to consciously remember firing their weapon, especially in the suddenness, noise, confusion, and fear that often characterizes deadly force encounters. Consistent with Epstein’s research, Artwohl (2002) found that 74% of 157 officers involved in shootings reported that they responded automatically to the perceived threat, giving little or no conscious thought to their actions. Officers will often make comments such as: “My training just automatically kicked in without my thinking about it.” or “My gun just appeared in my hand on its own.”
Dissociation, defined as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception of the environment” (DSM-IV, 1994), is an experience people are prone toward experiencing in a high stress situation. Artwohl (2002) found that 39% of 157 officers involved in shootings experienced dissociation as defined by “there were moments when you had a strange sense of detachment, as if the event was a dream and not real, or like you were looking at yourself from the outside.” Solomon (1986) reported that 9% of 44 officers involved in shootings reported dissociation to the extent of having out-of-body experiences. During dissociation, people can become psychologically detached from their bodies or aspects of the experience, resulting in lack of awareness of pain, loss of memory for parts of the event, feeling numb and detached from their emotions, and other strange experiences that can interfere with conscious awareness of their behavior and their ability to recall what they did.
Because of memory distortions, dissociation, and automatic reactions to stimuli during high arousal states, it is well documented in the trauma literature that people in extreme stress situations can engage in behavior that appears to be a purposeful reaction to sudden threats but which they have no memory for.
RESEARCH ON UNINTENTIONAL WEAPONS DISCHARGE
If officers have no recollection of having fired their weapons when, in fact, they did, it is safe to assume that in some cases the discharge of the weapon was involuntary, at least at the conscious level. Therefore, the research on involuntary discharges may also offer some useful insights:
Enoka (2003) points out that there is no doubt that unintentional discharges are possible and are caused by involuntary muscle contractions. He discusses physiological phenomenon that can contribute to unintentional discharges including sympathetic contractions, loss of balance, and startle reactions.
Messina (1994, 2000), Messina & Czarnecki (2002), and Demetriou (1994) did research on what they term the “fist reflex” to address the issue of involuntary discharges. The fist reflex is defined as “a response which occurs when an individual psychologically associates making a fist with a high stress confrontational situation”. They point out that although the fist reflex may be a natural instinct at birth, it can be further reinforced by sports such as boxing and the martial arts, and through on the job training using fisted defensive tactics. Their research indicated that a high percentage of participants who had involuntary discharges had studied martial arts systems that emphasized making a fist under stress, with boxers foremost in this category.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TRAINING
Enoka (2003) points out that there is scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that interactions between limbs contributing to sympathetic contractions can be modified with training. Since these interactions appear to be task specific, he recommends that firearms instructors study the problem and devise innovative ways to minimize the physiological phenomenon contributing to involuntary discharges.
Grossi (1993) discusses Enoka’s research and makes recommendations for law enforcement training including training and practice in the “Universal Cover Mode” (keep the finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard). Like Enoka, he encourages firearms instructors to integrate Enoka’s information into their training programs and devise progressive training methods to help minimize involuntary discharges.
Messina (1994, 2000, 2002), based on the research confirming the phenomenon of the “fist reflex”, completely removed all fisted strikes from their law enforcement programs with positive results. Messina states that no officer certified by his training company after 1993 has had an involuntary discharge in either high stress simulations or in the line of duty, a result he attributes to switching his training from fisted strikes to open-handed striking techniques. He and his colleague Demetriou advocate open-handed striking techniques as a training method that can minimize the fist reflex and help reduce the number of involuntary discharges.
Given the contribution that stress and the startle reflex can contribute to involuntary discharges and the inability to remember what happened, it is recommended that training for critical incidents be founded upon the principles of Stress Inoculation Training, (SIT) first documented by Meichenbaum (1983, 1985). This means that officers are best trained to perform effectively in high stress situations by training them under stressful training conditions that simulate as much as possible the external stimuli and high levels of physiological arousal they will experience in an actual critical incident. This includes training and practice in learning to control their arousal levels and becoming more stress resistant in an actual event. This also allows State Dependent Learning (SDL) to occur. SDL, confirmed by research, means that a learned behavior will be performed better if it is learned under the same external and internal state in which it will be performed. Therefore, if officers will be performing under the influence of adrenaline and other stress hormones in an actual critical incident, they should learn and practice under the influence of these same stress hormones. Simulating the external demands and stressors will also help officers achieve peak performance during the real event.
IMPLICATIONS FOR INVESTIGATIONS
Officers who discharge their weapons obviously must be held accountable for their use of deadly force and it is appropriate that these events undergo a through investigation. All those involved in judging the aftermath of an officer involved shooting should be trained in the existence of memory and perceptual distortions so they understand that these are normal phenomena during critical incidents. This would include the officers themselves, investigators, command staff, district attorneys, juries, journalists, and any other individuals who will be second guessing the behavior of the involved officers. It should never be assumed that the witnesses and participants of any event, including officers, are automatically lying if their memories of an event do not coincide the physical evidence or other witness accounts. This includes the failure to remember firing their weapon.
It is standard operating procedure that the weapons of officers who discharged their weapons in the line of duty are examined to determine how many rounds were fired. This is a wise policy given that officers frequently are not able to accurately recall the exact number of rounds they fired. However, based on evidence that officers may have no memory of discharging their weapon at all it is recommended that the weapons of ALL officers at the scene of any deadly force encounter have their weapons routinely examined to see if they have been fired. This will help maximize the accuracy and thoroughness of the investigation and protect officers from accusations of “covering up” a weapons discharge if it is discovered later that officers had experienced a weapons discharge that they did not notice or remember.
Fisher and Geiselman (1992) have done extensive research on nhancing interview technique developed to help cooperative witnesses such as crime victims recall what happened. Officers involved in shootings would typically fall into this category. Fisher and Geiselman developed this technique based on the recognition that victims of traumatic events such as crimes often have difficulty recalling exactly what happened no matter how much they want to. Therefore, it is the investigator’s task to help facilitate their memory recall as much as possible. Multiple research studies have demonstrated that investigators using the Cognitive Interview technique are able to obtain 30% to 70% more information from cooperative witnesses than the standard interrogation techniques used for recalcitrant criminal suspects who are more likely to be lying and deliberately withholding information. It is recommended that investigators who interview officers and other crime victims familiarize themselves with the Cognitive Interview.
In summary, incidents in which the officers do not remember discharging their weapons will continue to be a fact of life for law enforcement. This will include situations during which officers will have involuntary discharges, a phenomenon that hopefully can be reduced by research and better training. When officers have failed to remember having a weapons discharge, it is a mistake to automatically assume that the officer must be lying. There is ample psychological research which shows that memory gaps and distortions are a normal part of critical incidents. Investigators interviewing cooperative witnesses involved in shootings and other high stress events are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the memory enhancing interview technique, the Cognitive Interview, developed by Fisher and Geiselman.
* About the author: Alexis Artwohl, Ph.D. is a public safety trainer who provides training and consultation across the USA and Canada. Her areas of training include: achieving peak performance in high stress situations, preparing to survive deadly force encounters, investigating officer-involved shootings, and managing the psychological damage caused by trauma and organizational stress. Dr. Artwohl is co-author of the book DEADLY FORCE ENCOUNTERS: WHAT COPS NEED TO KNOW TO MENTALLY PREPARE FOR AND SURVIVE A GUNFIGHT, written with retired police officer Loren W. Christensen. During her 16 years as a private practice clinical and police psychologist, she provided traumatic incident debriefings and psychotherapy to numerous public safety personnel and their family members. She was an independent provider of psychological services to public safety agencies throughout the Pacific Northwest. She can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website: http://www.alexisartwohl.com/
American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association
Artwohl, A. (2002) Perceptual and Memory Distortions in Officer Involved Shootings. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October, 2002, Volume 158, N 10, 18-24
Artwohl, A. & Christensen, L W. (1997). Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare for and Survive a Gunfight. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press.
Demetriou, G. (1994). To Punch or Not to Punch, That is the Question!. The ASLET Journal, March/April, 1994. Volume 2, N 10, 46-49.
Enoka, Roger (2003). Involuntary Muscle Contractions and the Unintentional Discharge of a Firearm. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, Volume 3, N 2.
Epstein, S. (1994). The Integration of the Cognitive and Psychodynamic Unconscious. American Psychologist, Volume 49, N 8, 709-724.
Fisher, R.P. & Geiselman, R.E. (1992). Memory-Enhancing Techniques for Investigative Interviewing. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Grossi, D. M. (1993). Unintentional Discharges: A Training Concern. The Police Marksman, March/April, 1992, Volume 17, N 2, 23-26
Grossman, D. & Siddle, B.K. (1998). Critical Incident Amnesia: The Physiological Basis and the Implications of Memory Loss During Extreme Survival Situations. Millstadt, IL: PPCT Management Systems.
Honig, A. L., & Roland, J. E. (1998). “Shots Fired; Officer Involved”. The Police Chief, October, 1998, Volume 65, N. 10 116-119.
Klinger, D. (2001). Police Responses to Officer Involved Shootings. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office: NCJ 192286
Meichenbaum, D. (1885). Stress Inoculation Training. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Meichenbaum, D. & Cameron, R. (1983). Stress Inoculation Training: Toward a General Paradigm for Training Coping Skills. In Meichenbaum, D. & Jaremko, M. E. (Eds.). Stress Reduction and Prevention. New York: Plenum Press
Messina, P. (2000). Ready When Your Gun Goes “Bang”? American Police Beat, October, 2000, Volume 7, N 8, 35.
Messina, P. (1994). Involuntary Discharge Experiment. International Defensive Tactics Journal, January 1994, Volume 1, N 1, 2-3
Messina, P. & Czarnecki, F. (2002). Martial Arts for Cops: The Dark Side. The Police Marksman, January/February, 2002 Vol. 26, N. 6, 16-17.
Solomon, R. M. (1997). I Know I Must Have Shot, But I Can’t Remember. The Police Marksman, July/August, 1997, Volume 21, N 4, 48-51.
Solomon , R. M. & Horn, J. M. (1986). Post-Shooting Traumatic Reactions: A Pilot Study. In Reese, J. T., & Goldstein, H.A. (Eds.). Psychological Services for Law Enforcement (pp. 383-394). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Terry, R. L. (1997). Eyewitness Identification as a Case of Human Memory. The Forensic Examiner, September-October, 1997, Volume 6, N 9-10, 21-24.