Peak Police Performance Should Be Praised

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Sensory distortion is a well-documented mental effect of life-threatening crisis moments. After speaking on the subject, one officer related that she had never told anyone else, but that she remembers hearing the sound of her bullet hitting the flesh of a burglary suspect. I believed her.

Officers have reported hearing gunshots as a suspect fell, but not realizing immediately that it was they who had fired. Reports of time warps and feeling like everything was happening in slow motion are common. Missing memories of some things that a camera or witness revealed happen. Intense focus on the immediate threat can mask any other visual input. Loud noises can seem muted. Thought processes and internal dialog happen at lightning speed.

When officers involved in a life-threatening attack to which they were forced to respond relate some of these phenomena they are often scoffed at by peers, internal investigators, and even district attorneys and juries.

Athletes are applauded for their quick decisions. They are credited with that 6th sense that lets them make daring and unconventional decisions. We hang on their words when they describe their out of body experiences at the peak of their performances.

Basketball legend Bill Russel writes in his biography “Second Wind” about the nearly spiritual experience of playing at a phenomenal level: “Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it would become more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talk about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level….At that special level all sorts of odd things happened…It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, “it’s coming there!” My premonitions would be consistently correct.”

These feelings amid high performance are repeated in many accounts by Steven Kotler in his book “The Rise of Superman”. Bolstered by new discoveries in brain science as well as many accounts of extraordinary athletic achievement, Kotler reveals how the brain works during extraordinary events. Admiration of athletic feats raise interest in research on human performance and are awarded by ribbons, medals, and trophies. This is an area of study virtually ignored in examining officer-involved shootings.

This month the Los Angeles Police Commission ruled that Officer Toni McBride broke department policy when she shot Danial Hernandez during a fatal encounter. Was McBride proficient as an officer? She, in fact, had been vaunted as an exceptionally competent firearms expert and young officer. Was she justified in using deadly force? Yes. She and a second officer had responded to a motor vehicle accident when ambushed by Hernandez wielding a box cutting knife. Did McBride give repeated, clear orders for the man to drop the knife? Yes. The bodycam footage clearly shows that McBride gave repeated, clear commands which were ignored by the suspect. Was the suspect a drug abuser under the influence of methamphetamine? Autopsy results confirm that he was.

After McBride fired two shots did she stop when the suspect fell to the ground? Only when the suspect attempted to get back up did she fire 4 additional rounds. Shots 5 and 6, said the commission, were outside of LAPD policy.

What the Commission members and other “experts” in police training and officer-involved shootings overlooked was brain science. They may have made their decisions by some matrix, according to some policy, or by looking at training manuals. The decision wasn’t malicious, might have been technically correct, but, in the end, it was a decision made in ignorance about the mysteries of the brain that are well documented.

What many commentators label sensory overload in these rare situations when one human is trying both to survive and to continue with their mission is really sensory exclusion. The brain, especially a well-trained one attached to a well-trained body, instantly recognizes that there are too many sensory inputs and mental calculations. It shuts out many of the ordinary functions derived from millions of sensory inputs per second that define time, space, boundaries, and logic. This frees the mind to make essential decisions in milliseconds when only milliseconds count.

To measure McBride’s performance by the usual calculations is meaningless. Her mind, without doubt, sensed things that an ordinary person under ordinary circumstances simply couldn’t. The experience can be so out of the ordinary that, as Bill Russell said, is difficult to describe and difficult to comprehend when explained.

I don’t know McBride and I don’t know any more about the case than anyone reading the news. But I do know that she entered a realm that no one can fully comprehend and if she fired 6 shots instead of 4, her brain had a damn good reason.

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