Cops are NOT Super-Humans. Understanding the Experts Who Explain That


Cops are super-humans. They can override the inherent limitations of their minds and bodies because they've been trained to do so. They can move quicker, think faster and see, hear and remember more than any other category of human. In fact, it wouldn't be right to measure their behavior and performance against the standards "normal" humans would be judged by. They should be evaluated through the lens of a special Cop Standard. A standard that reflects their limitless physical and mental perfection.

Right? Of course not. BUT, unfortunately there are many, many people out there who fervently believe this.

Thankfully, there are scientists and subject matter experts who work to bring the realities of science to bear when officers' actions are being evaluated after high-stress incidents. Sgt. Jamie Borden (ret.) is one such subject matter expert. In a larger article, [link], Jamie broadly explored the work, requirements, knowledge and challenges associated with being a Police Practices Expert who applies science to his work.

In this excerpt from that article, Jamie discusses the misguided thinking many experts in this area find themselves up against in court, in the media and in other areas of public consideration. He also discusses what the application of science is designed to do…and what it is not designed to do.

There are thousands of career law-enforcement practitioners, many that are considered subject matter experts based on their depth of experience in the field. A conservative estimate of 25+ thousand officers, investigators, experts, attorneys, phycologists, and others serving in the field of law enforcement (LE) have attended courses related to applying scientific principles. These principles are commonly applied to the development of training, policies, investigations, reviews, and the analysis of controversial police action cases.

Companies like Shadowbox Training (decision-making), Force Science (Human Factors, Scientific Principles), Critical Incident Review (Applying Scientific Principles to Investigations, Analysis), GTD Scientific (Biomechanics), the Trainers Bullpen (Evidence Based Training), all provide specialized and focused education in this field. And, a multitude of entities, including federal agencies, rely on officers with this training for myriad purposes in the law enforcement field. Those in the law-enforcement field that have gotten the training, and apply the science related to officers operating under the constraints of time, the consequences of life and death, or other high-stakes decisions, are often called upon in the analysis of these incidents. Most, as an internal resource to assist in the interpretation of certain aspects of the critical incident, and some to educate decision-makers or the trier of fact in litigation.

A Police Practices expert (PPE) analyzing critical decision-making in police actions, will rely on the application of scientific principles, derived from human factors research. There are misconceptions, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings regarding the work of PPE's and the application of these principles.This is especially true when a PPE relies upon or references scientific data in the analysis of a critical incident.

Generally human factors studies focus on how human beings interact with their environment, technology, tools, and other people in a given context. Human Factors encompass understanding the impacts of physical, and cognitive aspects of human behavior, human movement, time constraints, and perception on decision-making and what the affects can have on the outcome of an event. It is an interdisciplinary field that combines psychology, bio-mechanical engineering, physiology, and other related fields. Human factors research conducted by noted scientists, researchers, and other experts, especially related to the field of law enforcement, is a foundational piece of the police practices analysis methodology. The science is also relied upon for the creation of policy, procedures, training, and the initial investigative process, especially where an analysis of an event is the objective.

As a PPE in the review and analysis of a critical incident, the established science is applied in the analysis, the science is not necessarily conducted as a part of the analysis. This caveat can create confusion regarding the perceived scope and purpose of a case review and analysis from outside of the PPE's perspective. A PPE is not necessarily responsible for or involved in the research, or the science-based studies on human performance. A PPE is expected to apply the proper empirical data from the research and studies in the analysis of the incident from the perspective of a police practices area of expertise, i.e., training, investigations, policy, use-of-force, decision-making, or an administrative function.

As in any discipline, there exists criticism of the science associated with police work. I have experienced and witnessed the criticism on both sides of a controversial case in applying the science. The criticism normally occurs when the science is not helpful to one side or the other regarding the adjudication process.This interferes with "winning" a case, not necessarily fairly adjudicating a case. Why is this the reality? The likely answer to this is the perception that "Police officers are highly trained."

The perception is that officers can supersede human limitations based on a perceived level of training. The truth is officers are trained but most officers in the field are not the equivalent of "highly trained," (there are exceptions). Because of this perspective, law-enforcement professionals are often expected to exceed the parameters of human ability. The expectation becomes Officers should; be predictors of the future, have no fear of danger or death, be capable of inhuman memory storage of all pertinent information; visual, audible, and tactile, with no disparagement, and be capable of an optimal decision in an impossible and often deadly environment. The myths of this perspective are;

  • 1."As a trained observer, the officer should have, or could have seen X,Y,& Z"- There exists no level or frequency of training that can change a human limitation. For instance, training does not change the way the eye works as a receiver of visual stimulus.Training can help officers prioritize visual stimulus based on patterns and context, but the eye itself and the interpretation process (cognitive) largely work the same way.

  • 2."Officers are highly trained and should have… ." We can improve limited ability as a skill through training and conditioning. However, human limitations intrinsic to all humans, not just officers, cannot be improved upon.For instance, an officer's ability to maintain a focused level of attention on a threat and subsequently recall information beyond that focus of attention (FOA) is limited. This is not what being a highly trained observer means in police training. Regarding FOA Officers are generally trained in these areas; what to look for, what patterns are attributes to possible outcomes, why certain patterns may be important context cues, etc.This training does not give the officer the ability to:intensely focus on more than one thing at a time, recall information that was filtered out due to the FOA, and predict the future in unpredictable environments. 

  • 3."The officer should have, or could have known… " – This hindsight attribution that suggests an officer should be able to predict an outcome is simply not possible through training of any sort. knowledge of human limitations simply cannot correct the factor of an unpredictable encounter between a suspect and an officer.Officers make decisions based upon the context of the environment, the preceding behavior of a suspect, and the probability of the outcome based on the facts and circumstances known at the moment force was used.This is a decision made based on a "best guess" about what the outcome is likely to be should no action be taken.

  • 4."The Officer should have, could have done… ." - There are those that seem to believe that, although these factors affect a human being in every other discipline and in everyday life, with science to support it, that those factors somehow don't apply to law enforcement because they are "highly trained."

Misinterpretations - Excuses v. Explanation

Researchers in this field use a variety of methods, including experiments, surveys, and other observation-based studies to gather data on human behavior, performance, and perception.One glaring misconception related to the study and subsequent application of these scientific evaluations, is that the empirical data derived from these studies somehow excuses poor decision making. Or, the data is applied only to protect an officer through an excuse in the aftermath of a critical incident (copsapology). Although there may be those PPE's that misinterpret the application of the studies and resulting baseline data, the application of the empirical data simply explains certain aspects of the event or the behavior, it does not excuse the behavior.

An explanation is not a determination of appropriateness or reasonableness.After a full investigative review and analysis, the established explanation can be used to provide an education as to why a thing occurred. To then balance the adjudication process by providing some insight to those responsible for the resolution as to the consideration of performance issues that are known to exist.

Poor use or improper interpretation of the science can result in misconceptions about the purpose or the validity of the study that is being applied in the analysis. In short, the application of the data may be improper and criticized in any given incident review. However, the studies and the data, if proven to be methodologically sound through peer review, should not be the focus of criticism. The application of the scientific principles holds great responsibility to those applying it, and should be carefully considered for relevance to the analysis.

Understanding the Scientific Methodology of Human Factors Research from a Police Practices View

A PPE doesn't necessarily rely on a "scientific methodology" in the analysis of a critical incident. Rather, a methodology in the analysis of the event should be identified and stated in the reporting of the findings.Conversely, human factors researchers must follow a scientific methodology, which involves designing experiments, collecting data, analyzing results, and drawing conclusions. The scientific methodology ensures the validity and reliability of the research findings. When relying on these studies in the analysis of a critical incident, it is important to understand the validity and verity of the study. And, that the data has application to, and provides a basis for the analysis of the event.

Regarding human factors research in law enforcement, the research begins with a question or problem, i.e., how fast can an average person perform X. Then, an experiment or study to develop empirical data or develop conclusions is designed with control for extraneous variables and bias.These methodologies are generally kept in check by the peer review process in both pre-publication and post publication functions.This scientific functionality provides the PPE with data to apply as a baseline for the analysis and comparisons to the known behavior of the officer involved and the known behavior of the suspect.

Human Factors Applied in Law Enforcement

Human performance factors play a critical role in analyzing the behavior of law enforcement officers during high-pressure situations, such as making decisions during a deadly encounter under the constraints of time. Factors such as focus of attention, cognitive processes, biases, situational awareness, performance limitations, and stress can impact an officer's ability to make accurate and effective decisions.[1] Therefore, it is common that officers receive training in decision-making skills that can help them make better decisions in challenging situations, (improved ability). This training does not change the cognitive process itself; it simply exposes the officer to patterns particular to the training. This includes addressing attentional issues, perception under stress, action v. reaction factors, and understanding the function of memory for the purposes of conducting and interpreting an officers account through interviews and statements.

It is for these reasons that investigators and trainers often garner specialized education and training regarding the application of performance factors. This training and education may include certain aspects of memory function to guide the internal investigative, review and analysis process. This specialized education helps to guide department investigators to elicit an honest and complete account of the incident. The training and education can assist trainers in the development of realistic training, and help those involved in the internal process to understand the implications of performance limitations and how those may affect an officers factors memory recall.

Key Areas of Study in Human Factors Applied to LE

Key areas regarding human factors related to police work are decision-making, time, perception, attention, and memory. Developing an understanding of the cognitive processes that officers rely upon to make decisions, including perception, attention, memory, and reasoning, are significant elements in guiding the analysis.(Consider the OODA loop in respect to this; Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.)For PPE's who are involved in the investigative process, training, analysis of the incident, and policy writing, specialized education and training in these areas is a necessity.

Time constraints: Time is a critical consideration in the analysis regarding human performance and limitations. Experts in this field should develop an understanding of the impact of time constraints on decision-making, attention, and the impact those attributes can have on memory. Action v. reaction training is based on the known fact that officers are often required to make quick decisions under the constraints of time, in a largely responsive environment. Officers must make split-second decisions about the amount of force to use in a given situation, often without all of the information that is known in hindsight.

This connection between the amount of time available and the ability to make an optimal decision is where an understanding of Gary Klein's "Recognition Primed Decisions" (RPD) might come into play.These decisions being made under the constraints of time and that are considered high-stakes can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the officer's training, experience, and biases. Most law enforcement agencies provide officers with critical training to help them manage time constraints effectively. PPEs understand the foundation of this training, the applicable scientific principles, and how they play into the analysis of an event.

Perception: Understanding how officers perceive their environment and how they interpret information is essential for navigating investigations, interviews and the review and analysis of a critical incident. PPEs often analyze what officers processed visually and auditorily (what they saw, and what they heard) based upon the training that officers are exposed to and their account of the incident.

As a PPE, it is important to remain anchored in the evidence and know that [speculation] is not part of the evidence in the review and analysis of a critical incident. Speculation can turn an analysis into a critique simply based on the counter factual reasoning associated with speculation. As a PPE it cannot be assumed that the officer perceived something, or should have perceived somthing simply because there is evidence (video) of the stimulus. Perception is based on focus of attention; it is widely accepted that an officer's attentional resources are limited in a critical incident where the consequences are perceived as life threatening or otherwise high-stakes.


In summary, human factors are a broad field of study that encompasses many different areas, law enforcement being a thin slice of the field. By understanding how police officers interact with their environment, tools and technology, and other people, human factors researchers and scientists can shed light on the abilities and limitations of the police officer.This data gives the trainer, investigator, or analyst an insight as to why certain behaviors are present in law enforcement. Knowledge of this behavior also helps to develop or improve law enforcement through the understanding and application of those scientific principles.

PPEs develop an expertise and apply it to the practice of law enforcement investigations, training, policy writing or any number of other fields. A PPE knows these factors play a critical role in analyzing the behavior of law enforcement officers in critical situations, who are making decisions or dealing with time constraints. It is the basis of science, conducted by scientists and researchers, applied foundationally through practice in the LE field that gives you an expert perspective.

Get the training and education from trusted sources, document your education, document where, when, and how it is applied, be responsible and objective in your analysis. Visit to check out the training and educational courses we provide regarding the application of scientific principles to the investigative process. Be safe, and thanks for what you do to improve the landscape.

[1] RPD – Gary Klein

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Thursday, 13 June 2024

The CIR Team has logged thousands of hours of continued and focused education in the field of Human Behavioral Sciences as it relates to law enforcement and has also logged thousands of hours of documented instruction time with multiple law enforcement entities as instructors, lecturers and authors.