General Perception Issues: Video Examination

Analysis of Force Through Video Review and Examination 

General Perception Issues; Analysis of Force Through Video Review and Examination

The phenomenon where an officer involved in a critical incident may perceive a weapon where there is none, or misinterpret an object as a weapon, can be understood through a complex interplay of psychological, cognitive, and situational factors. This phenomenon often revolves around the concepts of stress-induced perceptual distortions, the role of expectation and priming, and the influence of contextual cues on perception and decision-making. Understanding this requires delving into several key aspects:

1. Stress and Perceptual Distortions

• Heightened Arousal: Critical incidents typically involve high-stress situations that trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, leading to heightened arousal. This arousal can sharpen some aspects of perception (e.g., focus on a threat) but can also narrow the field of attention, potentially leading to cognitive distortions or limitations like tunnel vision which are discovered in hindsight analysis. In such circumstances, an officer's ability to process the full scope of their surroundings naturally diminishes.
• Cognitive Load: High-stress conditions increase cognitive load, straining the brain's processing capabilities. Remember, a wealth of stimulus creates an impoverished level of attention. Under significant cognitive load, the likelihood of making perceptual errors can increase, as the brain may fill in gaps in perception with expectations or fears rather than with what is actually present, i.e., a cellphone seen as a weapon.

2. Expectancy and Priming

Expectancy Effects: Officers heading into what they perceive as potentially dangerous situations may be primed to expect certain threats, including weapons. This expectation can bias perception, making the brain more likely to interpret ambiguous objects as fitting the expected threat. In hindsight, reviewers already have the outcome as an anchor, creating a bias that needs attention as well.
Priming by Context: The context of an encounter can prime individuals to perceive things in specific ways. For example, if an officer is informed that a suspect is armed, the officer's brain is primed to search for and possibly "find" cues associated with a weapon, even if the object in question ultimately is not a weapon. The subject's behavior and the context or task environment are key components of the officer's perceptions and decision-making.

3. Contextual Cues and Error-Prone Decision-Making

Contextual Influence: The context of an incident, including environmental factors, background information about the suspect, and the behavior of the individual, plays a significant role in shaping what an officer expects to see. These expectations can distort reality, leading to misinterpretations of harmless objects as weapons.
Misidentification Under Pressure:[1] In split-second decisions, the brain relies more on heuristic (shortcut) decision-making, which is highly influenced by the current context and less on analytical processing. This can lead to misidentifying objects as weapons based on their shape, color, or how they are held or presented.

4. The Clarity of Vision and Memory Reconstruction

Impaired Clarity Under Stress: The clarity of vision is not just about optical acuity but also about the brain's ability to correctly interpret and make sense of what the eyes see (orientation). Stress, fear, and adrenaline can all impair or improve this process, potentially leading to errors in perception.
Memory and Reconstruction: Post-event memory reconstruction can further complicate what an officer believes they saw. Memories of stressful incidents are particularly susceptible to distortion and may be influenced by subsequent information or discussions about the event. poses the question when to view the video during the investigative process.

Addressing the Issue

For obvious reasons, from a training perspective, training and simulations that mimic high-stress situations can help officers learn to manage their physiological and psychological responses, potentially reducing perceptual errors. Additionally, developing a deeper understanding of how human perception works under stress, and incorporating techniques that enhance decision-making under pressure, are critical. Understanding these components from an investigative standpoint is equally important in reviewing and analyzing the force incident. An investigator who understands the training perspective and how officers are conditioned to respond in certain scenarios can be useful in the hindsight review of a critical incident. This is especially true where video evidence exists and where the video evidence may not align with the officers' memory or recall.

When an individual, such as a video reviewer or investigator, examines footage of a critical incident in which an officer may have experienced perceptual distortions, navigating the discrepancies between what the video objectively shows and the officer's subjective experience involves understanding several key concepts. This examination process is intricate, involving the psychological dynamics of perception under stress, the limitations and advantages of video evidence, and the interpretative challenges faced by reviewers. Here's a detailed exploration:

Understanding Perceptual Distortions in Critical Incidents

Subjective Experience vs. Objective Evidence: As previously discussed, the officer's subjective experience during a critical incident is influenced by stress-induced perceptual distortions. These may include tunnel vision or other filtration phenomena, heightened focus on perceived threats, and the perceived need for cognitive shortcuts that lead to misinterpretation. In contrast, video footage provides an objective perspective unaffected by adrenaline or stress. This disparity between subjective perception and objective evidence can lead to differences in the assessment of the incident and explain different accounts of the incident.

Role of Video Evidence in Critical Incident Analysis

Objective Record: Video evidence offers a third-person perspective of the incident, which captures details the officer might not have noticed or remembered.[2] It provides an invaluable tool for investigators to piece together the sequence of events based on the nature of the objective collection of visual data.
Limitations of Video: (record and store [video] perceive and interpret [the cognitive process]). However, video footage has its limitations too. It cannot capture the physiological and psychological state of the officer, omitting the context of stress under which decisions were made; video collects data to store for review, which is very different from the perception and interpretation of stimulus in the environment. Additionally, cameras have their own technical limitations in terms of field of view, resolution, and frame rate, which can affect the interpretation of the footage that may affect the analysis of the incident in hindsight.

Navigating the Discrepancies

1. Training in Stress Psychology: Investigators should be trained in the associated psychology of stress and its effects on perception and memory in police involved critical incidents. Understanding that stress can lead to perceptual distortions can help investigators approach discrepancies between video evidence and officer testimony with empathy and insight.

2. Contextual Analysis: It's crucial to analyze the video within the broader context of the incident. This includes considering the information available to the officer at the time, the environment, and any interactions leading up to the critical moment. Such an analysis can help illuminate why an officer might have perceived a threat where the video does not clearly show one.

3. Expert Consultation: Consulting with specialists in police performance factors can provide insights into how stress impacts perception and decision-making. These specialists can help interpret the officer's actions in the context of human response to high-stress conditions.

4. Reconstruction with Officer Input: When possible, involving the officer in the review process can be beneficial (interview). The officer can offer insights into their perception and decision-making process during the incident. This input, combined with the objective evidence from the video, and physical and forensic evidence from the scene, can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the event.

5. Technological Tools: Advances in video analysis technology, such as enhancements and annotations in presentation of video evidence, can help highlight critical elements of the footage. These tools can aid in clarifying actions and movements that are central to understanding the incident.

6. Balancing Perspectives: It's important for investigators to balance the objective evidence provided by video footage with an understanding of police performance factors and the associated psychology that is regularly trained as factors needing identification and assessment in the investigation. Recognizing the limitations of both the officer's perceptions and the video evidence is crucial in forming a balanced and comprehensive analysis of the incident.


Navigating the distortions an officer experiences during a critical incident, when reviewing video evidence, requires a multidisciplinary approach. It involves understanding the commonly applied psychological underpinnings of stress-induced perceptual distortions, such as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, the strengths and limitations of video evidence, and employing an understanding of the contextually rich analysis of the incident. This approach can lead to a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the events, facilitating fair and informed investigations and outcomes.

[1] (Dekker, 2014) as a reference to the application of Misidentification under pressure.

[2] Based on focus of attention and attentional resouces.

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Thursday, 18 April 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.