Hindsight Review and Analysis; and Memory Considerations

Part One of a Two Part  Series -  Understanding the nature of perceptual distortions and their potential impact on the appearance of an officer's real-time judgment is crucial. 


This article is based on the above-linked video and is a follow-up to the previous article published by CIR.

Understanding the nature of perceptual distortions and their potential impact on the appearance of an officer's real-time judgment is crucial.Furthermore, grasping how these distortions affect the officer's ability to recall information accurately is instrumental in the objective, inductive investigation. Understanding that perceptions can influence an officer's judgment means recognizing the potential for distortions to exist in inaccuracy and inconsistencies, which may cause misinterpretations of visual and auditory cues in high-stress environments. Perceptual distortions, or misinterpreted information that in hindsight seems clearly visible, can lead to misperceptions of the level of threat, i.e., the gun laying on the concrete and not in the suspect's lap, the perceived intentions of individuals involved, and the overall dynamics of a critical incident. Acknowledging the potential for these distortions discovered in hindsight will help investigators understand how the perceptions were meaningful and appeared to be accurate.

Hindsight review of an officer's behavior in an incident while being mindful of the potential for memory issues in the investigation of critical incidents can significantly impact the ability to assess the incident accurately. Understanding the nature of hindsight review and analysis and the potential for memory inaccuracies and inconsistencies, remember, the officers' recall and account of the event will guide the objective analysis. Hindsight attribution refers to the phenomenon where an investigator's perception of a critical incident may be influenced by their knowledge of the outcome, leading to potential biases in gathering data and the subsequent assessment and evaluation. This can impact an investigator and decision maker's ability to accurately evaluate the behavior, decisions, and actions, considering the information available during the incident.

Memory issues, or the potential for gaps or inaccuracies in an officer's recollection of a critical incident, based upon the focus of attention, can further complicate the investigation. The effects of perceptual phenomena on an officer's memory can lead to potential distortions or unintended omissions in their recollection, impacting the accuracy of their account of the incident, especially compared to video evidence. Additionally, the influence of hindsight attribution from the investigator's perspective regarding an officer's decision-making process can be further compounded by the need to provide detailed and accurate accounts of the incident for investigative and legal purposes. Accuracy is not necessarily achievable based on the factors discussed. However, completeness is always possible; only then can distortions be identified and common threads applied.

The inherent fallibility of human memory, combined with the potential for post-incident influences or contamination of an officer's perceptions, underscores the need for thorough, complete, and objective investigative processes to determine the integrity of an officer's recollection. Officers are human beings in

Objective Truth vs. Subjective Beliefs in Crisis Decision-Making

Objective fact refers to factual and verifiable information learned about a critical incident, while subjective beliefs encompass an officer's personal interpretations, biases, and preconceived notions about the situation. From the officer's perspective, the truth is what the officer believed to be fact based on the myriad factors at play in the incident. When investigating the consequential environment of crisis decision-making, distinguishing between objective facts and subjective beliefs can significantly influence an investigator's ability to assess a critical incident accurately and document informed findings. Understanding the complex interplay between objective evidence (facts) and subjective beliefs (truth) is essential to help investigators maintain an accurate and impartial perspective in gathering data and analyzing or evaluating these consequential environments.

The impact of objective facts versus subjective beliefs (truth) in crisis decision-making is significant when considering the reasonableness of officer actions in a critical incident.

A fact-intensive investigation of the totality of circumstances is foundational in determining the reasonableness of an officer's actions. However, investigators must not ignore the subjective component that requires an analysis of the facts from the perspective of a reasonable officer. The comparison of the objective and subjective should evaluate a range of rational officer perceptions that may have influenced the involved officer's conduct. The ultimate question in some cases is whether the officer's subjective perception of facts is reasonable even if that perception was ultimately found to be wrong. The influence of attentional issues and perceptual phenomena can confuse the distinction between the two, potentially impacting an investigator's ability to maintain an objective and impartial perspective.

The Connection: Totality of Facts and Circumstances and its Effect on Officer's Decisions and Actions

There are two sides to the totality of facts and circumstances("circumstances"). 1.) The circumstances known to the officer when the decision was made to use force are subjective and usually based upon a reasonable belief. 2.) The circumstances known after the investigation are objective facts.The circumstances known to the officer during the incident play a crucial role in an officer's assessment of a rapidly evolving, tense, and dangerous critical incident. The decisions driven forward by the real-time assessment of the circumstances and the subsequent actions they take are based upon subjective information, not objective information known in hindsight; it can only be genuinely objective in hindsight analysis. Consider the circumstances the officer knows based upon the limitations of attentional resources and consequential decision-making coupled with the above-discussed perceptual phenomena. One perspective is the nature of the circumstances known to the officer at the time of the decision as a tasked actor in the incident. An entirely different perspective is the circumstances known in hindsight to the external observer conducting the review, analysis, and evaluation. Issues arise because of the potential impact of reviewing and analyzing an officer's actions through the "observer" perspective. The circumstances encompass the myriad details and performance factors of a critical incident. These include the behavior of individuals involved, the environmental conditions, and the officer's perception and orientation to that data within the context of the situation. An officer's ability to assess the circumstances is crucial for making informed and reasonable decisions in rapidly evolving and complex situations. It is based upon a reasonable belief that the information is correct. Remember, the information may not align with the reasonable belief in hindsight.

In hindsight analysis, the impact of the circumstances related to an officer's actions is significant when considering the officer's need to balance the actual threat, the reasonably believed threat, the safety of individuals involved, and the legal and ethical considerations of in the moment. An officer's assessment of the circumstances in a real-time assessment drives an officer's informed and articulable decisions about the appropriate course of action. However, the influence of perceptual phenomena should be at the cusp of the analysis. The potential for hindsight attribution regarding the analysis and internal judgment should be a consideration. Hindsight attribution can complicate an investigator's ability to accurately assess the circumstances known to the officer at the moment, potentially impacting the appearance of the reasonableness of their actions.The seemingly insignificant fact that the officer, in this case, did not see or hear the weapon fall from the suspect's lap could have had a catastrophic impact on the appearance of the officer's reasonable belief that the suspect was still a threat.The observation, orientation, decisions, and actions are being evaluated in the (OODA Loop) regarding the visible inconsistencies between the evidence and the officers' behavior.

Understanding the impact of the perceived circumstances on an officer's actions also involves recognizing the need for thorough and objective investigative processes to evaluate the nature of an officer's decisions and actions in a critical incident. The circumstances stated to be reasonably believed at the time of the decision provide the context for an officer's actions. A comprehensive understanding of these circumstances in consideration of perceptual distortions and the potential for inaccuracies or inconsistencies is essential for determining the appropriateness of an officer's response. Remember, an officer in a critical incident experiences the perception through the lens of expectation and unpredictability. Only after the incident and through the analysis of the incident do we determine potential distortions in those perceptions to be considered.

Authored by:

Sergeant Jamie Borden (Ret.)

CIR® Founder

Special thanks to David Blake, Ph.D., and Danny King (AmericanPatrolman.com and CriticalIncidentReview.com) for reviewing this work.

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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.