Hillsboro Police Participate in Force Science Institute Study, Receive Lesson in Metaphysics
Recently, the Hillsboro Police Department coordinated with the Force Science Institute in conducting a study to investigate the way high-stress incidents affect an officer’s memory and to improve officer safety. More than 90 officers from 22 agencies in Oregon and Washington participated in the study conducted in Hillsboro. Dubbed, “The Traffic Stop Study,” research revolved around a simulated traffic stop and examined how officers approached a suspect, talked to a suspect, reacted when a gun is pulled, and what an officer is able to remember about the encounter.
In the simulated traffic stop, the suspect was pulled over for travelling 10 miles over the speed limit. The suspect was agitated, uncooperative, and did not have a license. The suspect pulled out a pistol and fired. Once the simulation ended, officers were asked to write down everything they could remember including what the suspect did in addition to their own actions. The results were not as reassuring as one might hope.
Retired police psychologist and national expert on police stress Alexis Artwohl said, “What we find is that officers will have a lot of memory gaps.” Just after completing the simulation, Hillsboro Police Officer Dave Morse could remember that the “suspect” pulled out a semiautomatic pistol, but did not remember flinching, hearing the shots, dashing behind a vehicle for cover, or jumping out to fire shots. Memory gaps indeed. Officer Morse realized the discrepancy between what he remembered and what actually happened when he watched a video of the encounter. In a conversation with Artwohl, Morse expressed concern, “What I thought I did and what I did were similar but different.” He continued, “That’s what scares me about stuff like this—our perception is our reality.”
Officer Morse’s memory is not defective. Artwohl points out that high-stress situations can result in officers remembering things that didn’t happen, while others don’t remember things that did happen. Others will confuse the sequence of events. This does not mean officers are lying. Rather, Artwohl says this illustrates the misconception that “trained observers” like police officers can remember incidents with precision. Contrary to people’s expectations, Artwohl says that is not realistic at all, “Yes, they are trained observers, but they are also human beings. There are biological limitations to what they can do.”
The executive director of Force Science Institute hopes to have the study’s results analyzed and presented to the Hillsboro Police in a few months.
If Artwohl is correct, will this study alter the level of certainty with which police officers are willing to testify as to the specifics of certain events? Perhaps more importantly, will the results of this study change the public’s perception of the infallible police officer’s ability to accurately remember events?