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Rush to judgment: Avoiding hindsight bias in evaluating critical incidents

Part two of a five-part series

In part one of this series, we looked at one of the most damaging things that we sometimes do as police officers — jumping to conclusions and making statements about other officers’ performance without having all the facts. 

This problem can lay waste to an officer’s reputation and career, and can destroy relationships, shifts, squads, and departments. In the most extreme cases, it has caused officers to take their own lives.

With that in mind, I want you to take part in an exercise in observation and judgment. As we go through it, I will try to explain some of the dynamics that the mind and body go through during a high stress situation.

You may have already seen some or all of the videos of this one incident involving St. Paul police officers involved in an ambush. If you have, try to look at the video from the perspective of seeing it for the first time because, obviously, having read the story or seeing the videos previously can create a bias. 

One definition of bias is “Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.”

The video link will show you a view of the incident from a surveillance camera with no sound. 

What questions come to mind?

Raw Surveillance Video 

Avoiding Hindsight Bias
If you’ve seen the video before, you already have prior knowledge which can create bias. If you’ve seen the interview or other news about the incident, that can also create a bias. If you read the article or saw the headlines below the video, it may have created a bias. 

When you click on a link entitled "officer involved shooting," knowing that you are going to see a shooting gives you what is called hindsight bias.

Based on the title of the link, you know before you even click that the incident will end in a shooting. Unlike the officer involved, you know the ending so you are cued to specifically look for those cues and actions that an officer going about their normal business might miss. 

Obviously, if the officer had known what was going to happen, their response would be different. 

You have an unfair advantage because you have what the Supreme Court called clear 20/20 hindsight in Graham v. Connor. In that case, the court ruled that officers should not be judged from that 20/20 perspective but ONLY by what the officers knew at the time.

The Supreme Court affords that privilege to the officers involved in use-of-force cases. Do you?

The surveillance camera gives us one view of the shooting from a fixed position above and slightly off to one side. Because of the camera’s placement, we can’t see the whole situation unfold. 

The camera doesn’t tell us what happened before the squad came into view. It can’t tell us what happened outside the camera view. It can’t tell us what the officers saw. In fact, it can’t tell us anything; it can only record what happened from its position. Your brain and its previous experience (bias) tell you what you are seeing. 

Whenever there is a lack of needed information, the brain fills in the blanks based on previous learning, not fact.

The Camera’s “Eye”
The important point from Force Science to bring out here is that the eye and the camera never have the same view. With a camera properly set, everything is in focus and it gives you a wide angle of view. 

The human eye doesn’t work that way. 

Hold your thumb up at arm’s length and look at your thumb. There is a spot in your eye in an area about the size of your thumbnail that is the only place where your vision is actually focused clearly; everything else is out of focus. 

The perception that your vision is in focus across the whole eye is an optical illusion created by the brain when your eyes are in motion scanning your field of view.

This also comes into play when you’re paying visual attention. In a well-known video, an officer is frisking one suspect when another suspect steps out of a truck with a gun. The suspect he was frisking then pulls out a gun that the officer should have easily seen because the suspect was right in front of him. 

This seems like common sense but when the eye and the brain focus on one threat — the exiting suspect — they are not capable of seeing the nearby suspect draw the gun because all their concentration is on the identified threat. 

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. 

In other words, if you’re focused on one thing you are blind to the others. 

No two people will have the same perspective, even when looking at the same thing. Here is a non-police example. 

“Honey, where is the ____?” 

“It’s in the pantry, second shelf down, left side.”

“Nope, it’s not here!” 

“Did you look?” 

“Yes, I looked!” 

Spouse arrives on scene, shakes head, gives you “the look” and reaches in to get the item that was “right in front of your face.”

How could they see it and you miss it? 

Perception — how the brain chooses to interpret the information from the eyes.

So we have shown how bias plays a part in our rush to judgment of others actions. You now have an understanding of how the perspective of watching a video is dramatically different than being the officer involved because of how the eye and the brain interact to process information. 

Next month, in part three, we’ll learn about how the brain works both for us and against us.

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