By Ron Danielowski, Pulse O2DA Firearms Training Inc.
Last month, Dallas Police Chief David Brown issued a new policy, which gives officers involved in a shooting access to any videos of the incident and requires officers involved in the shootings to wait 72 before giving a statement to investigators.
The new policy has caused some to bristle, claiming the it will allow officers to close ranks in the thin blue line, thereby giving them time to make excuses or otherwise cover up actions in what may be a potentially unjustified shooting.
With over 25 years of experience in combative training for numerous federal agencies and private groups, I am intimately familiar with the hazards of giving testimony after a high stress critical incident, and I would like to share with you why I think this new policy is reasonable, not only for the police, but for every person who carries or intends to carry a firearm for personal protection.
Regarding Chief Brown’s new policy, what you need to know is that there has been a tremendous amount of study done in the field of human cognition and high-stress events, and there are a number of factors that come into play — not the least of which is how we remember when there is no stress placed on us — which is to say, most of us don’t remember as well as we like to believe we do.
Neuroscience tells us that humans are flooded with over 11 million bits of information per second, yet we only actually process about 50 bits per second on a good day.
This means we filter out most of the incoming information. The Autonomic Nervous System or “ANS” filters out whatever you have been trained to ignore, have not been trained to pay attention to, or don’t find important at the time.
In short, we tend to fixate on those things we think are important at the exclusion of most other things.
What has been repeatedly demonstrated is that during high stress events such as gunfights, the human body is thrown into a survival state — the body reacts by dumping many stress hormones into your blood stream as a part of the fight-or-flight response of the Sympathetic Nervous System. The greater the perceived danger, the greater the stress response and corresponding stress hormone dump.
One of the many hormones dumped into the body under these high stress events is called cortisol, and cortisol is a known short-term memory inhibitor. The greater the stress response achieved, the greater the memory loss will be.
This is significant, because as already mentioned, our ANS is already filtering out a vast majority of the information available and fixating on those things we find important at the time, which mostly does not marry up with what is actually important at the time, or may be important in the near future — like the details of the incident.
By way of example, part of our training programs regularly expose students to high-stress reality-based training or “RBT” scenarios, where our clients face off against our actors called “role players.” It is the role player’s job to act out scenarios designed to elicit particular responses from our student based upon their skill level.
In these RBT scenarios, our students are armed with converted non-lethal firearms that discharge colored surfactant (soap) based paint projectiles, which are painful to be shot by. Much of the time — especially as the clients progress in their training — the role players are armed with these converted firearms as well.
The purpose of this type of training is to bring the clients as close as possible to the experience of a lethal force encounter, in a controlled and safe environment, in order to inoculate them against stress, thereby teaching them how to correctly operate in a hostile, chaotic, violent, and potentially lethal environment.
We admonish every client to treat each scenario seriously and to act in the manner they would during a real life incident, because the value they gain from the training can only be fully realized if they don’t “game” the scenarios.
After every scenario, we conduct After Action Reviews or “AARs”, which is a group discussion, reviewing the scenario and the client’s actions.
During AARs, the role player first discusses his actions and what the client did; the client then discusses what he saw and his reactions. Then, based on the clients performance, we either re-run the scenario or the client moves on to more challenging scenarios.
Our role players are great at making the scripted incidents seem very real and because a pain penalty is present, at some point we will reach a higher end SNS response with a cortisol release and the accompanying short-term memory loss in the more intense scenarios.
Of note is that during the lower end scenarios — where our clients feel comfortable with the situations and firearms rarely come into play — they are able to very accurately describe the scenario. Furthermore, the clients and role players are mostly in agreement as to the circumstances of the event, usually with the client nodding as the role player explains his actions. Any confusion is easily clarified in a matter of seconds, as the client is asked to mentally walk through the scenario.
In stark contrast, once a high stress reaction has occurred and a cortisol dump has ensued, an entirely different scenario plays out during the AAR process. Where in the lower stress scenarios there were nods of agreement during the role player’s description of his actions, after a cortisol dump we immediately see a look of confusion or a shaking of the head in disagreement. Whereas before we could clarify the scenario by having the client mentally walk through the events, now — under the stress of a lethal force encounter — there is no such recall and self correction.
Most often, clients are so adamant that they are recalling the events correctly, we have to play back video recordings of the event, and our clients are shocked to learn that their memory has not only failed them, it seemed to betray them with vivid, yet false, memories.
What most people don’t realize is that much like nature, your mind hates a vacuum, and your mind will make things up to fill in the gaps it can’t remember.
Memory loss under the high stress of a gunfight is so universal it has been given a name: critical incident amnesia.
Because of the above, those involved in critical incidents often give mistaken testimony; thereby often winning the gunfight yet losing those things they were fighting for when the authorities come after them once the evidence doesn’t match the testimony.
This is why we admonish every person who carries (or plans on carrying) a firearm to get the right kind of training that will teach them how to deal with high stress, give the simplest of statements to the 911 operator as well as the police on the scene, and then keep their mouths shut — because in all likelihood, they will not be able to accurately recall the details of the critical incident.
In my opinion, Chief Brown’s policy is spot on, and what we need to focus on as a society are not the policies that make accurate testimony more reliable, but rather we need to identify the deficiencies that may cause police to shoot civilians unjustifiably in the first place.
Ron Danielowski is the Chief Instructor and a principle of Pulse O2DA Firearms Training Inc. Ron has 25 years experience training thousands of civilians, soldiers, sailors, Marines, independent contractors, and local, state, and federal law enforcement officers. Ron can be reached at silentbob@