Extensive research has found that people rarely are capable of total and perfect recall of events. In high stress situations, such as officer-involved shootings, memory and recall become even more tenuous.

Independent studies conducted by Alexis Artwohl and others found that
52% of officers involved in shootings reported memory loss for part of the event and 46% reported memory loss for some of their own behavior. 39% reported disassociation or a sense of detachment or unreality. 21% noted memory distortion, i.e., they saw heard or experienced something that did not really happen or it happened very differently than they remembered. 22% reported experiencing memory loss after the shooting.

Artwohl also found that officers experienced perceptual distortions. 62% of officers involved in shootings viewed the incident in slow motion, while
17 % reported that time slowed down. 84% noted that sounds diminished, while 16% thought that sounds intensified. 79% had tunnel vision, whereas 71% experienced heightened clarity.

She concluded that if a police officer’s recollection of an event is not a totally accurate representation of reality, it does not necessarily mean that the officer is lying or trying to engage in a cover-up. Her conclusion applies to eyewitnesses and suspects as well. No one should accuse an individual of lying simply due to inaccurate, inconsistent or missing memories.

Her research may be of little help or consolation to the family and friends of Sean Bell, the 23-year-old New York City man who died in a hail of bullets fired by three police officers in the early morning hours of November 25th, 2006. But Artwohl’s research can explain the conflicting testimony of police officers, eyewitnesses and the two survivors of the shooting who testified during the trial that concluded last Friday.

And it can also help explain how Detective Michael Oliver, Detective Gescard F. Isnora, and Detective Marc Cooper could fire 50 shots at unarmed men. According to published reports, each of the three detectives charged in the shooting believed that he was the only officer who was shooting and was fearful of return fire. Detective Oliver testified that had no idea Detective Isnora was shooting right beside him, and vice versa.

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