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Mark Rivera, Customer Retention Manager and CJIS Security Compliance Officer with Vigilant Solutions, served for sixteen years with the Maryland State Police, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant with thirteen of those years at the supervisory and command level. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University and Secret clearance through the FBI, Baltimore.

Columns : In My Sights

Cognitive Dissonance

Single-minded thinking during a search could get you killed.

March 11, 2010  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author


It's funny how the brain works. Not in that funny "ha ha" way but in the funny "sheesh" way. Once we get it in our mind we are looking and expecting to see one thing we often fail to see what really is in front of us. In crime fighting, this can get you hurt very badly.

I remember being part of a search warrant team in South Phoenix when I was in the Narcotics Unit with Arizona DPS. We were searching a heroin dealer's house in a bad part of town and I was assigned to search the kitchen, which is usually a great place to find hidden contraband.

Since I wasn't assigned the bedroom, I wasn't too worried about snakes or other threats we often found in the homes of Arizona dopers, but I was worried about missing the hidden dope since the kitchen was filled with an abundance of containers, vessels, drawers, and cabinets. I went through several drawers finding nothing of interest, no paraphernalia or instrumentalities of distribution. But I then turned to the cabinet under the sink, always a target-rich area.

Bending down, I focused on several likely items: an empty coffee can, still empty; a container of Comet cleanser, filled with just cleanser; a PVC piece of pipe—only a bomb; a box of "SOS" pads, half filled with soap pads....wait a minute!

I was focused on finding dope...and I found a bomb. As I had only seen part of it in the clutter of the cabinet, it wasn't until I was holding it in my hands that the two end caps became obvious and for an odd moment my mind thought, "This might be it!" "It" being dope, because that was what we were searching for. But at the same time, part of my brain was sending the "big pucker time" signal to the lower parts of my anatomy.

This holding of two distinctly different thoughts creates an odd tension in our brain called cognitive dissonance, and I have interviewed many survivors over the years that have had this same conflict. This dissonance seems to tell us, "This isn't happening."

It is, however, happening and we need to act when these moments include a threat. This is why we are constantly getting psyched up so we don't have these reactionary lag times, but this was a totally novel and unique moment for my poor innocent brain. Our head bomb tech, Dave Audsley, was always setting booby traps for us in training and as I called for a tech to get there (now!) I thought how it wasn't training's fault, it was mine for being so focused on finding one thing and not being ready to find another even more terrifying thing.

I would like to tell you my voice was cool as a fighter pilot as I called for a bomb tech and told everyone what I had...well, I guess there has been a fighter pilot or two whose voices trembled as they called out, "Tally ho."

The bomb tech who arrived, Ed Stock, listened to my explanation patiently and nodded understandingly throughout my narrative. When I finished he simply said, "And you picked it up." It wasn't said as a question. It had that kind of "you are one lucky dumb SOB" tone in the declarative, simply saying it as a fact. Then he turned to the task at hand.

The device was only an inert distracter designed to add fun to anyone's search for the dope the dirtbag had hidden in his residence, just not in his kitchen. Everyone had a good laugh and all agreed that it was a good lesson learned: Never let Smith search the kitchen.

From then on I did remember to search for all potential threats whenever I searched anything, and I have to say that lesson has carried over into many aspects of my life. I will never forget that odd sensation of thinking what a great hiding place a pipe bomb made of PVC would make. 

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.


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