Focus of Attention: Integrating Heady Concepts into Regular Police Training

Terms such as auditory exclusion, inattentional blindness, tunnel vision, tachypsychia are often used during testimony in police use-of-force cases, but can potentially be misused, misconstrued, misunderstood, or all of the above.

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Inattentional blindness. Auditory exclusion. Tunnel vision. Tachypsychia.

These are all really heady terms—often used during testimony in a police use-of-force case (whether criminal or civil)—that describe the various physiological effects of being in a dynamic, rapidly unfolding, potentially life-and-death confrontation.

However, these terms can potentially be misused, misconstrued, misunderstood, or all of the above.

Jamie Borden is a retired sergeant with a large police department in Nevada and founder of Critical Incident Review (CIR), a consultancy that helps police officers, their leadership, investigators, as well as civilians better understand what an officer experiences—and how decisions are made—during a critical incident.

Borden cautions against inadvertently misemploying such terminology or accidentally misrepresenting what it means. "These are scientific terms that are basically reserved for academia or the profession of psychology in most cases."

Borden adds, "The problem that we have as police officers—and as a profession—is that we have a very hard time separating knowledge from our stated understanding of that knowledge."

Talking About Knowledge

There are some widely accepted definitions of the abovementioned terms.

  • Auditory exclusion is the brain not processing the audible stimulus, or filtering out, or dulling the acuity—of the perception of the stimulus. while an individual is in the presence of high-stress visual stimulation
  • Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully visible—but unexpected—object or action because an individual's focused attention is/was on another object or action
  • Tunnel vision is the brain filtering out visual data when one's visual attention is focused on a specific area of immediate concern
  • Tachypsychia—also known as time distortion—is the perceived speeding up or slowing down of events in time caused by high levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine in the brain and body

The task for officers, leaders, investigators, and expert witnesses—is to not get too wrapped around the spokes of that terminology. The task, therefore, is to turn that word salad into something that is not only digestible, but articulable in easily understandable terms.

Borden says, "My recommendation is that we develop a foundational understanding of what these concepts mean. Then we simply state what it means to an officer involved in a critical incident."

He adds, "All of those terms are rooted in focus of attention, which simply means that if an officer is focused on a significant visual, auditory, or tactile perception that is consequential to life and death, they are potentially filtering out other less crucial information that may not be available for memory recall."

For example, there's a fundamental—and fairly widespread—misinterpretation of the term, "tunnel vision." People don't actually lose any vison at all—they do, however, stop processing the visual data in the periphery due to a high acuity and intense focus on a present threat.

Borden explains, "I avoid using these terms in a report. What I would say is the officer was intensely focused on this particular threat and did not perceive the other aspects that we potentially see in video [after the fact]."

Taking it to Training

How does the law enforcement trainer introduce those topics to an officer—regardless of the officer’s tenure—in a way that that is integrated into regular training... into defensive tactics, firearms, square range, and force-on-force scenarios? How does one integrate those concepts in such a way that they're digested and internalized for every officer at every level?

Borden says that trainers need to be thoughtful about how video of critical incidents is used during training. While such video can be immensely valuable in terms of learning what to do—or in many cases, not to do—trainers and trainees need to be wary of judging an officer in another critical incident considering hindsight bias or hindsight attribution.

"We look at a case and we criticize it and call it training," Borden says. "That's not an accurate way of conducting training. When we truly analyze and review a case, we have to take the result out of it because the officer involved did not have that answer. They made decisions based on X, and Y, before Z was a reality. In hindsight, we now have the luxury of applying the perfect ending."

To actually turn a critical-incident video review into training, trainers must develop a foundational understanding of auditory exclusion, inattentional blindness, tunnel vision, and tachypsychia, place these concepts appropriately within the context of their own training and experiences, and then identify how those terms are applied to an analysis.

"Then we can truly create a training environment where we're taking information in the raw form so we can turn it into a 'What if?' and not a 'Should have or would have or could have'—there's a big difference in that in training," Borden says.

"Our goal is not to make scientists out of a police officer unless that police officer wants to be a scientist," Borden says. "But we can help officers to understand the importance of focus of attention—how important it is to breathe and scan when possible to do so.—We know that human beings filter out information when it's not consequential to their survival—or their attention hasn't been drawn to it."

Borden concludes, "As trainers we need to understand that focus of attention plays a role."

Descriptions, Not Descriptors

Any officer who has been thrust into a dynamic, rapidly unfolding, potentially life-and-death situation has almost certainly experienced auditory exclusion, inattentional blindness, tunnel vision, tachypsychia, or any combination of the above.

Every officer should have an understanding of what each effect is and how to accurately articulate the experience. It is incumbent upon law enforcement trainers to ensure that this knowledge is accurately taught and understood.

Police officers, leaders, investigators, and trainers must have an idea about how the mind and the body respond to such stress but not feel compelled to use phrases like "cognitive bias," "attentional focus," and "stimulus relevance" in a written report or post-incident statement.

They must rely on "descriptions" of the event, not "descriptors" of the concepts.

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