What Are You Seeing?

Everyone is well aware that humans are visual creatures. It is far and away our most dominant sense and that is one of the reasons I get so frustrated that we have so many distracters in our modern patrol vehicles.

Dave Smith Headshot

Illustration: Sequoia BlankenshipIllustration: Sequoia Blankenship

I was just re-reading the book "Brain Rules" by John Medina, and I have to recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better trainer, coach, parent, or simply learn more about how brains perform and learn. A sentence in his chapter about vision really brought home a key point for crimefighters: "We don't see with our eyes, we see with our brains."

Everyone is well aware that humans are visual creatures. It is far and away our most dominant sense and that is one of the reasons I get so frustrated that we have so many distracters in our modern patrol vehicles. Not only do you have things that distract your eyes, you have tools that distract your mind. That is when it gets terribly dangerous—when you have your eyes and your mind distracted at the same time.

Modern research tells us it isn't important whether you are using hands-free or a handheld phone while driving; it's the focus on what you are talking about that creates the problem of cell phone use while operating a vehicle. Texting is a different thing altogether as it is purely and simply distracted driving.

If we are serious about reducing the number of officer deaths every year, then patrol car cockpits should be redesigned to eliminate so many attention-grabbing items that are being operated while driving. After wearing your seat belt, staying focused on the outside world may be the best risk-reducing behavior you have.

It's sadly become common for officers to read their in-car computer screens while waiting for a citation to print out as subjects in the vehicle they stopped are being completely ignored. I remember shooting a video about a device in the early nineties designed to hold the violator's license on the dash so you were passively forced to keep your eyes focused on what was happening in front of you while writing a citation. Times sure have changed.

So can we all agree vision is our primary sense and understanding how we use it is a great way to gain an edge in a dangerous world? Eliminating distracters is a great step; learning to use vision more in training is another.

After learning how to shoot, you need to learn when to shoot and a turning target is not the visual stimulus you will encounter in the real world. Visual cues should be a primary part of training, but too often instructors fail to use real-life context to make training more effective and intense. This point is obvious when we talk about skills such as shooting, but do we realize how important a skill crime recognition or suspicious behavior recognition is as well?

Agencies expect FTOs to give rookies real-world experience, but using visuals in all aspects of training greatly increases retention of knowledge. Reading cadets the criminal code will lead to about 10% retention over 72 hours. But show a picture or video of what comprises aggravated assault, for example, and retention ends up at more than 60%. Plus, the trainees' ability to apply this knowledge in the real world becomes greatly enhanced. In other words, "They will know it when they see it."

I wish I could say I always did this in the academy, but it wasn't the era of Google images or PowerPoint or YouTube, so I would sometimes just tell a real-world story to give the cadets the mental image of a training point. Today we can train everyone with what is called PSE (Pictorial Superiority Effect) whether we're teaching building search techniques, how to spot suspicious vehicles, or how to set up a pick in basketball.

Everyone can use PSE to their advantage. Whether it is dash cam footage or smart phone images, long before you ever confront a crisis on the street you can have our mind right, your tactics prepared, and then when the threat comes down you will know it when you see it.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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