Snap Judgments

Only years on the street can truly make officers expert, but in one important area, even rookie cops have expertise.


Watch his hands! How many times have you heard that in your law enforcement career? If you're a training officer, how many times have you said it? Contrary to the lessons taught in the most pervasive law enforcement training medium--television--we know that it's not important to "Watch his eyes, pardner." It's hands that kill. I've never heard of anyone who was struck and killed by a flying eyeball. And so we train officers to hold their weapons in the tactical ready or "universal cover" position, aimed just below the waist so the suspect's hands are visible. The idea is that if the suspect's hands reach for a weapon or move the muzzle of an already drawn gun a degree in our direction, we can instantly raise our front sight to high center mass. On the other hand, if our weapon is already aimed at high center mass, our own hands and the gun obscure our view of the suspect's hands. And it is, after all, hands that kill.

Officers have taken this advice to heart. When I taught firearms and put officers through tactical courses with pop-up targets and nasty surprises around every corner, it was remarkable how often the paper bad guys' guns got shot. Evidently the officers were watching--and shooting at--hands when they perceived a threat. Of course, they also shot high center mass, but often the first shot or two went directly at the gun and the hands holding it. The officers were looking at, and therefore aiming at, hands.

Humans have binocular vision. This is extraordinarily useful in that it gives us accurate depth perception (try parallel parking with one eye closed). But it also means that wherever we look, we can't look anywhere else at the same time. Unlike us, prey animals often have one eye on each side of their head instead of both in front, as humans do. They don't have binocular vision, but they have a very wide field of view. Some birds can even see a full 360 degrees without moving their heads. Nature, as it usually does, makes sense. Prey animals need to be able to see the widest possible field of view because their only hope for survival is to get the heck out of Dodge at the first sign of danger. Predators are in a different situation: their only hope for survival is to catch prey--and for that they need to be able to locate their prey in space. Binocular vision allows that, even if it leaves a great deal to be desired in field of view.

Thanks for the biology lesson, Pat, but so what? Cops aren't prey animals. If anything, we're the predators, right? Yes and no. We certainly aren't predators in the sense that we can go out to stalk and kill our prey unawares. Try that once and watch yourself eviscerated by the legal system in a bloodbath that beats any dying zebra ripped apart by a lion on Wild Kingdom. Ever since Tennessee v. Garner, the criterion for the use of deadly force has been that the officer reasonably believes that he or she (or someone else) is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. Now that sounds like a pretty good description of prey. But unlike the zebra, we're not helpless. We have weapons and training, and we can watch the bad guy's hands.

But when we focus our binocular vision on a suspect's hands, what are we missing? Maybe something important.

I've just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. The author explores how experts are often astoundingly accurate in their first impressions. He recounts the tale of a statue sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. The sculpture was purported to date from the sixth century B.C. The museum conducted a fourteen-month investigation into its authenticity, even consulting with a geologist to determine the origin of the stone. In the end, the museum agreed to purchase the statue for several million dollars. But then, when the museum showed the statue to a number of art experts, their immediate response was that it was a fake. None of them could articulate very well how they knew--they just did. And they were right. Gladwell refers to that first two seconds of or so of encountering something as "thin-slicing." It's obviously not enough time for a thorough analysis, but it's often enough for an expert to be right.

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