Snap Judgments

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.

This ability of experts to thin-slice accurately depends on years of experience and training. In an earlier article, I discussed how experts make complex decisions under time pressure. It turns out that they use two techniques: feature-matching (this looks like something I've seen before) and story-generation (I've never seen this before, so I'll make up an explanation). Scenario-based training can improve both abilities, by giving students a bank of experiences to draw on for feature-matching and by providing a safe environment to try out plausible "stories." Good training can help start novice cops on the way, but only years on the street can truly make them "experts."

However, in one important aspect of experience, even rookie cops have expertise: reading faces. It turns out that facial expressions are universal indicators of emotion, and everybody who isn't autistic knows how to read them. Even if someone adopts a "poker face," attempting to hide what he or she is feeling, facial expressions are not entirely under voluntary control. Truth will emerge, if only fleetingly, as a quick, involuntary, authentic response. But you won't see it if you're not looking. If, for example, you are focused on a suspect's hands, you won't see his face at all.

So am I suggesting that we go back to "Watch his eyes, pardner"? No--I still never heard of anybody being killed by an eyeball. What I am suggesting is that we train officers to use their innate expertise to read faces (and body language) as an early warning system. Too often, we get so focused on procedures, such as how to safely approach a vehicle, or on defensive behaviors, such as watching hands, that we totally ignore the fact that we are dealing with another human being. That person's behaviors, including--maybe especially--facial expressions can give us instant information about potential danger. We can use our expertise as humans to "thin slice" encounters with subjects on the street.

This ability to read faces accurately is innate and unconscious, and like other intuitive senses can be improved with practice--or overridden by conscious choice. Have you ever been faced with a split-second decision, had an initial impulse and then made a reasoned choice against it--only to find out later that your first impulse was right? I sure have. I have a very loud and pushy rational brain, and it's hard for me to shut it up. Reading faces is not an exercise in logic.

Reading people's faces is also not 100% precise. If it were, we'd never be fooled by a smooth-talking salesman. And it's probably not as useful with a sociopath. Someone who does not feel guilt or remorse will not betray guilt or remorse with a facial expression. But for the vast majority of law enforcement encounters, reading the face can be a valuable source of information about what's going on inside someone's mind--before the encounter goes south.

Here's how an officer I worked with described the circumstance of a shooting he'd been involved in. Tim was the backup officer on the call, which was serving a routine warrant on a young man at his parents' home. The primary officer was already on scene when Tim arrived. The parents opened the door and told him, "They're in the basement." Tim said the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, even though nothing untoward had yet happened. He went downstairs and was told that the young man had locked himself in a bathroom. He started back up to see if the parents had a key when the young man burst through the door and fired on the other officer. Tim returned fire, killing the young man and saving his partner's life. Why did Tim's hair stand on end? ESP? Perhaps. But maybe he saw something in the parents' facial expressions that warned him.

So how do we teach our officers to thin-slice effectively? When we put officers through scenarios, often we ask them to articulate the basis for their actions. That's important, because part of an officer's job is to explain the rationale for a response, particularly one involving use of force. What if we instead first asked the officers, "What did you feel?" And when they've answered that question, asked, "What did you do?" Only after they've answered both questions would we ask for a rationale. The goal is to train officers to pay attention to those gut feelings, and act on them, even if (maybe especially if) they can't explain where the feeling came from. If they listen to their "prey" sense, maybe they can take action to control the situation so that it never gets to the point where they have to focus on watching hands.