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Police officers' perceptual distortions during lethal force situations: Informing the reasonableness standard

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Research Summary

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court held that determinations about the constitutional appropriateness of police force usage—deadly or not—must be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Although the Court's ruling established a clear standard for judging officers' actions (i.e., the perspective of a reasonable police officer on the scene), we know little about the sorts of factors that might frame the perspective of reasonable police officers during situations in which they apply force. This article presents the results of a study that examined 80 police officers' detailed accounts of how they perceived what transpired during 113 incidents in which they shot citizens. Respondents reported experiencing a wide range of sensory distortions, with the vast majority of officers reporting two or more distinct sorts. This study takes these findings as a point of departure to expand our understanding of what constitutes a reasonable officer's perspective during the tense, uncertain moments during which he or she makes the decision to employ deadly force.

Policy Implications

Given that officers are likely to experience multiple distortions during shootings, the findings have implications for civilian and police oversight policies. In particular, those responsible for reviewing police shooting incidents should take into consideration that officers' behavior will not always be based on the objective reality of what is occurring at the time they decide to pull the trigger, but rather an altered conception of it. Such an understanding is crucial to improving the image of police in certain communities and positively impacting citizen trust of, and satisfaction with, the police.
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Keywords: peritraumatic stress; policing; reasonableness; sensory distortions/perceptions

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Ph.D., is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. 2: Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency, and Corrections at Southern Illinois University—Carbondale.

Publication date: 01 February 2009

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