Improved Memory Leads to More Accurate Use-of-Force Reports

By Coleman, Todd | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Improved Memory Leads to More Accurate Use-of-Force Reports

Coleman, Todd, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

As you complete your midnight shift, you know that your department's policy states that you must finish your paperwork before securing from duty. As usual, it was a busy night, and, to top things off, you were involved in a foot pursuit that resulted in the use of force and an injury to the suspect. Fighting to stay awake, you fill out your agency's use-of-force report, turn it in, and head home for some well-deserved sleep.


Because of a great deal of scientific research on human memory, you should not be surprised to find that you have made errors in your use-of-force report. If you are lucky, these will be insignificant and easily corrected. Unfortunately, such errors could lead to accusations of untruthfulness, internal investigations, and even potential civil or criminal prosecution. (1)

Overconfidence in the accuracy of their own recollections leads most people to automatically assume that mistakes in another's recall of events stem from dishonesty, rather than memory errors. This belief, however, can have a devastating impact on the reputation of an officer who reported a use-of-force incident incorrectly due to faulty memory recall.

The best way to deal with this problem is to avoid it in the first place by taking advantage of the vast amount of research conducted in the area of human memory. The law enforcement community and the courts have accepted and implemented many of these principles. While procedures, such as sequential lineups and the cognitive interview technique, have helped ensure the accuracy of the information provided by witnesses, law enforcement officers have received little training in methods to help them recall events as accurately as possible. Even more troubling, the procedures of many agencies often increase the likelihood of memory errors by officers.

Understand What Happens

First of all, use-of-force reports are unique because officers are describing an incident that is usually emotionally charged and one in which they actively participated. Second, the nature of a use-of-force incident can contribute to memory distortions. During deadly force situations, officers can suffer various memory distortions. Concepts, like tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, are familiar to most officers. However, memory distortions can occur in other use-of-force encounters as well. (2)

A recent report by the British Psychological Society defined a traumatic event as "a situation in which the individual experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with actual or threatened death, serious injury, or the threat to the physical integrity of self or others." (3) The report included physical assault as one example of a typical traumatic event that could negatively impact memory, stating that "it is common that other parts will be more vague, have some gaps, in jumbled order, and possibly contain inaccuracies." By this definition, many, if not most, use-of-force incidents could be considered a traumatic event and carry the implications of possible memory distortions.

Additional research in this area also has shown that people's memory can be affected by exposure to high levels of stress. One study reported that "evidence that eyewitness memory for persons encountered during the events that are personally relevant, highly stressful, and realistic in nature may be subject to substantial error." (4) Based on relevant research, it is clear that when reporting use-of-force incidents, officers need to be aware of circumstances that can lead to memory distortions.

Because officers are reporting an event where they may have some difficulty in completely and accurately recalling all details of the incident, they should enact procedures that help facilitate accurate memory. By following three basic procedures, agencies can enhance officers' memories resulting in more accurate and detailed use-of-force reports. This not only benefits officers by avoiding the trouble associated with an erroneous use-of-force report but it saves their agencies the time and money associated with conducting internal investigations. …

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