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The neuroscience of police shootings

In New York, many people were shocked by the recent accidental shooting of Timothy Stansbury Jr., a 19-year-old Brooklyn teenager, by a police officer. There are plenty of theories as to why the accident happened, but over at this week’s Village Voice, Erik Baard finds a possible explanation in an intriguing area: Neuroscience.

Baard discovers that there’s an emerging group of scientists who are studying the ways in which human neurological wiring can lead to fatal accidents with guns. Take the Stansbury case. The teenager was heading up a stairway onto the roof of a Brooklyn tenement, and about to open the door. The police officer, Richard S. Neri Jr., was on the rooftop and by sheer coincidence was on the other side of the door, about to open it himself. No one yet knows who precisely opened the door first, but if it was Neri, that might have set off a physiological chain reaction that led him to — quite unintentionally — fire his gun. Baard cites some recent research by Roger M. Enoka, chair of the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado:

[In} a recent paper for Law Enforcement Executive Forum, Enoka raises [an] intriguing idea. Our brain has a near compulsion for symmetry. When a signal is sent to one limb, a doppelgänger signal spills over to the other. This phenomenon is so powerful that Shi Zhou, a physiologist at Southern Cross University in Australia, reported to Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews that limbs opposite to those being exercised also gained substantial strength.

It’s not clear who opened the rooftop door, but if Neri did, that could help explain what went wrong. “The action of opening a door with one hand can be sufficient to evoke a sympathetic contraction that is strong enough to cause the fingers in the other hand to squeeze the trigger and discharge a gun,” Enoka said.

This is damn interesting stuff, because it suggests two things. One is that some police who have discharged their weapons might well have never intended to do so. The second is that it “such shootings may be almost impossible to eliminate,” as Baard worries. He notes that police experts have suggested several ways of removing the element of surprise from policing — such as giving cops thermal scanners, so they can see how many bodies are behind a door. The less surprise they face, the more control their have over their hardwiring neurological responses.

None of this is to exculpate genuinely sloppy policing, of course. But I’ve interviewed officers in the past who’ve talked about the weird tricks your body plays on you when you’re in a dangerous situation, real or perceived. One police-studies academic told me he became worried when officers on his force were first issued guns with 14-shot clips, instead of six-shot pistols. The problem? When you’re terrified that your life is in danger and you fire your gun, there’s a natural impulse to simply squeeze the trigger again and again until all the bullets are gone. In that situation, a 14-bullet gun has a far greater likelihood of killing someone, where a six-shot pistol might only wound them. Of course, the whole point of police training is to prevent police from spastically emptying their entire gun — but in practice, it isn’t that easy to do.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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