Brown School

Why didn’t I kill him? (opinion)

Luther O. Tyus is a graduate research assistant in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as an eight-year veteran of the St. Louis Police Department and a certified Peace Officer Standards and Training police instructor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

From CNN online

The first time I almost killed a man was two years after graduating from the police academy.

I was working at a local nightclub when a brawl erupted. Wading through the sucker punches and small skirmishes, I saw a man walk to his car, retrieve a long brown item and approach the nightclub entrance. My heart raced. I turned toward the subject and unsnapped my holster.

As a young African-American officer, I understood the threat of losing one’s life in the line of duty. But today, as an eight-year veteran of the St. Louis Police Department who studies ways to improve officer training, I also understand — as the recent shooting of Stephon Clark reminds us — that police shoot black Americans at higher rates than they do white Americans.

To understand why officers choose to kill, we must first examine how the brain works under deadly duress — a social science known as “killology.”

From an evolutionary perspective, killing represents an acute stress response — part of a spectrum that ranges from fight to flight to freezing, posturing and submission. To power this response, the body releases epinephrine, a hormone that raises glucose levels in the blood. Energy soars, strength is enhanced and reflexes quicken.

But as all that energy pumps through the muscles, our frontal lobes — which house the rational, conscious brain — shut down. The “old brain” takes control. The old brain includes the brain stem, medulla, pons, reticular formation, thalamus, cerebellum, amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus. Together, these areas regulate basic functions such as breathing, moving, resting, feeding, emotions and memory. The old brain has one main goal: survival.

Letting the old brain take charge can lead to another phenomenon known as “change blindness.” First coined by Dr. Bill Lewinski, founder of the Force Science Institute, a research organization that studies use-of-force situations, change blindness is frequently taught in local police departments. It refers to important elements of a scene or situation that, viewed under duress, can easily go unnoticed.

Unsnapping my holster, I experienced change blindness. I saw what appeared to be a long-barreled handgun in the man’s left hand. I pulled my weapon and shouted, “Drop the gun.” He didn’t see me, but he did hear me. He dropped the weapon.

The “gun” was actually a hammer.