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Correspondents' Reports

JURIST's UK Correspondent is Alisdair A. Gillespie, Barrister (Middle Temple), Lecturer at the Centre for Police Research and Education, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough.
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[Middlesbrough; Special to JURIST] My job is an interesting one. The Research Centre I work for has close links with many UK law enforcement agencies; last week I spent a few days with one. Part of my time there was spent with its firearms division. In the UK not all law enforcement agents are armed; indeed, it is the exception for an officer to be armed, rather than vice-versa. Those who wish to carry a weapon are highly trained, and I visited one centre to see how this training took place.

When one thinks of firearms training one normally thinks of a range, but this I found myself in a very impressive simulator. I won't go into the technical details of it, not least because I didn't understand much of it, but it allowed one to feel the pressures of carrying a firearm. This was not a simulator where one stands on the floor and shoots at some moving pictures: this simulator allowed a person in this case me to walk around a large room, watching a video on the screen and reacting to it. I was issued with a belt, a holster and a loaded revolver. The revolver in this case was adapted to fire blanks which set off a laser which would record my hits or misses on the screen.

I was briefed on what my scenario would be, and I was told that I would become lost in this room - that I would forget that I was in a room but rather believe that I was on the streets. I didn't believe the instructor who told me this. What a fool I was. The lights dimmed and the screen started. On the screen before is was my "partner." We had been called to a report of gunfire. We walk forwards and I do lose myself. The simulator is filled with the noise one would expect to hear in a busy street. The simulator shows people walking past in the correct detail; this isn't a little screen, everything is life-size and those objects near me were very big. My partner starts to run. We see a person lying down with a gun shot. As I take a closer link my partner spins around and the screen does too. A shout "stop police" and I am facing an armed man. I freeze. Bang. I see shots. Directed at me and my partner. By the time I remember to draw my gun the man is off again. By the time that I level my gun and take aim, there are parked cars between myself and the suspect. I decide not to shoot because it would be too dangerous: the bullet would ricochet. The screen freezes. The "game" is over.

My instructor comes into the room. It is time for debriefing. At the moment I am stunned. That was real. I was being shot at. I didn't care it was only a screen. And I'm dead. I was shot before I even had time to raise my gun. Amazing.

My instructor takes on the role of the investigating officer. He asks me to describe what led up to the incident and what I did. I know what is coming. Time to switch on my legal training. Describe the gunman. Easy. I had known this would happen and so I switched my brain to record. I speak clearly. "Quite young. He was wearing a dark jacket. A bomber jacket of some kind." I am asked whether I can remember the colour trousers. I close my eyes, but no. Better play safe "no, sorry." Anything else? I am tempted to say that he has close-shaved hair but again I am not quite sure, and I know from being a lawyer that I must be sure before I say anything.

I am then asked what happened when I met him. I explain that shots were fired at my partner and I. "How far away were you?" I shut my eyes "20 metres or so" and then I'm asked whether he shot again. "Yes. At my partner." And then I explain, when asked, that he ran away behind cars.

My instructor says nothing throughout this. He then says he will play the scenario again so I can see how well I did. The scene unfolds and the screen pauses. I can see on the screen a middle-aged man with quite long white hair and a light, mid-length coat!!! I groan inwardly. "You idiot!" The instructor asks roughly where in the room I was. I show him and then we measure the distance to the gunman. 20 or so metres: it wasn't even 20 feet! So far I have got his age, distance, hair and dress-style completely wrong. To make a match set I then count the shots and realise I missed two also. Fantastic...

We begin to chat about what this shows. Apparently it doesn't show that I'm an idiot, it shows that I am perfectly normal. Under stress one is too busy reacting to accurately record anything. The brain guesses, although you think it is definite. The other problem is time. I was amazed that the whole scenario lasted less than 10 seconds. The shooting less than 5. On the cartoons and in Hollywood, time always stands still and gives you time to relax. I wish! No Mel Gibson-type diving and shooting here. Only me going "Oh gosh, I'm being shot at. Draw your gun. Draw your gun stupid. Oh hell where is he now? There. Blast, cars in the way." But I have been describing this incident to my instructor for nearly 4 or 5 minutes. The instructor explains that quite often the officers will use 3 or 4 sheets of paper for their written statement. Although time occurs properly, you recall in slow motion. What does that do? All it does is make it look like you had plenty of time.

I picture myself dressed up my barrister's wig and gown, standing in court cross-examining myself: "You had all this time, officer, and yet you failed to fire a single shot. A man died and yet you did not shoot." Worse still if I did shoot: "You had all this time, officer, and yet you just fired without thinking. Surely there was something else to do"

That is how it would be. How could "I" argue with this: my statement and testimony makes it look like it took place over minutes, and yet the computer quite clearly displays the duration: less than 10 seconds. Incredible.

When I hand back my gun and holster and walk out of the simulator my mind is still spinning. I am, to use an unfortunate phrase, completely blown away with what happened in there. I knew roughly what was happening and yet I still got every single fact wrong. I knew it lasted seconds and yet I described an incident lasting minutes. If I had been a witness I would have blown an entire case.

I think we lawyers tend to become hardened to testimony. We believe it is terribly easy and if someone gets something wrong it is because they are lying. Think about it. That is how you think, isn't it? We laugh and joke about how we would be the worst witnesses, and boy did I prove that. Human beings are not perfect, far from it. The human brain is capable of assimilating millions of facts from our highly detailed senses. And yet our perceptions are also our Achilles heel. We cannot help but misunderstand what our senses received. We put our own spin on things, or just give into stereotypes. "All gunmen wear dark jackets." Oops. it was a light one.

The next time you are cross-examining a witness because (s)he has said it was a red car, and our client drives a blue one, consider whether you would be any better.

Alisdair A. Gillespie
JURIST UK Correspondent

University of Teesside
Middlesborough, UNITED KINGDOM

August 31, 2000

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