Today we’re bringing you an op-ed that is sure to get folks riled up. Should be interesting, not least because not everyone here agrees with Hernandez on this one — at least not completely. Read on! If you’re going to opine, please do so intelligently. Don’t just start typing things like a mouthbreather. Mad Duo
The Reality of Auditory Exclusion
After the notorious Tulsa police shooting last month, Officer Betty Shelby claimed she shot an unarmed, high-on-PCP suspect partly due to “auditory exclusion”. That is, she fired because she thought the suspect was reaching for a weapon, but didn’t realize an officer by her side was about to tase him because she didn’t hear the officer announce “Taser!” She also didn’t hear additional officers arrive, and didn’t even hear her own shot. Shelby claims her hearing loss was due to a physiological response to stress, which made her literally go deaf for a short time.
In the past, I’ve heard some incredulous reactions to the idea that one can lose their hearing in a stressful situation. No doubt, some don’t believe Officer Shelby’s claim. So I’d like to provide a layman’s explanation of what auditory exclusion is, when it happens, and why it’s important to understand. I’ll also expand a bit on survival stress reactions in general.
I’d like to add: I’m not taking a stance on this shooting. I have my concerns about it, and while I’m not screaming for Officer Shelby’s head I’m also not arguing against the manslaughter charge filed against her. All I’m doing is explaining that auditory exclusion and other physiological effects of stress are real, and happen often. In one study of 113 police shootings, “Diminished sound was officers’ most commonly experienced perceptual distortion, reported in 82 percent of the cases either before or after the shooting, or in some cases both.”
I first heard of auditory exclusion at an ALERRT (Association of Law Enforcement Rapid Response Trainers) active shooter course in 2006. The instructors explained that when an officer is under lethal stress or a close simulation of it, certain physiological responses occur. These responses are called survival stress reactions and generally happen when an officer’s heart rate is elevated into a certain range (they only result from danger-related stress, not exercise or other physical exertion). The survival stress reaction most people have heard of is tunnel vision; however, officers can also temporarily go deaf, lose fine motor skills, experience time slowing or compressing, experience enhanced visual acuity, or forget critical pieces of information they just observed.
I had been a cop twelve years by the time I got this training, and to tell you the truth it really pissed me off. Why, I wondered, didn’t anyone tell me about this in 1994?
I thought back to prior incidents where I experienced auditory exclusion and didn’t realize it. For example, another officer and I once fought a suspect I’m pretty sure was high on PCP at a truck stop. The suspect almost knocked the other officer out, knocked the crap out of me, got the other officer’s pepper spray, picked up my dropped baton, and almost got shot during the fight. After we finally arrested the suspect, the other officer said he had been screaming on the radio for backup after he was punched; I didn’t hear one single word on the radio, at any time, during the minutes-long fight.
In another incident I chased a sport bike down a narrow, bumpy road at over a hundred miles per hour. As I chased him I wondered Where the hell is backup? After the suspect crashed and I cuffed him, I was suddenly surrounded by officers; they had been close behind me, but I was so focused on the bike I didn’t hear them on the radio or see their blinding overhead lights in the mirrors. At night.
I also recalled an incident of enhanced visual acuity that happened in Iraq. I was at the tail end of a convoy that turned down a narrow road late at night, then had to stop because another convoy was coming the other way. My Humvee wound up stopped at the intersection of two routes. The night was pitch black, silent, and boring. I started BSing with my driver. The other convoy passed us, its lead vehicle crossed a median and turned, and several vehicles followed it. The fifth vehicle blew up, about 25 meters behind my Humvee.
In an instant, everything turned orange. I felt the thump of the concussion as my gunner screamed. I heard dozens of what turned out to be rocks slamming into my Humvee. And I’ll never forget seeing, with perfect clarity, a pebble rocking to stillness on the hood of my vehicle, visible just for a instant in the fading orange glow.
After the active shooter course I set up training exercises with paintball guns in an abandoned school for my National Guard unit. The intent was to put soldiers through such intense training they’d experience those survival stress reactions, and learn to counter them. We had some hellacious (and utterly agonizing) close-range firefights where troops had to ignore multiple paintball strikes, stay in the fight, communicate, and recover completely limp casualties while fully geared up.
We induced just about every survival stress reaction possible in those exercises. In one scenario I watched an NCO unable to thread a zip-tie to cuff a prisoner, because he had lost fine motor skills. In several I watched fireteam leaders struggle to get the attention of soldiers just feet away. In another I watched a company commander, totally oblivious to the fact that he was being shot at from two directions, yelling at an NCO (who couldn’t hear him) that he was firing the wrong way. Later I was proud to learn that when several of my troops were in a simulated firefight during a training course, they responded to their squad leader’s commands while other soldiers were so focused on the enemy they stopped hearing orders.
I later became an assistant active shooter instructor for my department. One thing I always told students: be as clear as possible, ensure the person you’re talking to hears and understands you, because if something can be misunderstood, it will be. I taught officers to try to make physical contact with other officers when communicating, to avoid mistakenly thinking they gave information to someone who literally couldn’t hear anything. We stressed the importance of constantly looking around, both to counteract tunnel vision and to see if someone was trying to communicate with them.
One incident in a class really stood out. A very sharp female officer was on a team clearing a hallway in a bomb-threat scenario. A threat presented in the hallway, the female officer tried to dump into a room and found herself facing another suspect. She stopped in the doorway (which was a mistake) and engaged him. The officer behind her ran into her, fell, and set off a booby-trapped training flashbang inches behind the female officer’s feet. When we held an AAR after the scenario, I asked the female officer if she realized she had messed up when she heard the flashbang detonate behind her. She gave me a confused look and said nothing detonated behind her. She didn’t believe me or her teammates when we insisted it had. She was shocked when we showed her the video.
So I had a lot of experience and training about survival stress reactions, including auditory exclusion. Then I went to Afghanistan. And I experienced auditory exclusion again anyway, along with other survival stress responses, because they can’t be completely trained out. They can only be managed.
In one pretty bad fight, two other soldiers and I climbed onto a roof to recover a casualty. Four troops had been killed and two wounded already. One soldier, “John”, took a position on the roof to cover us, another soldier and I started pulling the casualty down from a small room that projected above the roof. The casualty’s pistol got hung up on the roof’s edge, and as we frantically tugged on him I heard John yell, “Chris!”
I turned to see him looking at me with wide eyes. “You might wanna move!” he yelled. “They’re shooting at us and the bullets are coming real close!”
Later the third soldier told me he also heard rounds passing by. I didn’t hear anything, even though I’d nearly been shot before and knew what near misses sound like. After the fight, John told me, “Man, you weren’t hearing nothing.” And I wasn’t. He had actually yelled a warning at me at least twice, but I was so focused on pulling the casualty down I tuned out everything else.
An annoying facet of auditory exclusion is that it doesn’t affect everyone the same way in the same situations, and may not even affect you the same way throughout the same situation. Merrill told me about an incident where he and other Marines fired their weapons inside a house; the other Marines’ ears rang afterward, but Merrill didn’t hear the shots and his ears never rang. In the fight I described above I heard thousands of rounds fired from numerous weapons, including some just feet away. They didn’t bother me at all. Then during a lull an Afghan soldier about ten feet away fired his RPK, and for some reason that one burst hurt my ear like hell.
Something else I experienced during that fight was critical incident amnesia, where you see something important but instantly forget it. I recently watched my own helmet camera footage of the fight. On video I see a compound take a hit from something big. I see myself duck, then when someone asks “Was that outgoing or did it hit the compound?”, I answered that it hit the compound.
I was there. I saw it hit. I ducked. I answered a question about it. Yet I don’t remember it. I have no recollection at all of that detonation. I also didn’t see passing RPG rounds that other soldiers saw.
I like to think I experienced multiple survival stress reactions that day because I was exhausted and sick; I got about four and a half hours sleep in the two nights combined before that operation, and was jacked up on meds to counter the effects of what was probably food poisoning. Was it the fatigue and sickness, or did I just get overexcited? I don’t know.
These experiences should serve to illustrate a point: like combat, a lethal force encounter isn’t a sterile math equation that can be easily analyzed from the safety of a living room, news studio or computer monitor. A police situation which looks easily handled to the untrained eye may have been complicated by the officer’s survival stress reactions. In other words, without studying what stress does to perception we may not understand what the officer perceived, or failed to perceive.
None of what I’ve discussed is intended to exonerate or condemn Officer Betty Shelby. Her claim of having experienced auditory exclusion may be true, and may have contributed to the shooting. I don’t know. But I do know that auditory exclusion and other survival stress reactions are real. They happen when cops and soldiers experience the kind of stress private citizens almost never do, and can lead us to bad decisions if we don’t recognize and counteract them.
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Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.