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The Zapruder Effect: Slow It Down To Speed Things Up

The Zapruder Effect: Slow It Down To Speed Things Up

Photos By John Cowart

The body does interesting things under stress. During moments of extreme duress, a series of autonomic responses take place that we have no control over. Adrenaline and other hormones are dumped into our system during ͞flight or fight͟ reactions, giving the human body extra strength and speed to increase survivabilitySlow It Down To Speed Things Up. Blood is taken from the parts of the body not used during the fight and sent to places where it is needed. Hearing can become impaired in a phenomenon known as ͞Auditory exclusion͟. One of the more interesting physiological occurrences is temporal distortion, an alteration of how time is perceived. Soldiers and police officers have articulated time and again that, when faced with deadly threats, time appears to slow down.

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Obviously, a police shooting or combat has no real effect on the time space continuum, but it is a very real feeling. A few years back, while attending a law enforcement firearms course, I was able to attend a lecture by a seasoned veteran of law enforcement. The topic was the 1991 Good Guys shooting in Sacramento. For those not familiar with it, the Good Guys event was a hostage rescue operation conducted by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team. In a nutshell, SWAT officers had to square off with a group of gangsters who had taken over a Good Guys electronics store. Overall, it was a successful mission, but not without some lessons learned. It is the largest hostage rescue mission to have ever taken place in the United States and worth learning about.

Zapruder Effect 5

The individual giving the presentation was Lieutenant Gordon Smith, a SWAT operator during the Good Guys event and a seasoned law enforcement veteran. Lt. Smith is a great speaker who presented a ͞”warts and all͟” class on what happened. One thing Smith did was something that rarely happens in tactical presentations — he opened up the floor to the audience to discuss the students' own officer involved shootings. The course was a firearms instructor class, so there were numerous experienced officers attending. Many of them had been involved in shootings. As a result we heard  some great accounts of some pretty hairy run-ins with armed bad guys.

At some point the discussion turned to physiological reactions during such events. One officer from the San Francisco Police Department described a particularly nasty close quarters engagement in which he was involved in a shooting with an armed suspect mere feet from where he stood. He described, as officers often do in that instance, how things seemed to slow down and how he felt like he was viewing the event in slow motion.

When it was my turn to talk I discussed a similar encounter with an armed suspect. I was involved in a shooting where the suspect shot my partner, then turned the gun on me. I engaged the suspect, shooting him multiple times, and killed him. My recollection of the events wasn’t the typical slow motion time perception. Instead, I remember it as series of still images or snapshots: Seeing the suspect, my partner getting hit, me returning fire…One image after the next. Upon hearing my description the SFPD officer said, ͞”It’s like the Zapruder film.͟”

For the historically challenged, here’s what he was referring to: Abraham Zapruder was a witness to the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas on November 22nd 1963. He filmed the event with an old fashioned home movie camera. It’s the only known video footage of the event and is probably the most analyzed piece of film in existence. It shows in dreadful detail when President Kennedy is shot through the neck and then the upper head. When researchers view it they slow the movie down until it shows one frame at a time, so slow that it is no longer a movie but a series of still images. The SFPD officer quantified his statement by saying basically the same thing; that is, that in my perception of what had occurred, I had slowed the event down so far that it no longer appeared to be moving.

I’m not entirely sure what this says about me.

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Does it mean my thought process is so slow and sluggish to begin with that, when you throw a little stress in there my mind almost comes to a screeching halt? Or does it mean that I am so tactically attuned that my brain is able to slow the process down into bite size manageable pieces?

Really neither is true. I’ve been in other situations where my time perception has slowed but not to that extreme. On a different occasion I contacted a gang member who, while in my presence, tossed a handgun he'd concealed on his person. As the gun came out, I saw it falling in — you guessed it — slow motion. I remember it slowly bouncing off the sidewalk and eventually coming to rest. I drew my weapon and began yelling commands mixed with expletives. Once my partners had him and his cronies at gunpoint, my time perception returned to normal.

The one thing I noticed in that instance and others like it was that, although I was viewing it in ͞slow mo͟, my mind was working at its normal speed, or even faster. In other words, my thought process hadn’t slowed down, just my perception of what was occurring. The visualization was slowed down, but my brain hadn’t. Like the adrenaline dump and auditory exclusion, the slowed perception of things gives us a distinct advantage — if we are prepared to use it, and know to expect it. It allows us to come up with quick tactical solutions to rapidly evolving problems. In reality, what’s really happening is your brain processing group is operating at a much higher speed than usual, giving the impression that things occurring around you are happening much slower.

This ties in with the OODA loop concept. In life or death moments we’re Observing, Orienting, Deciding and Acting at a very high rate of speed while surrounding events appear ͞turtleish͟ in comparison. In the case of my OIS (officer involved shooting), my brain was working faster than it had ever worked before, causing an even greater increase in the slowing effect. Maybe, like auditory exclusion, my brain decided it needed as much visual information as possible to process a response and only focus on the really important stuff (partner shot… bad guy still has gun… engage bad guy).

Zapruder Effect 3

It’s important to know what your body and mind does during life and death moments and how it benefits you. Don't just train on the range. Learn the physiological reactions your body will experience under stress so you can mitigate any problems they might cause or thoroughly exploit the advantages they give.

Try to slow things down when you need to speed things up.




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