Coming to a Courtroom Near You: Brain Scans of Violent Suspects

Lawyers defending violent offenders may be more likely to try to introduce brain science into their cases after research recently reported from the University of Utah.

In what the NY Times calls “the most rigorous study to date of how behavioral biology can sway judicial decisions,” three researchers from Salt Lake City asked 181 state trial judges from across the US to read a hypothetical case (based on an actual crime) of a psychopath who was convicted of beating a restaurant manager senseless with the butt of a gun during a robbery attempt and leaving him with permanent brain damage. The defendant had a history of committing aggressive acts “without showing empathy.”

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Dismal Toll of Police Stress

“Policing,” writes Dr. John Violanti, one of the leading researchers of law enforcement stress, “is psychologically stressful work filled with danger, high demands, ambiguity in encounters, human misery, and exposure to death.”

And that may be the least of its dark side.

“Law enforcement is one of a number of often stressful professions that has attracted the interest of researchers who are compelled to study the stressors involved in a particular line of work and their impact on those engaged in the profession,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, Executive Director of the Force Science Institute. “For a significant number of cops, the worst part of the job will likely be its long-term negative impact on personal health and wellbeing, ranging from heart problems to cancer to suicide as identified in recent research.”

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When You Don’t See What’s Visible

Experiments mirroring a real-world case that resulted in an officer going to prison for perjury have confirmed that a trick of the mind called inattentional blindness–the failure to see something important that is clearly within your field of view–can occur under stressful circumstances on the street.

The officer’s conviction was described in detail in a book called The Invisible Gorilla, which Force Science News reviewed in Transmission #160 [10/8/10. Click here to read it]. He’d been in foot pursuit of a shooting suspect at 0200 in Boston and had run past three fellow officers who were brutally beating a black male. In a public furor that arose over the beating, the officer insisted he didn’t see the incident even though he ran right past it.

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Taser Use Against Minors: No Significant Harm

Taser X2 picture

Juveniles are one of the population groups thought by some observers to be “potentially vulnerable” to unexpected significant injury from being Tasered. But the first study of real-world use of conducted electrical weapons on minors concludes that zaps from CEWs “during apprehension of adolescents does not seem to pose unacceptable levels of risk.”

None of the sample pool of young offenders analyzed suffered anything worse than mild injuries, specifically “superficial puncture wounds” from Taser probes and “superficial abrasions and mild lacerations,” most likely from falls or struggles with police.

While 8 percent of the subjects were hospitalized after being shocked, the vast majority of these were psych admissions. “None were related to injuries from CEW use,” the study team reports.

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Latest Developments in Taser Heart-Safety Controversy


After a broad-based, in-depth study of real-world applications, an independent research team says its findings “suggest” that department policies restricting the firing of Taser probes to the chest because of heart safety concerns “are unnecessary.”

Case analysts led by Dr. William Bozeman of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina determined that conducted electrical weapon (CEW) discharges impacting on the front torso are no more dangerous than those delivered to other parts of a suspect’s body.

In some 1,200 instances of Taser use taken from police files, they found no evidence of cardiac complications resulting from CEW contact, even in “worst case” scenarios where Taser probes delivered an electrical charge that would have passed directly over the heart.

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Feeling Tired Isn’t the Only Bad Result of Too Few Zzzzzzzzs

Negative evidence about sleep deprivation continues to pile up. Consider these new research findings:

• University of Iowa researchers report that if you’re averaging less than six hours sleep a night, you’re more susceptible to chronic fatigue and high-risk health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Studying 85 male officers from three police agencies in eastern Iowa, they found that working evening or night shifts leaves you 14 times less likely to get restful sleep and more likely to draw back-to-back shifts, worsening your sleep deficit.

The study team urges new approaches to “break the cascade of poor sleep for police officers” in the interest of their personal health and public safety. Among suggestions: change the time of early-morning court appearances for night-shift officers to better assure adequate rest.

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