What will witnesses remember during an active shooter situation?

What will witnesses remember during an active shooter situation? Image Source: Flickr user New Jersey National Guard.

When your life is flashing before your eyes or you are hiding in a closet hearing gunshots and screams, how much will you remember? The cacophony of sound makes it hard to distinguish what is happening. You want to contact your loved ones, and maybe you whisper into your phone despite the danger.

You hear boots on the ground. It’s the good guys—SWAT or National Guard. They take you to a safe place, but now you have to relive the terrifying event as you tell them what you witnessed.

If you are one of those rescuers, it’s important to understand what this person just went through and how the trauma may have impacted the victim’s ability to talk about what happened. Victims of such an assault can suffer from post-incident amnesia, making it more difficult for them to access memories right after the event.

During such an intense time, we can’t forget about empathy and the gentle approach to interviewing a witness. The victims need to feel comfortable telling their story, but the information they provide also needs to be verified. Although truth verification cannot reconstruct memories, once investigators have taken the proper steps to help victims recall any memories impacted by sensory overload from a harrowing active shooting event, the validity of the information they provide can be verified using the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA®).

The Traumatic Aftermath of an Active Shooting Incident

Piling more trauma on a victim who has witnessed a horrific event or been injured in an active shooter incident, is, unfortunately, unavoidable. Once it is determined that no one else is in danger, the witnesses need to be questioned about what they experienced.

The chaotic event—as well as a person’s own cognitive processes—can impact their memory and cause amnesia. In a study by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Bruce K. Siddle, they state that sensory overload may cause a victim to focus on one part of the incident, and they are often unable to remember most of it, especially right after the event. After 72 hours, the victims will start to get their memory back, but “it will be at least partially ‘reconstructed’ (and therefore somewhat ‘contaminated’),” so law enforcement should be careful when considering witness statements soon after the incident.

And after the event is long past, memories continue to fade. Think back to 9/11. Most of us can remember where we were when we heard about it or witnessed the event on television. Yet these so-called “flashbulb memories” are still faulty. William Hirst, a psychologist at New York City’s The New School, has studied theses types of memories and found that over time, they change or are lost. They can also be affected by media coverage, the community’s response, and our own emotions.  

It is the investigating officer’s mandate to encourage a victim to share their memories of the event. Their words provide crucial information needed to resolve the investigation, but this has to be done in a way that effectively elicits truthful information while using a calm, caring approach.  

Interviewing the Victims of an Active Shooter Attack

Interviews have to be conducted while the investigation is fresh, but that could mean visiting someone who is in the hospital recovering from surgery or overcoming the challenges of interviewing an individual suffering from PTSD. Using interview techniques like the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI), which was developed by Russell Strand, can help an investigator overcome these challenges. Strand lays out steps to build trust with the witness, starting by acknowledging their pain or what they experienced, then asking them to remember sensory memories or their thoughts at the time. The focus is on gently prodding their memories, and experts recommend that the interview process use an initial interview immediately after the shooter event in addition to follow-up interviews.

A valuable tool in such interviews is the CVSA, a truth verification system which measures stressors in the human voice. While flawed memories are not the same as someone who is being deceptive, there are similarities, and truth verification meant to root out intentional falsehoods could help identify such statements by witnesses. And while most witnesses aren’t being purposely deceptive, it is also important to rule out those who may have reasons to lie—such as the “witness” who was actually an inside source for the shooter or the person claiming to be a victim for media attention.

Just as importantly, this technology supports the overarching goal of obtaining information without putting extra pressure on an already traumatized witness. The CVSA is much less invasive than the polygraph, especially when used on someone with physical injuries or emotional trauma. This innovation only requires a quiet space and a microphone and can also analyze recorded statements—both useful features if you can only interview a witness at the active shooter scene or in the hospital.

Offering victims a way to tell their story in a safe, comfortable situation benefits both law enforcement and the witnesses. Officers who interview the victim of a traumatic event need to put the victim’s needs first by building trust, using proven interview techniques such as FETI, and technology that can verify statements without creating additional stress for the victim. Being a witness in an active shooter situation is a frightening experience, but these techniques can help law enforcement unlock memories hampered by trauma and move on to preventing further incidents.

Please reach out to us at NITV Federal Services to learn more about our CVSA systems and training programs.