Why Brain Structure Makes Unintended Shootings Inevitable

The police killing of an unarmed 19-year-old on a Brooklyn rooftop last month appears to be a tragedy of nanoseconds and eons, a death delivered by a cop firing not because of a conscious decision but an instantaneous neuronal impulse hardwired from the days of our animal ancestors.

And there's an obvious subtext of race. The shooter, officer Richard S. Neri Jr., is white. The victim, Timothy Stansbury Jr., was black. Scientific research has a say here too, probing whether our rawest reflexes can be primed by modern fears based on race.

Scientists are intensely studying the amygdala, a pair of almond-shaped neuron clusters inside the brain, to understand its role in post-traumatic stress disorder. The amygdala encodes memory with emotional weight, but it also alerts us to sensory information that we associate with danger. It's the jittery small mammal inside us, always awaiting loud noises, sudden movements, and glints of teeth. The more we expect a threat, the more excitable it becomes.

Our three responses to a scare are the same as they are for any animal: fight, flee, or most commonly, freeze. But we expect cops to be a different breed. How successfully Neri was transformed into that breed may become the subject of a grand jury hearing for criminal negligence.

"We try to train the freeze response out of police, because if they freeze, they could be killed," said Alexis Artwohl, a retired police psychologist and consultant to law enforcement agencies. And, she added, "We also don't pay cops to run away."

A rooftop affords neither distance nor cover to a cop in danger. Those at projects like the Louis Armstrong Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the shooting occurred, are sometimes the roosts of rapists and drug dealers and their pit bulls. Neri and his partner, Jason Hallik, were on the edge of fight in the 1 a.m. darkness and cold. Like many officers, they walked "vertical patrol," leaving the street and climbing to the upper stories, with guns drawn.

Inside the complex, Stansbury and two of his friends were happily bounding up the well-lit stairwell. They intended to cross between buildings to a birthday party, using the linked roofs as a skyway.

Neither of the two people at the center of this tragedy would seem to have had anything to fear from the other. Stansbury, a student who worked at McDonald's, wasn't a threat to Neri. He was unarmed and didn't have a record. And Neri doesn't seem like the kind of white cop who haunts the nightmares of young black men. In his 11 years on the job, he'd never fired his gun or received a civilian complaint. Yet the door opened, the gun fired, and the mortally wounded Stansbury fell back into his friends, stumbling away with the life gushing out of him.

What went wrong in that terrifying and bewildering moment was a signal that leapt from dendrite to dendrite in a wordless flash. Press reports have called the fatal blast an accidental shooting, which brings to mind the cavalier handling of a firearm, or feckless gun cleaning. But neurological research suggests that the problem is much deeper, and that such shootings may be almost impossible to eliminate.

"I think it is important to distinguish between discharges that are accidental and those that are unintentional," said Roger M. Enoka, chair of the department of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado. "An accidental discharge occurs when a weapon is not being handled correctly. In contrast, an unintentional discharge occurs when a physiological response causes the trigger to be depressed while the gun is being handled in an appropriate manner."

Many analyses have mentioned the startle response—that wave of muscle contractions starting with an eye blink and extending to clutching hands—as a possible culprit in the Neri case. But in a recent paper for Law Enforcement Executive Forum, Enoka raises another intriguing idea. Our brain has a near compulsion for symmetry. When a signal is sent to one limb, a doppelgänger signal spills over to the other. This phenomenon is so powerful that Shi Zhou, a physiologist at Southern Cross University in Australia, reported to Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews that limbs opposite to those being exercised also gained substantial strength.

Police trainers have witnessed this cross-wiring in what they call "sympathetic contractions" and physiologists call "mirror movement" or "contralateral irradiation." An intended action with one hand is matched by a weaker echo in the other.

William Lewinski, a police psychologist at Minnesota State University, remarked, "We've got a police officer here in Minnesota without a thumb because as he was squeezing handcuffs closed on a suspect, he blew his own thumb off. It's a seepage of neural impulses across the corpus callosum," a thick band of nerve fibers bridging the hemispheres of the brain.

It's not clear who opened the rooftop door, but if Neri did, that could help explain what went wrong. "The action of opening a door with one hand can be sufficient to evoke a sympathetic contraction that is strong enough to cause the fingers in the other hand to squeeze the trigger and discharge a gun," Enoka said.

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