Perception versus Intent

Police in Oklahoma City respond to a strip mall where a local homes man, supposedly with mental health issues, is harassing patrons and is holding a knife. The officers arrive and begin to try to take the man into custody, either for a criminal investigation or to see if he needs mental health assistance. As they try to talk the man into custody, they determine they need to use less lethal force in the way of a taser, and then pepper spray. The taser is ineffective, as is the pepper spray. The man moves erratically, two of the officers shoot, killing the man. Critical to this situation, and the actions of the officers in response to the actions of the man, are the answers to the questions, “Why is this man holding a knife?” and “What does he intend to do with it?”

When we see events like people with mental health issues, or even normally functioning people, interacting with the police in situations where the person possesses what police perceive to be a weapon, we need to pause for a moment and understand some critical concepts. The first concept is perception, the second is intent.

Why is this important?

Perception is what we interpret a situation or condition to be based on our knowledge, experience, belief system, and other building blocks in our total personality makeup. Perception is like wearing a certain shade of glasses. Our perception colors the world we see. Some see yellow, some see purple. Even when two people see the same basic color, the shade will be different because everyone has a unique perspective of the world and subsequently, our perception.

Intent is what we mean to do or how we plan to act. Two people may have the same action or similar behavior, but for completely different reasons. I may push you down to hurt you, or I may push you down to push you out of the path of an object hurtling at you. The action is the same, but the intent is different. One is to hurt, the other to save.

Consider a hostage rescue shot taken by a police sniper. The sniper commits homicide, but in this case, it is commended, not condemned. If the same police sniper were to simply start shooting people, their action would be punishable by law. The difference is the intent of the action.

We train our police that a weapon in hand is a weapon in play. We train our police that anything can be used as a weapon. And this second claim is true. Anything, including the most seemingly innocent child’s toy, could be used to hurt or kill, if used in certain ways. A bowl of soup can be used to nourish, or to drown a person. Do you perceive the bowl of soup as food, or as a weapon? Do you intend to feed someone, or kill them? One’s intent can be misread because of another’s perception. Likewise, our perception can misread another’s intent. This can prove disastrous both ways. This antagonism between intent and perception has led to many tragedies in police contacts with citizens.

When I worked patrol and responded to domestic disturbances, I chuckled when our dispatchers would tell us there were “no weapons in the house”. I pictured a completely empty house, no furniture, no cooking utensils, pots or pans, nothing. Sterile. I knew that the resident/caller and dispatch were thinking, swords, guns, bazookas, tanks, and short-range bombers. Police officers see everything as a potential weapon, because people have used close to every substance imaginable, manmade, or existing in nature, to harm others. WE know you can kill with soup, several ways.

So, as officers enter a situation, they are more focused on their perception of what a person can do with an object, than they are concerned with what the person intends to do with the object. This is where the problem starts. Police officers are drilled about personal safety, the danger of everything, and the cruelty of humans toward each other. These are very negative paradigms that police officers operate in.

In New York City, two police officers are called to a welfare check on a Black man wearing a jacket, hat, boots, and his underwear, and carrying a stick and a bread knife. Your average person doesn’t appear in public like this, so the immediate perception is that something is different, with different being wrong. When the police contact the man, he is standing in his apartment’s kitchen. Keeping in mind intent and perception, we now have two potentially very different events unfolding. Kawaski Trawick’s, and the officers’.

Trawick perceives two government agents in his house. He knows they need a reason to be there. He perceives he hasn’t done anything wrong so they should not be there. If police are in his house their intent must be to arrest him or constrict his freedom somehow, because that’s what police do, according to his knowledge, experience, and belief system.

The police were called by the fire department who interacted with this man about an hour earlier. The officers have the perception that this man has mental health issues and is armed with two weapons, the knife and stick. They do not perceive the knife as a bread knife, used solely to cut bread i.e. a tool, but because of their perception see it as a knife. A weapon used to cause injury or death. The same with the stick. Based on their knowledge, experience, and beliefs, people armed with weapons and who have mental health issues can be extremely dangerous, and do not readily cooperate with law enforcement.

In the real event, one officer is talking to Trawick, as the other officer perceives he needs to take action. This second officer tries to incapacitate the man with a taser. This proves ineffective, as is the case a majority of the time. There are too many variables that must line up perfect for a Taser’s success as a tool. The second officer, seeing his Taser fail, pulls his firearm and shoots Trawick, killing him. What was the disconnect between even the two officers, where one saw an opportunity to talk, and the other saw only jeopardy from an imminent threat that required up to, and including, lethal force?

Perception and intent. The first officer perceived no intent from the man to use the bread knife as anything other than a tool. The same with the stick. The first officer perceived the situation as mundane, unexceptional, except for a possibility for danger. The second officer perceived only that the man had an extremely high potential to inflict injury or death because he possessed two weapons, not only one. Based on his observations, the second officer registered a need to jump to higher levels of force and then quickly escalate to lethal force, possibly in light of his belief that the man must be determined, since he possessed two weapons. The second officer perceived imminent threat, where the first officer perceived a possible but unlikely threat.

The most critical component in this whole tragedy is what we will never know. How did Trawick perceive the items he was holding? What was his intent in possessing those items? He had been seen earlier, alone, and later in the company of the fire department, with those items in his hands. During those times, he was not aggressive, nor did he display or brandish those items in any manner anyone would see as threatening. Based on his actions, or lack of, and based on his behavior, which was docile, one could guess that he has no intent to use them as weapons and perceived them for what they were intended, a kitchen utensil, and some other household item.

Police officers must understand the correlation between perception and intent. We must also understand, very well, the disconnect between the two concepts. The majority of use of force training for police doesn’t account for these two concepts. The argument against worrying about suspect or subject intent is that the situation may evolve too quickly for the officer to have time to consider the suspect/subject’s intent. The belief is it is better for the office to err on the side of caution and just use the level of force they feel will best protect them.

Unfortunately, this has led to unarmed, even unthreatening people being killed by police. And these tragedies have contributed the overall feeling permeating many communities that the police no longer serve in the best interest of the public and have lost the public’s trust. If law enforcement should work harder to develop the critical thinking skills and confidence in officers to adjust their perception to account for intent. This will help to regain public trust and repair relationships.

Train smart, stay safe, be better