On witnesses

Recently a knife-wielding person was shot by a police officer. I’m not here to comment on the incident itself or other things people tend to comment on regarding such incidents these days.

I want to focus on what was reported from the witnesses.

Here’s the story. From that article:

In interviews with the Washington Post, two witnesses said that when encountered by police, the woman had a knife, which they described as relatively small.

The knife was “relatively small”. When you hear that, what comes to mind? Probably not some sort of Crocodile Dundee type knife, right?

One man, Gerald McBrayer, said the woman was holding “a little steak knife,” and received no warning.

Another saying it was “little”

Another man, Nathan Strickland, said she had a steak knife with what he described as a skinny” 6 to 8 inch blade.

6-8″ is pretty specific, and that’s not all that little. Or if you want to put it in context, get a ruler, measure out 6-8″, now hold that “through” your body and see just how deep 6-8″ goes — or rather, see how shallow your body is, relative to a “small knife”.

The witnesses see the same basic thing – a woman with a knife – but they assess the knife differently. Why would they assess the knife differently? Proximity? Perception? Level of life experiences? Ulterior motive? Ignorance? Misspeaking?

Note as well Mr. McBrayer said the woman received no warning.

When officers responded they found a woman who was holding at least one knife, he said. Officers told her to drop the weapon but she did not respond to their command and as the woman continued to advance, she was shot once in the upper body Taylor said.

You can also watch the video and listen:

Urgent cries are heard, apparently from bystanders. “Put the knife down,” one person shouts. “Put it down.”

A man in a T-shirt stands between the two, a little to the side, waving his arms downward, apparently calling for her to drop what she carried

Some heard no warnings, others heard warnings.

Does any of this mean the witnesses are lying? No. Could they be? Maybe. And again, I’m not commenting directly on this incident or the witnesses — I’m just using this article, as reported, as an illustration. What it does mean is witness testimony is only so valid. As I’ve touched on before, even video can only tell you so much.

You’ve probably seen this video:

Selective Attention is a real thing, and it affects witness testimony.

Again, this isn’t evaluative as a good or bad thing, that people are being bad or wrong or intentionally trying to skew things (always possible, but not always the case). It’s just something worth knowing and understanding, so witness testimony can be taken for what it is.

4 thoughts on “On witnesses

  1. eye-witness testimony may be biblically sanctioned, but it’s the absolutely crappiest tool for telling a non-observer what happened. your memory is just completely unreliable and what you believe you see may or may not match reality. it’s been proven that about 40-80% of observers in tests get even the major facts wrong. there’s a famous experiment repeated many many times of telling a dozen people to count how many goals a basketball team scores and during the test a guy in a gorilla suit walks through. or my favorite, a guy in a kilt riding a unicycle! and again, 40-80% of them didn’t even see it.

    they are even now emptying out jails holding folks for up to 30 years based on eyewitness testimony which dna testing proves was not near being correct. we need to ban this type of testimony from being the primary conviction source. or, i guess to be fair we need to not allow it to exonerate someone based on it alone. /guy

    • Yeah. I don’t think we should totally discount witness testimony, but we do need to take it in proper context — and not just by the courts, but by the media and general public as well.

  2. imo, it’s been useless (unless matched with physical and archival evidence) ever since saul claimed to have that epiphany in damascus and hijacked christianity. [g]

    oh, btw. on another subject. was in the local gun shop yesterday (picking up a derringer which shoots shotgun rounds!) and one of the clerks there is an ex-longtime-leo. i asked him what he thought about open carry and he thought exactly as i did–that it was insane. he also shares my opinion that carrying is the most useful when the weapon is not visible.

    which is a shame since i got a killer drivers holster for that new derringer! /guy

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