Auditory Exclusion: A Defense for Deadly Force?


It’s been reported that Officer Betty Shelby, the Tulsa police officer recently charged with manslaughter for the shooting death of Terence Crutcher, will include auditory exclusion as part of her defense.

When I first wrote about the incident I said that Shelby would be charged, and she was, and I remarked about the stark differences in responses of the four officers on the scene—Shelby fired her service weapon, another officer deployed a TASER, a third pointed his firearm at Crutcher but chose not to fire, and the fourth did nothing more than rest one hand on her/his gun belt while using the other to key the button on a portable radio mic. My commentary also included snippets such as these throughout the piece—“I do know that it’s impossible for us or even the officers on the scene to know how Betty Shelby perceived the situation that unfolded so quickly. … Perception is key. How did the Betty Shelby perceive the encounter? Did she fear for her life or the life of others?”

I wrote those sentences with physical responses to stress-induced situations in mind. Many of you have heard me speak about the deadly shootout I was in back in the 90’s. Others have read the story here on this blog. In both I tell of the involuntary engagement of a “slow motion switch” and the switching-off of all sounds. The shooting seemed to occur in slow motion while in a vacuum where sounds were not permitted to enter.

From my earlier article:

“The sound of his gunshot activated my brain’s slow-motion function. Time nearly stopped. It was surreal, like I actually had time to look around before reacting to the gunshot. I saw my partners yelling, their mouths opening and closing slowly. Lazy puffs of blue-black smoke drifted upward from their gun barrels. I saw a dog barking to my right—its head lifting with each yap, and droplets of spittle dotted the air around its face.”

During the exchange of gunfire, I saw the mouths of partners moving and I saw a dog barking, but I did not hear either. The reason I didn’t—auditory exclusion.

Auditory exclusion, like it’s first cousin, tunnel vision, can and does often occur during moments of intense stress, such as life-threatening situations including shootouts or potential shootouts. Actually, guns don’t have to enter the picture for these stress-induced phenomena to occur. However, that’s the focus of this article so that’s the path we’ll travel today.

In very simple terms, stress can interfere with our physiological ability to receive and act on information received by the brain. Basically, we’re wired to survive and we do so by fighting or fleeing and sometimes freezing in place/not reacting during dangerous situations.

Typically, when faced with danger our bodies automatically increase the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which produces an uptick in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, pupil size, perspiration, and muscle tension. Blood flow to the brain, heart, and large muscles is accordingly increased. However, fine motor skills that require hand/eye coordination begin to deteriorate. This decrease in the functionality of fine motor skills allows the continuation of the more effective (at the time) gross motor skills that help when running or fighting.

One way our bodies react to intense stress is to induce inattentional blindness, a phenomenon that reaches across all senses, including vision (tunnel vision) and sound (auditory exclusion). In short, the brain processes only what the person/officer is focused on, such as a potentially deadly threat. In my case, it was a bank robber who was firing a gun at me. In Betty Shelby’s case, and this will likely be a large part of her defense, her focus was on the man who was not obeying commands to stop moving toward his vehicle. I know, I cannot possibly know the focus of her attention, but I’m offering the information as to what we might hear as part of her defense. I do, however, know that auditory shutdown is a very real thing during high-stress situations, and I say this from my own personal experience.

Notable Points Regarding Physiological Responses to Stress

  • Optical affinity can occur—increased ability to see things at 20 feet and beyond while closer objects may seem blurry, if seen at all. The same is true for near shutdown of periphreal vision. The latter is due to vasoconstriction of the blood vessels on the periphery of the retina (tunnel vision).
  • Perceptions are often distorted, such as the ability to correctly perceive a danger, which could explain the polar opposite responses by the Betty Shelby and the officer who stood in the open while using her portable radio. And, the responses of the other two officers were also contrasting to the responses of Shelby and the “radio officer.”
  • Sounds are processed by the brain faster than what we see. Touch is the next fastest, and smells reach the brain the quickest.
  • Motion is recognized faster than than color, and shape is slowest of all sights processed. Yellow is the fastest color we can identify. Darker colors being the slowest.
  • Furtive movement – done in a quiet and secret way to avoid being noticed (Webster’s).
  • During stressful encounters, such as those involving deadly force, furtive movements (see above definition) are sometimes perceived incorrectly, such as the movement of hands holding a dark object whose shape somewhat resembles a firearm. but understandably so when factoring in physiological phenomena such as auditory exclusion and tunnel vision.

Remember, darker colors are identified at a slower rate than bright colors, acute vision at closer distances is greatly decreased, sounds have all but ceased to exist, adrenaline and heart rate are higher, officers are trained to fight not flee from danger, and officers are trained to react to threats. And all of this occurs in a the blink of an eye. There is no time to sit down, discuss, plan, and map out the premium response. This is wholeheartedly in contrast to the armchair cop experts who chime in after the fact with the uninformed, misinformed, social-media-educated, and inexperienced “cop’s are too quick to shoot” comments.

  • Our minds, during stressful situations, see what they expect to see. We expect a man suddenly pulling a dark object from his pocket after repeatedly telling him to not put his hands in his pocket, all while knowing he matches the description of a guy who’d just shot and killed four people, well, our minds are telling us he’s going for a gun.

If the object he brings from his pocket is dark, such as a cellphone, a vaping pen that looks like a gun barrel, especially when held like a gun and pointed at officers, a BB gun that’s nearly identical to the officer’s duty weapon, or even a bare hand that comes up and out of pocket rapidly, and the movement is in contrast to the officer’s direction and expectations, and it all occurs within a split second, well …

Remember, sound is perceived before sight, motion is perceived before color, and color is perceived before shape. These differences can and do greatly affect how an officer perceives and processes what’s unfolding in real time. And, those perceptions will definitely affect and/or control the officer’s response(s).

Now, does any of this explain what happened the day Betty Shelby encountered Terence Crutcher? Well, only Betty Shelby can know how she perceived the situation. No one else.

However, I can say from experience that during a potentially life-threatening situation, barking dogs, screaming officers, sirens, and gunshots are sometimes the loudest sounds you’ll ever NOT hear.