Seeing Is Not Always Beleiving
by John Bowden
                               SEEING IS NOT ALWAYS BELIEVING

When we arrive at the scene of an incident it is important that we gather all of the
information and evidence before determining what really happened.  All the subjects
involved in an incident have their own idea of what happened based on their
observation of what happened. When we receive their statement, it is not strictly what
they saw or what actually happened.  We receive their perception of what happened.  
Their perception is based on a combination of their past experience combined with
their observation.

For example: On one occasion I was working with a new
recruit trainee.  We had approached the rear of a house
known for selling crack cocaine.  The buyers would often go
to the rear of the house to smoke their crack.  As we
approached the rear of the house I saw a subject smoking
his crack with a small liquor bottle converted to a crack pipe.
He had his head tilted back with the bottle in his mouth and
a lighter over the metal pipe holding the crack.  When he saw
us approaching, he put his hands to his side, dropped the
pipe and turned to walk off.  I asked the trainee to get the
pipe while I cuffed the subject.  After I had him cuffed, I
looked back to see the trainee looking for the crack pipe; it
was right in front of her. However, she did not recognize the bottle modified to be a
pipe.  After securing the prisoner I asked her if she had ever seen a crack pipe made
from a plastic bottle.  She had not.  I asked if she had seen the subject standing there
with his head back holding the bottle and lighter.  She stated she had.  I asked what
she thought he was doing.  She quietly responded she thought he was putting drops in his eyes.  I asked, what
was the purpose of the lighter?  She told me it was to see what he was doing.  

She had never seen a person smoking crack or the modified bottle.  She did wear contacts and had to keep her
eyes moist with eye drops.  Like all people, she took an unfamiliar observation and compared it to her own
experience to arrive at her perception, “Experience + Observation = Perception.” Her perception was not what she

When we arrive at the scene it is necessary we collect all the information and evidence before we make our
determination. Keep in mind that perception is merely an interpretation of the observation based on experience.  
There is an old nursery story that demonstrates this effect.  It is a story of 6 blind men trying to describe an

There are six blind men trying to describe an elephant.
They could not see and had to rely on their sense of touch to
describe the elephant. The first blind man felt the elephant's
trunk as it turned and moved. He said, "An elephant is like a
big snake." The second blind man felt the leg of the
elephant. He said, "No the elephant is like a tree, round and
strong." The third blind man felt the side of the elephant and
said, "How can you be so confused? The elephant is like a great
wall." The fourth blind man felt the elephant's tusk. He said,
"No no!” The elephant is long, hard, and smooth like a spear."
The fifth blind man felt the elephant’s tail as it swished back and forth. He said, "You are all wrong. The elephant is
flexible like a rope." The sixth blind man felt the elephant's ears. He said, "You must hear me. The elephant is thin
and flexible like a giant leaf." Each of the blind men was right and they were all wrong. Each one was emphatic that
his perception was correct. However, each blind man could only describe his part of the elephant. Only when all of
the descriptions are put together could they fully understand the shape of the elephant.

An incident is the same as the six blind men trying to describe the elephant. Each principal has a little piece of the
story. Each version of the story is true; it is merely the part of the incident that the principal witnessed from their
own perspective. When they tell the story, they add to it their own interpretation, based on their own experience.  
When you conduct your investigation and gather information to write your report, remember these 6 blind men.
The following is an example of how each person’s perception can distort the interpretation of an event. This is
based on a real case.

You arrive at the scene of a fight in progress. There is a white male and a Hispanic lying on the ground,
unconscious. A black male is sitting on the curb. There are two white males that have obviously been involved in a
fight standing in the street, arguing unintelligibly with three white females. A sports car is nearby with the doors
open. The window of the passenger door is broken and wisps of smoke are coming from the dashboard. You
separate all of the people and began to conduct interviews, to figure out what happened. You interview one of the
females named Bridgette. She tells you the following story:

"I was walking down the street and heard a commotion. I saw those two white males pulling on those two    
 girls. I thought those guys were going to pull them into that car over there and rape them. I started yelling at
the guys to let the girls go and they did.  They would have raped those girls if I had not come along."

After you talk to Bridgette you go and talk to the other two girls, Marsha and Cindy. During your interview they tell
you the following story:

"We were walking down the street when we heard some yelling and screaming. When we got here, we saw
 those two red necks beating up on those three guys. They were beating them up because they are prejudice
 against them. We started yelling at them to let the guys go and tried to pull them off of the guys. They turned
 around and held onto our arms until Bridgette got here and yelled at them."

Next you talk to the black male, Eric, sitting on the curb and asked him what happened.

"Jose' and 1 were walking down the street when we heard a fight. We ran to see what was happening. We saw
 those two white guys beating up on that dude laying on the ground right there. They were beating the hell out
of him. We thought they were trying to rob him. So, we jumped in to help the guy get away. When we did,  
those guys started to hit on us. They didn't stop until Jose' was knocked out and the other dude wasn't moving.
We stopped them from robbing that guy."

You talk to Jose'. He tries to tell you the same story as Eric. The only problem is, he is still dizzy from the fight and
is not making much sense. George gives you the following story and Billy agrees:

 "Billy and I were going back to my car. When we walked up, we saw these two guys breaking into my car. The
 passenger door was open with the glass broken. One of the guys, not the one here, was trying to pull my
 stereo equipment out of my dashboard. Billy and I both yelled at them. The guy laying here, said something to
 the other guy. They both ran toward a truck full of guys. The truck started to leave. The guy that was in my
 car,got into the back of the truck. We caught this guy before he got into the truck. We were trying to hold him,
 to call the police. He kept fighting and we fought back. Those two other guys (Jose' and Eric) came up and
 jumped us from behind. We thought they were with the guys in the pickup truck and we fought back. The girls
came up after the fight and started yelling at us. The guy on the ground wasn't in the car. He was standing by
the other guy that got away. We think he was a lookout."

After you confirm the story with Billy and go to talk to the last subject, John, who is lying on the ground. He gives
you the following story:

"I was walking down the street when I saw Mike inside this car. Mike is an acquaintance of mine. I stopped and
 asked him what he was doing. He told me his stereo was acting up and he was trying to fix it. I was standing
 there talking to him when these two guys walked up and started yelling. I thought they were going to rob us.
 Mike got out of the car and started running toward a pickup truck. I ran with him to get away from those two
 guys. Mike made it to the truck and I didn't. The two guys caught me and the next thing I know I am here
 talking to you cops. I didn't know Mike was ripping off that car."

As you can see from this scenario, each principal had a different idea about what was going on and only saw a
part of the incident. Each person determined what had happened based on the small part of the incident that they
had witnessed. The part of the incident that they witnessed was only a small piece of the overall incident. It was
similar to the six blind men trying to describe the elephant.