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Baltimore Police Shooting That Wasn't 'Illustrates Malleable Nature Of Memories'


Yesterday in Baltimore, something didn't happen, despite convincing accounts that it did. The descriptions of a police shooting that wasn't were so persuasive as to make you wonder about perception, certainty and error. Fox News producer Mike Tobin told viewers he had seen it.


MIKE TOBIN: Well, about 2:45 we saw a guy running from the cops here right at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania where the - you know, which has been the epicenter of the unrest here. And as he was running away, that officer drew his weapon and fired and struck the individual who was running away.

SIEGEL: This is what it sounded like at that intersection as the supposed shooting victim was on the ground. This is from a Ustream broadcast.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He just shot him, bro.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He shot him?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He shot him in the back, man.

SIEGEL: Reporter Hannah Allam of McClatchy News was also there. She tweeted, police appear to have shot young man. We asked her about the scene.

HANNAH ALLAM: Sirens blaring, police chopper overhead, frenzied people saying he'd been shot - we saw him get shot in the back. I had people with their names interviewed. I said, did you see it? Yes, I saw it happen.

SIEGEL: By the time the dust settled, Baltimore police issued this explanation. They'd seen a man with a handgun on a closed-circuit video camera. Officers chased him. They heard what sounded like a gunshot. They say the man may have purposely fired a shot or a shot may have accidentally gone off when the gun fell to the ground. The man fell. He was later put in an ambulance, taken to a hospital. They say he wasn't seriously injured. Fox News quickly retracted the story and apologized, but it raised questions of how people can be so certain they've seen something that didn't happen. Elizabeth Loftus is a professor of psychology and law at University of California, Irvine. She studies memory.

Elizabeth Loftus, there were people who swore they'd seen a man shot by police. They described it passionately. It didn't happen. What's going on there?

ELIZABETH LOFTUS: Well, one of the things that might've happened in this case is that people got little bits and pieces of information - maybe they saw a man or maybe they saw a gun or maybe they heard a noise. And they draw inferences about what might've happened, what could've happened, what they think possibly happened. And those inferences can act like suggestion and can distort your memory. So in some sense, these individuals, assuming they're not deliberately lying, could actually have created these false memories.

SIEGEL: I'm going to play you a bit of an interview that was on Fox News yesterday. This was their reporter speaking to a woman who said she was an eyewitness. She had seen the shooting.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The officer got in the middle of the street and shot that boy in his back in my face. That's when you know...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How close were you when the gunshot happened.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was right there at the check cashing.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right. Right there - the officer was in the middle of the street. As the boy was running up, he straight - boom.

SIEGEL: She doesn't sound like she's lying in that. She sounds absolutely convinced of what she saw.

LOFTUS: Well, she sounds very convinced, and she has all these characteristics that make you want to believe exactly what she's saying. She's - you know, it's detailed. It's emotional. It's passionate. It's confident. And yet, these are some of the same qualities that we see in false memories. So I would certainly give her the benefit of the doubt and say she really believes this.

SIEGEL: If you were to ask her to describe it over and over again several times, would you expect to hear the same memory repeated?

LOFTUS: Well, pretty much. I mean, if a lot of time passed, she might forget parts of what she said earlier, and she may insert even more new details into the recollection. I mean, she might add clothing and all kinds of other details.

SIEGEL: But we're not hearing somebody with some kind of psychological defect. We're hearing the human memory at work.

LOFTUS: Yeah, absolutely. It illustrates the malleable nature of our memories.

SIEGEL: So what happened in Baltimore yesterday - you would not find this surprising, given your experience of such things?

LOFTUS: Well, no. Given my experience - I mean, we've seen people remember all kinds of things that didn't happen, even very upsetting things. So this doesn't surprise me. But out there in the real world when it's happening at a time of such tensions, maybe it's a time for us to be especially careful.

SIEGEL: That's Elizabeth Loftus from the University of California, Irvine. Professor Loftus, thanks for talking with us today.

LOFTUS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.