How does an officer mistake a gun for a Taser?
This question has been ricocheting around the Internet this last week as citizens, outraged, watch another deadly video, and hear the panic in an officer’s voice as she recognizes the horrific error she has made.
The answer to this question is as complex as a police officer’s job.
The answer most often offered up in defense of this error is that of “slip and capture,” the idea that ‘officers sometimes perform the direct opposite of their intended actions under stress — their actions “slip” and are “captured” by a stronger response.’
But the type of training surrounding this theory, according Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, isn’t “helpful to reducing use of force.” And Randy Shrewsberry, founder of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform and former police officer, agrees. He says that “fear-based models of training” lead to “a training of possibility versus probability.” Officers then tend to react to things that are anecdotal, and statistically unlikely to actually happen. It’s a “warrior-based style training,” he says, “that implies the rest of us are potential enemy combatants.”
But if the training answer isn’t found in a warrior-style “shoot first” explanation and methodology, then what is the science-based explanation for how a mistake like this can occur and how can we effectively train officers to avoid mistakes like these?
The answer to both questions is four-fold.
First, we have to understand cognitive load and work to mitigate the fight-or-flight instincts that take over when officers are processing too many stimuli and are then prone to making egregious errors for the sake of self defense. Cognitive load science explains that there is a limit to the amount of information that a person’s working memory can process at one time. If the working memory is overloaded with too many tasks and stimuli, the reptilian brain steps in, actively seeking survival, and overrides rational and systemic protocols. According to recent research using a MILO simulator, training in simulation can have significant and positive effects towards de-escalation when cognitive load is considered.
Second, we need to extensively train officers to overcome implicit bias. Implicit bias teaches us to inherently sense a threat based on distinguishing factors like race, gender, and class. Implicit bias isn’t explicit racism — in fact, it is the opposite. We aren’t even aware of these biases and therefore don’t know how to mitigate them. Implicit bias is entrenched in our instincts and is part of our survival mechanism. Incorporating counter-bias training is an essential component of mitigating potential errors.
Third, we need to provide officers with comprehensive training that goes far beyond “fear-based warrior style training.” According to the Associated Press, officers train far more often on drawing and firing their handguns than they do on their stun guns. The U.S. Department of Justice statistics report that less than 10% of weapons/defense tactics/use of force training is with non-lethal weapons. Extensive non-lethal weapons training in immersive critical incidents is imperative and must be ongoing, so that officers can practice these critical decision making skills in high-pressure and high-emotion scenarios so that they can avoid costly mistakes when they are out in the field.
And finally, we need to ensure that our officers are resilient and can thrive even under the immense stress of the job. Research shows that factors such as work shift and compound stress from being over-extended can impact officer performance, if not mitigated. Adding stress mitigation like The Last Maestro™ to the work-training rotation can reset the autonomic nervous system to a healthy pre-adversity mental state and can help officers maintain the resilience required to engage the appropriate response when the body goes into fight or flight.
Only if we understand and mitigate cognitive load, recognize and actively acknowledge implicit bias, train in critical incident scenarios with less lethal accessories, and foster officer resilience, can we begin to ensure that never again will an officer mistake a gun for a Taser and inadvertently shoot a subject at a routine traffic stop. Only by training the whole officer and by actively and repeatedly working towards less lethal outcomes can we avoid these horrific mistakes and help our officers ensure peace and save lives.
It is literally a matter of life and death.