BART shooting raises issue of TASER confusion

Ed Note: As additional facts come to light in the officer-involved shooting in Oakland, Calif. on New Year's Day, Police1 will continue to update this page with links to other news articles and Police1 exclusive information. Below, Police1 columnist and Street Survival Seminar instructor Dave Smith indicates below, there is growing consensus that the officer intended to deploy his TASER and mistakenly grabbed his firearm. Be sure to check out the resources we have available on Police1 and P1TV. 


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One of the possible scenarios expressed by those who have observed the video of the New Year’s Day shooting on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in Oakland, Calif. is that the officer intended to use his TASER and mistakenly grabbed his firearm. This is altogether possible, and we have written about similar tragedies in the past.

How this could happen is truly at the root of what we understand about human mistakes. For example, we have learned that the disruption of a motor program to a high level can cause us to make mistakes. James Reason in his book, Human Error, explains how this occurs and calls these errors "double-capture slips." In the BART video, we see the officer who is straddling the subject who is ultimately killed reach for his TASER, then drop his hand to the subject in what appears to be a controlling movement. So the officer appeared to initiate the motor program to draw the TASER and was then interrupted. He then rises and draws his firearm and moments later fires into the back of the struggling subject.

Watch the video of the incident and one of the first things that might occur to you is the movement of the other officers on the scene—each one stands up and moves away from the subject. To any observer with some law enforcement experience, this should be a pretty clear indicator that they were creating some distance in order to avoid receiving a secondary shock from a TASER deployment.

Relevant to this is the motor principle that keeping movement patterns as close as possible to already well-learned patterns enhances learning and speed. This is one of the reasons it is often considered a great idea to carry an off-duty weapon as close as possible to where you carry your on-duty weapon. Great idea so far, since the "cues" that will cause you to initiate the motor skill of drawing a handgun will be the same on- and off-duty.

But the TASER is a different animal. It is used in less lethal situations, which will look like a much different set of "cues" to our senses. The position and training of that instrument must be done in a completely different manner than our handguns! One of the many problems we have to deal with is that our program or schema for drawing a handgun is or should be learned to an automatic level. It is done automatically whenever the proper cues, stimuli or threats are present.

Once something is learned to that level after thousands of repetitions, it is difficult to change and damn near impossible to quickly forget. As stress gets greater and greater motor programs get run exactly as trained and this implies we need to practice drawing both firearms and TASERs from non-traditional positions, but ones we certainly might end up in during a confrontation. Just look at the video of the BART shooting and the stress the officers are exhibiting (it is obviously a high-liability, ambiguous crowd situation) and the awkward position of the officer who fires his handgun.

The TASER feels and draws like a handgun, but it is completely different. It should be placed completely away from our firearm and a new schema should be trained into our memory for its use. The proper cues should be practiced for when to use it, how to tell if it is working (knowledge of results) and how to retain it in a conflict. We need to make sure we do sufficient repetitions for all our tools and for more insight into motor learning issues check out Motor Learning and Performance 2nd ed. by Richard Schmidt. (See more information about Dr. Schmidt's research below)

It remains to be seen whether TASER confusion was actually a factor in the BART shooting, but it does serve as a good reminder for all officers. Hopefully by applying these human learning and performance principles we can prevent TASER/firearm placement confusion. Also, if you train anyone in any motor skill - from Little League to Officer Survival - you should familiarize yourself with Dr. Schmidt's principles.

The following section explains R.A. Schmidt’s "schema theory" of motor learning.

R.A. Schmidt developed the "schema theory" of motor learning. He argued, partly against J.A. Adams'(1971) closed loop theory, that people don't learn specific movements. Instead, they construct "generalized motor programs." They do this by exploring programming rules, learning the ways in which certain classes of movement are related. Then they learn how to produce different movements within a class by varying the parameters that determine the way in which movements are constructed.

Parameters are features of a movement, for instance, its duration or overall time, or the level of force that develops in the muscles that contribute to the movement. By scaling these parameters up or down (vertical axis), people produce variations (horizontal axis) among a class of movements.

As people practice a movement, like throwing a ball various distances or in various directions, or climbing stairs of various dimensions, they learn the relationship between the parameters and the outcome. By collecting "data points" like the ones in the figure (adapted from Schmidt, 1988, Fig. 14-7), they improve their understanding of the relationship between a movement outcome and their control of the movement's parameters (the "best-fitting straight line" in the figure).

An important prediction of the theory is that people will more quickly learn the relationship between manipulating parameters and achieving a desired movement outcome if they practice a task in wide variety of sitations, and experience errors in the process. To use the figure as an illustration, the theory predicts that people will more quickly appreciate the underlying "best-fitting line" (the rules by which a generalized motor program produces a class of movements) when they accumulate a large and broad scatter of data points (a varied experience of movement).

Practice that lacks variety, but is instead precise or repetitious, will not (from Schmidt's perspective) provide enough information for a learner to fathom the rules that underlie the generalized motor program.

In Schmidt's theory, this relationship betweeen the parameters and outcomes are collected in two "schemes" or "schema," hence the name by which his theory is known.

- Recall schema: relates outcomes to parameters like those listed above, movement duration, overall force production, etc.

- Recognition schema: relates expected sensory consequences of a movement to the movement's outcome. This is reminiscent of Adams' earlier ideas of an "internal reference of correctness"

Schmidt describes the theory's main points in:

Schmidt, R.A. (1988). Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis. (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp. 482-489.

The seminal article is: Schmidt, R.A. (1975). A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Review, 82, 225-260.

Addl. reading: Human Error, James Reason, Cambridge University Press

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