3 recommendations to mitigate TASER/firearm 'capture' errors

A human factors scientist discusses device design, holster placement and training considerations


Police1 recently published a Force Science Institute (FSI) article titled, “Unintended: A theory of Taser/weapon confusion.” The narrative was prefaced by the question, “How does an officer draw and fire their pistol when it is clear they intended to draw and discharge their TASER?”

FSI answered this question by exploring the causes of human error to include discussing the theory of slip and capture errors, an attentional and habit-based theory in existence since the 1890s [1] that is widely accepted [2] and applied in contemporary scientific literature [3, 4].

In response to the article, many Police1 readers recommended ways to mitigate weapon confusion (capture) errors. Recommendations generally fell within the following categories:

  • Re-design of the TASER,
  • Design and placement of the holster, and
  • Training.

I shared the Police1 reader recommendations with human factors scientist Joel Suss, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Wichita State University who oversees the Applied Cognition and Expertise (ACE) lab. Dr. Suss and I then discussed how best to mitigate capture errors like those described in cases of weapons confusion. Here’s a summary of that discussion.

TASER design

A common theme mentioned by readers to reduce capture errors was to design the TASER so that it provides an audible and/or visible warning to the user. For instance, some recommendations suggested an automatic audible warning that sounds as the TASER is drawn from its holster or changing the color of the TASER itself. Others suggested a unique sighting system (i.e., different to that used on the primary handgun) or replacing the trigger with thumb-based activation (e.g., a button or switch).

After reviewing these options, Dr. Suss said that the underlying theory of capture errors relates to failures of attention. According to this theory, the officer is attending to something more important to them in that moment of time (e.g., suspect behavior) and not on the device being deployed. Based on widely accepted theories of human information processing, it is possible that officers involved in cognitively demanding tasks may not notice audible or visible alerts or other sensory aspects (e.g., weight, shape) of a handheld device.

Another recommendation from readers was to redesign the TASER so that it no longer looked or functioned the same as a firearm. For instance, a flashlight-like design similar to the Bola-WRAP that requires a thumb activation could mitigate capture errors. On this point, Dr. Suss agreed saying, “If I wanted to bet on a change that has the best chance of mitigating a capture error, I would consider changing the form, shape, and activation method of the device itself.”

Dr. Suss’s recommendation is consistent with that of another human factors expert, Charles Mauro, CHFP. In a recent article, Mauro discussed capture errors in the context of similarities between TASER and handgun design stating, “It’s a mapping of one design on to another. Whenever you do that, you’re almost guaranteeing that you’re going to have a classification error.”

Holster placement

Recommendations from Police1 readers included using different types of holster retention mechanisms for the handgun and TASER or placing the TASER holster in a cross-draw position on the support side of the officer’s belt.

On the first option, Dr. Suss said he believed that – considering the current TASER design – holsters with a retention mechanism different to that used for the handgun holster could help mitigate capture errors. For instance, using one holster retention mechanism (pull back/turn to right) for the TASER and another (push forward/turn to left) for the handgun could be helpful.  

On the cross-draw position, Dr. Suss was adamant that the most important change to holsters would be to remove the dominant hand-cross draw capability altogether. Dr. Suss opined that to mitigate weapon-related capture errors, officers should be trained to draw their handgun with their dominant hand and to draw their TASER with their non-dominant hand. Therefore, the TASER should only be holstered on the officer’s non-dominant side with the handgrip pointing backward. This change would significantly reduce the potential for an officer to use their dominant hand for TASER deployments.  

On this point, there was some debate between Police1 readers regarding dominant and non-dominant hand use of the TASER. While some supported the dominant-hand cross draw, most stated that a TASER should always be deployed and presented with the non-dominant hand. Dr. Suss, in line with his recommendation on holster positions, said officers should not deploy or present the TASER using their dominant hand.

Some anecdotal support for recommending non-dominant hand use can be derived from previous TASER confusion cases. In all but one case of “weapons confusion,” officers’ TASER holsters were configured to allow for a dominant hand draw. This includes 10 cases where the officer’s holster was on the non-dominant side but set up for dominant-hand cross draw [5].  

Training considerations

A few responses from Police1 readers provide an unfortunate picture of the state of TASER training. Based on his own experience, a veteran TASER instructor stated there was “a lack of intensity of training with the TASER.” He went on to compare the annual training hours provided to officers on TASER versus handguns as support for his statement.

Opinions about insufficient training are not without support. A recent study conducted by Paul Taylor, Paul Sipe and Lon Bartel (discussed here) reported that participant officers “did not appear comfortable with the process of transitioning between their firearms and their Tasers.” The study also reported that over 70% of participant officers had never participated in TASER/handgun transition training.

Dr. Suss weighed in on this point and said that in his experience, “In comparison to firearms training, TASER training appears to be an afterthought.” Dr. Suss went on to compare the frequency of TASER and firearm use in the field and questioned the disparity in time spent training each tool to establish proficiency.

Aside from improving the quality/quantity of training, the most frequent recommendation was to train a non-dominant hand draw and presentation of the TASER. Dr. Suss agreed that training a non-dominant hand draw and presentation of the TASER could be helpful in reducing capture errors. However, Dr. Suss pointed out that – from a human factor’s perspective – errors are better addressed and mitigated by designing tools to work within the limits of human capabilities, rather than relying on training to fix problems after the fact.

Conclusion

“This is not a new problem. It is very clear to me that based on an actual detailed understanding of how the human information processing system deals with objects in the real world, we learn that what may intuitively appear to be two products that are substantially different, in fact, aren’t experienced that way – especially under high levels of stress. This is very well understood in cognitive neuroscience” Charles Mauro, CHFP

Although we may understand why TASER/handgun capture errors occur, little research has been conducted to determine the best method for mitigating similar incidents. On this point, Dr. Suss was clear that our discussion was merely a brainstorming session of ideas. He also stated that without more evidence, no single recommendation should be promoted above another. In fact, those who adhere to a systems-based way of thinking would implement evidence-based recommendations in aggregate.

For now, we can only cautiously recommend that a combination of TASER redesign, holster placement, enhanced recurring training, and training non-dominant hand use of the TASER may mitigate an infrequent, but deadly, error in law enforcement. Be safe!

References

1. James W. (1890). The principles of psychology. New York: Holt. 

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2008). User interface design & implementation. Reading 4: Safety.

3. Norman DA. (1981). Categorization of action slips. Psychological Review, 88(1), 1–15. 

4. Martin JA. (2016). Applied Human Error Theory: A Police Taser-Confusion Shooting Case Study. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 60(1), 475–479.

5. Kroll MW, Melinek J, Martin JA, Brave MA, Williams HE. (2021). Electrical-weapon confusion officer-involved shootings: Homicide or accident? Manuscript submitted for publication.

NEXT: 'Lost in transition': How science can help inform evidence-based de-escalation practices

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