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Ask, tell, TASER: A review of a recently released video

The recent release of a TASER-Cam video of a 64-year-old man being TASERed by Marin County deputies in his own home provides an abundance of critical analysis and learning opportunities. While superficially a simple event, this incident affords an opportunity to discuss a variety of issues including:

• Communication skills
• Force response and analysis
• Human factors
• Critical thinking and reasoning skills
• Training issues
• The importance of not jumping to conclusions

I will discuss each of these points in a series of articles, beginning with the significance of avoiding hindsight bias when conducting an incident analysis.

On June 30, 2009, Marin County deputies arrested 64-year-old Peter McFarland after hitting him with a TASER in his home. The 37-minute TASER-Cam video shows the deputies speaking with and giving commands to Mr. McFarland for approximately five minutes before he is subjected to three five-second TASER cycles. Later, after he is handcuffed and while on his back on the floor, he is TASERed a fourth time. The deputies were insisting that Mr. McFarland accompany them to the hospital for a mental health evaluation since he is reported to have said that if he had a gun he would shoot himself in the head.

Mr. McFarland was refusing to comply with the deputies’ directions.

If you are at all like me, you’re distrustful of the media and two-dimensional video snippets that usually show only fragments of three-dimensional events. News reports are usually inaccurate, and videos rarely tell the full story. With that in mind — and without jumping to conclusions about the deputies’ performance — let’s begin with what we don’t know about this event.

Our ignorance of the event can be classified into two overarching categories: the people involved and the environment. The individuals who had a role in this incident include the obvious: the subject, his wife, fire personnel, paramedics, and the deputies. Not immediately obvious are the sheriff’s department call-takers, dispatchers, and supervisors, as well as the fire and paramedic call-takers and dispatchers. As we consider this list, we understand that complex communication loops invariably played a part in reasoning, judgment, and decision making by all concerned.

If we are to analyze the performance of the deputies, we would need to discern everything they knew before and during their involvement in this event. We must then understand their perceptions and their goals. What cues were available to the deputies that we cannot see on the video? What is the distance between the players? This is difficult to determine by those viewing the two-dimensional video.

As you see, with just a little thought we can acknowledge a large knowledge gap by those without intimate information of the event.

Here is what we don’t know regarding communication to the deputies. Where were the officers when they were dispatched to the call? What information did they get via the radio call? Were they told that Mr. McFarland made a credible threat to shoot himself? How was that information filtered to them? How long did they take to get to the call? Were the paramedics still on scene when the deputies arrived? Did the deputies have an opportunity to debrief paramedics and fire department personnel before they made contact with Mr. McFarland? Were there any other priority calls that were in-progress or pending that could have influenced their decisions and actions? Were any other deputies en route? Were these two deputies the initial deputies dispatched to this call, or might they have been secondary deputies and thus did not have mission-critical intelligence?

Speaking of intelligence, have these deputies had prior contact with Mr. McFarland? Have other deputies had any contact? Was there any information in their in-car computers or CAD system about prior events with the McFarland family? This is background information that we need before we can do a proper incident analysis.

It is human nature to quickly render judgments on others. We need to fight this trait as we recognize that snap judgments are premature. I fight with myself on this because to be honest, I do not like what I see on this TASER-Cam recording. However, although we get a sense of the size of Mr. McFarland, we never get a good look at the deputies’ size or fitness levels. Yes, there are several fire department personnel present, but we don’t know the working relationship between the two organizations. Do they work well together? Do fire personnel generally jump in and assist a deputy when things get physical, or do they retreat? Does the fire department have policies regarding their assistance to law enforcement personnel in physical altercations? We just don’t know.

What happened immediately before the start of the TASER-Cam video? Did Mr. McFarland tell the deputies that he wanted to shoot himself in the head, or did they get that information from dispatch or other on-scene first responders? Did he or his wife indicate whether or not there was a firearm in the house? Did the deputies ask that question? The video begins with the Mr. McFarland apparently standing directly in front of the male deputy. How did Mr. McFarland get into this position? Was he advancing menacingly toward the deputy? Did he make any verbal threats or physically posture in a threatening manner? Was there any bodily contact between the two before the start of the video? Can this explain why the deputy drew his TASER in the first place?

Environmental issues include both the operational environment and the organizational environment. Since we were not at the scene, it is impossible for us to know the physical layout and dimensions of the room. How much space was there between Mr. McFarland and the emergency personnel? Where exactly was Mrs. McFarland? Several times she was asked to step back. How physically animated was she? Were there any weapons or objects that could be used as weapons in the vicinity? What was the clutter within the environment? Were there trip and fall hazards that might have been taken into account? How about objects with sharp edges such as coffee tables that could contribute to serious injuries should someone fall? What about the dog seen in the video? Although the dog seemed very friendly, how might it react if an extended physical altercation ensued?

With regard to the organizational environment, what are the agency’s policies, procedures, and practices? Does the culture of the agency promote TASER use over the use of control holds? How much training time do the deputies receive with the TASER? Have the deputies been trained to “cuff under power,” that is, to coordinate a handcuffing procedure while the subject is experiencing neuro-muscular incapacitation (NMI); and do they understand just how difficult that is to do when a subject is in NMI lockup? Does the agency provide solid, realistic, ongoing, verifiable training in the constitutional constraints of force?

These are just a few of the many questions that must be answered to appropriately analyze the totality of the event. A superficial review leaves us with knowledge gaps that can lead to counterfactual conclusions. A psychological precept known as the “local rationality principle” states: “what people do makes sense to them given the circumstances at the time — given their goals, their attention and knowledge, their understanding of the situation.”1

With hindsight, we can all see better or at least different ways of doing things. To understand why people did the things they did, we need to get inside their situation and comprehend why what they did made sense to them at the time.

In future articles I will discuss human factors, communication skills, and other force factors that this event brings to light.

1 Dekker, Sidney. (2006). The field guide to understanding human error. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Co., p. 68.

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.