Capture error occurs when a person is trained to differing degrees on similar tasks, and the “muscle memory,” for lack of a better term, of the more intensely trained task takes over when the person is called upon to do the less intensely trained task during times of stress.
In the case of police weapons confusion, Axon, the manufacturer of Tasers, recommends officers fire off a minimum of two cartridges in training each year. Because the cartridges are expensive compared to bullets, that is all the training that most police departments do. By contrast, most police departments require officers to qualify on firearms by firing 50 to 100 rounds at a firing range each year. Other types of firearms training have police drawing their guns and pulling the trigger a couple of hundred times a year.
Two trigger pulls versus 200 makes it easy to envision how the gun training might override the Taser training in stressful situations so that the gun is pulled when the mental intent is to pull the Taser. Research has shown that the police with the most capture errors are those who have the greatest disparity in the number of Taser versus gun trigger pulls—firearms instructors, SWAT team members, and others frequently practicing marksmanship.
In the early 2000s, Axon tried to address the issue by recommending holstering the Taser on the opposite side from the gun. It made no difference. Then Axon tried making the Tasers different colors such as bright yellow.
Neither the color nor the fact that the Taser is plastic nor that it is weighted differently than a gun made any difference. In a stressful situation when confronting a suspect, police focus on the suspect’s behavior. That exclusive focus means they don’t register the color, weight, or material of the weapon they have drawn.
How often does weapons confusion result in a police shooting? Retired police officer Gerald Takano of Raleigh, North Carolina, has studied the problem extensively and found 18 incidents since 2001, about one a year.
“There is no reason to believe it’s going to diminish until it’s addressed systemically, nationwide,” said Takano.
Takano developed training to reduce weapons confusion. He simply calls out “gun,” or “Taser,” or “flashlight” after telling officers to draw whatever he calls out. An officer who touches, moves, or draws the wrong tool is counted as making an error. A study showed that, on the first session, the error rate was 56%. The next day, it was 36%. By the fourth session, no one was drawing the wrong tool, and by the seventh session, the error rate was 0%.
The study showed two things: (1) police make a lot of mistakes in drawing their tools and (2) they can be easily trained to not make mistakes. This begs the questions of why more police departments are not training this way and if they can be held liable for what is obviously a training error when a weapons confusion shooting occurs.
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