The Force Science Institute (FSI) is reporting a use-of-force study conducted by Paul Taylor, a Force Science instructor, former law enforcement officer, and current Ph.D. candidate at SUNY-Albany. This study centers on a phenomenon known as “dispatch priming.” This occurs when dispatchers “prime” officers by providing “erroneous” information about the potential danger of a suspicious subject. Information such as whether the subject is armed with a gun or speaking on a cell phone.
The study calls these “mistake-of-fact” confrontations. Taylor included about 300 active-duty cops from 18 agencies in two states, mostly males in the age range of 20 to 60, with an average of 11 years of experience. The confrontations were conducted in a scenario-based simulator with officers using a laser training pistol.
The 100-officer control group was “dispatched” to a trespass call of a white male peering into house windows. The dispatcher gave the other officers the same information but updated them en route. The dispatcher updated half that the subject appears armed with a gun and updated the other half that the subject appeared to be talking on a cell phone.
The simulator then showed a video of the subject with his hands in his pockets, facing the officers. For half the officers the subject whipped out the cell phone and held it as if to film them. For the other half, the man quickly drew a gun and pointed it as if to shoot.
Taylor considered shooting the subject with the cell phone and not shooting the subject with the gun “errors.”
Officers told that the subject had a gun were more than twice as likely to shoot the subject with the cell phone. Officers told that the subject was talking on the cell phone were ten times less likely than the “gun-primed” group and five times less likely than the control group to shoot the subject with the phone.
It’s interesting to note that “all officers who experienced the pointed-gun video accurately responded by shooting, regardless of what prior priming,” though officers who got the cell phone video, shot later than officers who got the gun priming.
The FSI says the chief benefit of the study is for law enforcement and the criminal justice system to maintain a heightened awareness of this phenomenon. The FSI emphasizes investigators, trainers, attorneys, PIOs, and anyone who has to assess how some seemingly irrational “mistake-of-fact” officer-involved shootings “could reasonably look much different [to the officer] in the moment.”
The information derived from this study is important but, as Taylor notes, “[I]t is unlikely and unrealistic to assume dispatchers will not pass information about the presence of a weapon on to responding officers. It is just as unlikely, unrealistic, and perhaps even unreasonable to assume officers won’t use the information dispatch provides them to inform their decision-making in the field.”
Taylor understands officers will depend on dispatcher information for decision-making, which can increase the risk of error. However, the study hopes this information may inspire instituting tactics that allow more time for officers to evaluate incidents where they may have to make “consequential decisions.”
When we study such phenomena, we must remember that when an officer shoots a person holding a cell phone instead of a gun or knife, it’s not necessarily an “error,” as it was in this study. Officers have to trust the information they receive and respond accordingly. While dispatch priming may be a reality, we can’t hold officers to a level of perfection that’s simply not reasonable.