I’ll never forget the day I was issued the newest Electronic Control Weapon (ECW), commonly referred to as a Taser. As a department we were all very excited, yet, nervous to see the ECW’s and we were ready to test them out on training day. ECW’s are a critical piece of equipment that allows law enforcement to use a less lethal means of subduing a non-compliant suspect. We were all very comfortable with our previous ECW. We knew this one was different and would take more training. Most police officers are not the biggest fans of change, especially when it comes to learning how to use a new tool that is more complicated than what we are used to.
The old model ECW was simple, turn it on, point, and pull the trigger. This would release the top dart exactly where the laser was pointing, and the other dart would deploy in a downward angle. The distance between the darts would be larger as the target got farther away. If the suspect was non-compliant after being hit with the darts, we could simply pull the trigger on the ECW again and the suspect would get another electric pulse.
The new model had two cartridges and when you pulled the trigger the first time it would deploy just like the old model. However, the second dart would not deploy until you pulled the trigger again. We were not used to this and it confused a lot of officers.
To prevent a second deployment from happening, an officer would have to deploy the first round and then hit a black button on the side of the ECW to give the suspect another jolt. If the officer accidentally pulled the trigger again, a second round of darts would go flying wherever the ECW was pointed. This made many officers very nervous because we knew under stress this would be very difficult to remember. In a controlled environment we were able to operate the ECW just fine. But under extreme stress, we suspected officers might revert to the old way of training and would pull the trigger a second time, causing more darts to fire. If that happened, we knew it could possibly lead to a use of force issue or we could end up shooting our own partner.
Situational awareness requires a conscious effort to capture the clues and cues (i.e., information) in an often-chaotic environment. When police officers have to focus so much cognitive energy on how to operate their equipment, their situational awareness will be impacted. New equipment should be used a lot in training to help develop muscle memory. Under stress, officers often revert back to previous training. If officers are using new equipment, but haven’t trained well with it, they may end up using it incorrectly in hostile, highly stressful, situations. There is too much risk for an officer to wait until they are in the middle of a dangerous rapidly evolving situation to learn this lesson.
Think of the time when you bought a new power tool. Did it have new or different safety features you weren’t comfortable with? Did you take time to practice with it and familiarize yourself with its use? What would you do if you were in a stressful situation or if fatigue set in? Invest the time to ensure you are comfortable with how your new equipment works, especially equipment that operates differently than equipment you are well-practiced with.
- Discuss the process a department should use to ensure members are familiar with new equipment before it is placed into service.
- Discuss a time when you made a mistake operating equipment in a high stress situation.
- Discuss what steps should be taken if an officer observes their partner make a mistake while using equipment in a high-stress situation.
Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.