A dispatcher says someone was reportedly walking around a house when the owners were away on vacation. An update says that person appears to be holding a gun.
An officer approaches that person, whose hands are in their pockets. They interact for a short time, and then the person quickly pulls something out of a pocket and points. Quick – is it a gun or a cell phone?
Paul Taylor, an assistant professor at University of Colorado, Denver, ran this type of simulation with 313 officers in Colorado, New York and Connecticut. He found that if an officer held the muzzle of their gun a bit lower, at navel-level, instead of pointing it at someone, the rate of accidental shooting in a scenario where someone is just holding a cell phone plummets from 64% to 30%.
“So what we see is that lowering that muzzle position significantly reduced the likelihood for making an error," Taylor said.
And he found that this "low ready position" only costs officers 11/100th of a second.
"The time difference between a low ready position and an aimed position is less than half of a trigger pull if someone's pulling the trigger as fast as they can," Taylor said. "So it's almost an insignificant amount of time."
Taylor notes that there are caveats here: this was done in a controlled environment, without distractions that police may encounter on a real call. He also highlighted that the officers were told by a dispatcher that the suspect appeared to be armed. This increases the likelihood of them shooting an unarmed victim, according to some of his previous research.
However, he says that increased chance of shooting was completely negated by the simple act of holding a muzzle a bit lower so they have just a tiny bit more time to realize if someone isn’t holding a weapon. As a former officer himself, he sees this kind of research as critical.
“[Police are] going to find themselves in less-than-ideal positions," he said. "They’re going to find themselves misdiagnosing or misreading what’s occurring in front of them. And how can we put steps and tactics and practices in place that reduce the likelihood for that decision-making to result in tragedy. Both on the side of the officer…and public safety as well.”
Taylor says, in his own experience, there isn’t a uniform way officers are taught to hold a weapon when going into a situation, so this may provide some of that framework. And beyond that, he says there’s plenty more research to be done when it comes to accidents involving tasers and how officers talk to potential suspects and entire communities.
He says his work isn’t about the “bad apples” in police forces (though he does believe bad officers need to be held accountable), it’s about a system that creates horrific outcomes like George Floyd’s death at the hands of Derek Chauvin.
“How did [Chauvin’s] practice evolve from 80 hours of defensive tactics training that he got in the academy to what it is that happened here,” he said. “He likely wasn’t trained that way, his practice likely evolved over time. Why did we end up where we did, and how do we keep that from happening?”
Taylor said only focusing on the officers who act poorly “allows the organization as a whole to say ‘they’re the problem’...it allows the practice of policing to avoid greater scrutiny.”
So, he said that’s why he’s studying broader practices, because “the next tragedy isn’t going to be someone kneeling on a neck, but it is likely going to be generated out of the same system that produced that bad outcome.”
The study was published last week in Police Quarterly.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.