Guns and Tasers: Solving Cops’ ‘Weapon-Confusion’ Problem

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TASER 7 model. Photo via Axon

In response to the death of George Floyd, the CEO of Axon, the manufacturer of Taser Smart Weapons, recently pledged another look at his company’s technology.

“All lives cannot matter, until Black lives matter,” CEO Rick Smith said in a statement. “Axon commits to real action: building technology that helps eradicate racism and excessive force in the justice system.”

He didn’t offer specifics. But one way Axon can full this important and ambitious commitment is through an ergonomic redesign of the Taser itself.

Far too often, U.S. law enforcement officers have mistaken their firearms for their Tasers, with tragic consequences. There have been a noteworthy number of avoidable deaths and injuries.

Editor’s Note: See list below.

As a former officer, law enforcement trainer and, currently, an academic specializing in research on human performance and system safety in police use of force encounters, I encourage Axon to live up to their commitment through a change in the ergonomic design of their ‘Smart Weapon’ line of Tasers intended for law enforcement use.

The current design and operation of the Taser systems used by law enforcement are identical to the duty handguns officers carry every day. There is little doubt that the similarities facilitate a faster learning curve—particularly in a static training environment.

However, it is this very similarity to their lethal option that creates the greatest risk for catastrophic error.

One of the highest-profile examples of this type of error occurred on January 1, 2009, when Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officers accidentally shot and killed Oscar Grant in Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. During a physical struggle between Grant and the officers, the young black man was in a prone position with his hands underneath his chest.

As the officers fought to free Grant’s hands, Officer Johannes Mehserle told the others to “get back” and announced he was going to “tase” Grant. Mehserle stood up, drew his firearm, and shot Oscar Grant once in the back killing him.

During the subsequent trial of the officer, experts examining a video of the shooting noted that Mehserle’s firearm did not have a thumb-activated safety mechanism like Axon Tasers do. In the video, the officer can be seen making a motion with his thumb as he accidentally drew his firearm. The same thumb motion is required to deactivate the safety on a Taser prior pulling the trigger.[i]

This type of human error is known as a slip. Slips are well documented in the psychological literature.

“A necessary condition for the occurrence of a slip of action is the presence of attentional ‘capture’ associated with either distraction or preoccupation” (p. 56), according to James Reason, author of “Human Error.” [ii]

“Slip and capture” errors, as they have become known in some circles, are often associated with switching to a new tool or process after significant training and/or experience with an ergonomically similar but functionally different tool or process.

A relatively benign example would be, after years of driving a vehicle with an ignition that requires a key, a person switches to a vehicle with a keyless ignition.

If the person’s attention was on something else as they attempted to start the car, they might attempt to insert the key fob into the steering column and this would be classified as a slip and capture error.

In 1943, psychologist Alphonse Chapanis identified a similar type of error when he investigated a series of plane crashes involving B-17 bombers. In these crashes, pilots returning from missions would safely touch down and then inexplicably retract the landing gear. The massive planes would crash onto their bellies and often burst into flames. Initially, the Air Force treated these incidents as negligence and court martialed the involved pilots.

However, it happened with enough frequency that the Air Force brought in an expert to take a closer look. Dr. Chapanis interviewed the involved pilots, but also carefully studied the cockpit layout. He found that the levers that controlled landing gear and the flaps, which act as airbrakes during the landing process, were identical and placed very close to each other.

Dr. Chapanis’s solution was to attach a small rubber wheel to the landing gear control and a flap-shaped wedge to the flap control. With these overt tactile changes, the problem was immediately solved. [iii]

In the social and behavioral sciences, the very reason we can study human behavior using a relatively small sample of people and make inferences about a much larger population is because similarly trained and experienced people tend to respond to similar situations in similar ways. That means that situations that produce human error, are likely to be repeated across time and people.

This has been the tragic reality with ‘weapon confusion shootings’ involving Axon’s Taser products.

Since 2001, there have been at least 16 publicized cases in North America in which an officer intended to use an Axon Taser but instead shot someone with their firearm (see list below).

Each one of these cases was an absolute tragedy on multiple levels.

First, there was the unnecessary injury or loss of life. Second, in some of these cases the involved officers were prosecuted and convicted of murder. Third, these unintentional shootings do irreparable harm to police community relations.

Police use of deadly force has become one of the most visible and contentious aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. Yet, the vast majority of police shootings never rise to the level of public consciousness.

Instead, the public discourse tends to center on a handful of controversial cases and, as a result, these cases have a disproportionate impact on the public’s perception of police competence and legitimacy. Weapon-confusion shootings involving Axon products make national and international news headlines.

The shooting of Oscar Grant was made into a popular 2013 movie. The deaths of Oscar Grant and Eric Courtney Harris, a Tulsa, Ok., man killed in 2015 by a reserve deputy who also mistook his gun for a Taser, have become rallying cries for many who believe that police are engaged in systematic brutality against people of color.

To say these cases have had a disproportionate impact on the public discourse surrounding police use of force is an understatement. The most tragic aspect in all of this is that most, if not all of these deaths or injuries, might have been prevented with some slight changes to the ergonomic design of the Tasers.

paul taylor

Paul Taylor

While the courts have found that Axon exercised “reasonable care” in selecting a gun-shaped design for its products, that does not absolve the company from the moral and ethical responsibility to ensure its products are as safe as possible.

While it is beyond the scope of my professional expertise to tell Axon how to redesign its products, I would encourage them to develop a device with similar capabilities that is fired with a thumb or some means other than an index (trigger) finger and is not held in the same manner as a handgun.

Simply changing the color of Taser Smart Weapons is not enough. When an officer’s attention resources are completely consumed by a dynamic and potentially life threatening physical encounter, even stark color contrasts will not be enough to divert future tragic mistakes.

The differences in ergonomic design and functionality need to be tactile and overt.

It is long past time for Axon Taser to live up to its motto of, “Protect Life: Everyone Gets Home Safe” by reducing the risk of weapon confusion shootings through an ergonomic redesign of their Taser Smart Weapons for law enforcement.

Axon has made an important commitment, but words are empty without action.

Accounts of Known Taser Confusion Cases:

  1. Steven Yount; Sacramento, CA; 2001
  2. Everardo Torres; Madera, CA; 2002
  3. Christofar Atak; Rochester, MN; 2002
  4. Henry Purnell; Eden, MD; 2003
  5. Theodore Wright; Mesa, AZ; 2004
  6. Daniel Hammond; Victoria, BC; 2005
  7. Unknown; Bremerton, WA; 2006
  8. Michael McCarty; Nicholasville, KY; 2008
  9. Oscar Grant; Oakland, CA; 2009
  10. Eric Butts; Springfield, MO; 2014
  11. Eric Harris; Tulsa, OK; 2015
  12. Jamel Jackson; Baldwin County, GA; 2017
  13. Ryan Smith; York County, PA; 2018
  14. Akira Lewis; Lawrence, KS; 2018
  15. Brian Riling; New Hope, PA; 2019
  16. Ashley Hall; Ladue, MO; 2019

Paul Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of criminal justice in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. He is a former law enforcement officer and his research is focused on human factors and system safety of police work with an eye toward improving outcomes. He welcomes comments from readers.

[i] Martin, J. A. (2016). Applied human error theory: A police Taser-confusion shooting

case study. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 2016

Annual Meeting. 475-479.

[ii] Reason, J. (1990). Human Error. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Chapanis, A. (2002). The Chapanis Chronicles: 50 Years of Human Factors Research, Education and Design. Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean.

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