Dr. Bill Lewinski, the founding father and driving force behind the world-renowned Force Science Institute, has few, if any, equals in the study of human performance under paramount stress. Dr. Lewinski has trained in Goju Karate since 1967. With more than 45 years of experience, this gives him an extraordinary understanding of human kinesiology and psychomotor skills. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, a master’s in counseling and a PhD in police psychology. He’s also completed highly acclaimed graduate work in psychology at the University of Vermont, University of Ottawa and the Alfred Adler Institute in Chicago. Dr. Lewinski was one of the earliest consultants, advisors and presenters for the original Street Survival group. He’s defended countless police officers by testifying in grand juries, coroner’s inquests, arbitration hearings and both criminal and civil cases throughout North America and the U.K.
Bottom line: If I’m ever involved in a contested shooting, Dr. Lewinski and his Force Science team will be one of the first groups I’ll be contacting for my defense.
Q: Dr. Lewinski, as you are aware, there have been cases of officers shooting offenders with firearms, when the officer intended to deploy a CEW (conducted energy weapon), such as a Taser. Would you please explain the potential factors for such errors, and the best ways to train and equip our officers to avoid this potentially fatal situation?
A: This problem is recognized as a ‘slip error,’ or a ‘slip-and-capture error.’ This occurs when a more frequent and more practiced behavior takes place when a similar, but less familiar action was intended. Examples include telling someone your home phone number when you intended to give your work number or typing your name when you intended to type another word that begins with the same few letters.
Alternatively, the same type of error occurs when a nurse incorrectly programs a new infusion pump because the sequence of steps is similar, but not identical, to the pump that he’s used on a regular basis. You’ll notice that in all of these errors the actor’s attention was apparently directed to something other than their immediate task.
These are very common errors for humans, but for the most part they go unnoticed, as the results are usually inconsequential. However, in law enforcement the consequences of such an error could be tragic. In my first ride-a-long in a squad car in the ’60s, the officer made reference to his back- up gun which was a .32-caliber semi-automatic. He commented that the usual recommendation was that the backup gun should be identical to the duty gun, which in his case, was a .38-caliber revolver, so that he wouldn’t make a mistake and treat one as the other in the case of a gunfight, resulting in the weapon not working as intended and the officer being unable to defend himself. He was identifying the same type of error you refer to.
In the police world, these errors tend to occur under high stress, particularly where the officer has to respond immediately. The consequences of any failure are serious (e.g. the officer’s death or injury) and the officer’s attention is focused on the threat and responding to the threat, while the officer is relying heavily on unconscious, automatic and well-rehearsed motor programs.
For example, we lost a lot of officers during high-speed runs and in pursuits when squad cars were transitioned from power brakes to anti-lock brakes. The power brakes had to be pumped to maintain steering control and minimize the effect of skidding. Whereas if that was done to anti-lock brakes, it defeated the computer controlled pumping system and sometimes caused officers to lose control of the squad car. These deaths often occurred when the officer was on one of their first high-speed runs after getting used to the new braking system.
Similarly, in gunfights, officers have been unable to draw from a new or different type of holster than the one they were most experienced with. Witnesses have even reported the officer struggling to draw their gun while they were shot and then executed.
The apparent reason for all of these errors is that the officer’s intended, but less well practiced, activity slips off the rails and is captured by a more practiced action. Usually these occur in time compressed, dynamic situations, where the consequences of failure are high and the attention of the officer is focused on trying to survive.
Let’s look at errors involving CEWs. We tend to look at confusion between a CEW and handgun as some unusual or bizarre type of error when in fact it isn’t. The tool changes but the human being doesn’t. Subsequently, we can learn from all of the research on slip and capture areas in the airline industry, medical and atomic energy areas. They’re all informing us that the more disparate or different the actions are between the intended action and the potential action that might capture it—the less chance there will be for these types of errors to occur.
Therefore, the more a CEW draw can be made to be different from the way the officer usually draws their gun, the less likelihood that there will be confusion. For example, in all of the reported confusions between CEWs and handguns, none have occurred when the officer’s duty weapon was drawn with the dominant hand while the CEW was drawn with the defensive hand.
Q: Dr. Lewinski, I’ve seen officers who are trying to use two different force options simultaneously (e.g., pointing a firearm at a combative suspect with one hand, and pointing a less-lethal weapon with the other hand). Would you please explain to our readers your thoughts on this practice?
A: There are many reasons why this is a bad idea, but the main one is the potential possibility of confusing the responses, such as firing the handgun, when the intent was to use the less lethal weapon, or vice versa.
On its surface, the possibility of this happening sounds incredible. Nevertheless, officers throughout North America have experienced this type of error. Usually the conditions under which the error occurs are similar to those in the previous question. The situation is usually dynamic—visually and behaviorally complex—and challenges the officer’s skills and usually demands some form of immediate response from the officer, while the consequences of not responding correctly are very high.
Usually the conditions in which the error occurs involve cuffing and holding a firearm but could and have involved guns and flashlights, and guns and CEWs.
The scientific explanations, depending upon the circumstance, might involve hand confusion, where the officer—particularly if their hands are crossed—consciously intends to contract the fingers on one hand and instead contracts fingers on the other. Or it might be contra-lateral contraction, where the officer actually uses the correct limb, but contractile pressure occurs in the opposite hand as well and the officer both closes the cuff or discharges the CEW and fires their handgun.
For more information, I suggest reading some of the research of Dr. Roger Enoka, who directs a biomechanics lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Q: Are there any less-lethal court cases you’ve been involved with that exemplify a valuable learning point about the deployment or use of less-lethal weapons?
A: Whether it’s weapon confusion in the use of less-lethal weapons or an unintended discharge or officers being shot because their usual and well-practiced method of drawing their weapon from their holster isn’t working—or, as is the case of many officer-involved shootings from years ago where officers were found with spent brass in their pockets and whether it is IA, criminal or civil—the lesson is very clear: Training in the police world must be based on science.
I have tremendous respect for history and tradition, but we must put our training and practices under scientific scrutiny. Most of all, we must truly understand the student and the circumstances they’ll eventually be in and how much they’ll be counting on us and what we’ve taught them for their survival. Our struggle must be for the right type and length of training to prepare the officer as best we can for the challenges they face.
Q: Has Force Science conducted, or have planned for the future, any other pertinent research in the use of less-lethal weapons that you would care to share?
A: We don’t have anything planned in the immediate future. We’re currently running studies in Canada and the U.S. on memory, as well as acceleration and action/reaction.
We do have one study in preparation, on a related issue to this. Dr. Pettitt from Minnesota State University, Mankato, who has worked with us on two studies, just purchased a very sophisticated destabilization device for his exercise physiology lab. Our plan is to study—sometime in the next year—in a more sophisticated fashion, which is unprecedented—the effect of physical and unexpected destabilization on a clutching or grasping reflex on trigger pull.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank Dr. Lewinski and the entire Force Science team for their relentless commitment to improving the training of, and defense of, law enforcement officers. For more information on Force Science research, visit www.Forcescience.org. Their website is an incredible resource for state of the art information covering all aspects of police use of force, and the realities and limitations of human performance under stress.