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Understanding and Reducing Weapons Confusion

One of the best-known examples of "weapons confusion" occurred in 2009 on San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system. An officer, believing he was drawing his stun gun to use on Oscar Grant during an arrest, actually drew his pistol, fatally shooting Grant in the back.

The officer involved was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter, showing how weapons confusion can lead to criminal liability as well as civil liability. Multiple U.S. circuit courts of appeals have ruled that mistakenly firing a firearm rather than a conducted electrical weapon is an unreasonable use of force. Gerald Takano, a retired Raleigh, N.C. police officer and use of force expert, described weapons confusion as "an unintended trained response," one that agencies can work to reduce in likelihood, but cannot completely eliminate "when there are similarities between weapon shape and operation."

One solution suggested several years ago was to position pistols and stun guns on different sides of the officer's body, but this has not reduced weapons confusion, Takano said. He created his own study to determine how much training is needed to address weapons confusion. During the study, students were instructed to repeatedly draw either their guns, pepper spray or stun guns at random. Initial sessions had high rates of capture error, or error in which a person accidentally performs one action when intending to perform another less familiar action, but these decreased with practice.

"The good news is with as little as four 15-minute sessions of this basic drill, the capture error rate dropped below 10 percent," he said. "Adding more complex drills and reality-based training and testing further reduce capture error probability."

There are other errors to consider too: targeting, safety levers or trigger squeezes.

"Identification and targeted training are how we reduce the risk of capture errors. It is important instructors and managers have training on capture errors and how to manage them," Takano said.

Takano will discuss use of force, including the causes of use-in-force encounters and unreasonable use of force, at the SC Municipal Insurance Trust and SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund Law Enforcement Liability Training. The training will take place May 6 in Greer, May 7 in Columbia, May 8 in Summerville and May 9 in Florence. The deadline to register is April 29, and seats are first-come, first-served.