Dispatch Priming and the Police Decision to Use Deadly Force

AuthorPaul L. Taylor
Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Dispatch Priming and
2020, Vol. 23(3) 311–332
! The Author(s) 2019
the Police Decision to
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611119896653
Use Deadly Force
Paul L. Taylor1
Police shootings have become one of the most “visible and controversial” aspects of
the criminal justice system . Yet, very little empirical effort has been devoted to
understanding the underlying systemic vulnerabilities that likely contribute to these
tragic outcomes. Using a randomized controlled experiment that incorporated a
police firearms simulator and 306 active law enforcement officers, this study exam-
ined the effects of dispatch priming on an officer’s decision to use deadly force. The
findings suggest that officers rely heavily on dispatched information in making the
decision to pull the trigger when confronted with an ambiguously armed subject in a
simulated environment. When the dispatched information was erroneous, it contrib-
uted to a significant increase in shooting errors. The results contribute to a broader
understanding of officer decision-making within the context of police shootings and
introduce the theoretical concepts of cognitive heuristics and human error to the
research on police use of deadly force.
deadly force, police, human error, decision-making, dispatch
In Los Angeles County we have 5 to 15 [police] shootings in a year due to what we
call perception issues. These have become a bigger problem in the last five or six
1School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, CO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Paul L. Taylor, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, 1380 Lawrence Street #500,
Denver, CO 80204, USA.
Email: paul.taylor@ucdenver.edu

Police Quarterly 23(3)
years. These are also called “cell phone shootings.” Typically what happens is that
a deputy has contact with an individual, and a short foot pursuit occurs. During
that foot pursuit, the individual either makes an affirmative movement, such as a
tossing motion, or produces something from their clothing that the officer mistakes
for a weapon. The officer responds to this perceived threat by firing his weapon.
After the shooting occurs, we discover a cell phone lying nearby or on the person’s
body. The circumstances in which the shooting occurs (such as a “shots fired” call,
armed robbery call, or “man with a gun” call) may provide context for the officer’s
state of mind. Unfortunately, these shootings have been common for us over the
last few years. (Police Executive Research Forum, 2012, p. 8)
- Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo
The situation described by Sheriff Rhambo is not unique to Los Angeles
County. On April 30, 2015, San Diego, California police officers were dis-
patched with information about a man brandishing a knife. Moments after
the first officer arrived, he shot and killed Fridoon Rawshan Nehad who
approached him with a pen in his hand (Selby, Singleton, & Flosi, 2016). On
December 12, 2016, Bakersfield, California police officers were dispatched
information about a man brandishing a revolver. In the end, 73-year-old
Francisco Serna was shot and killed when he pulled a wooden crucifix
from his pocket (Phippen, 2016). From these tragedies, an empirical question
emerges. Does dispatching erroneous information significantly increase the
likelihood for false-positive errors during potential police shootings?
According to Los Angeles Police Department (2018) self-report data, of the
211 shooting incidents between 2013 and 2017, 46% (n ¼ 98) were initiated by a
dispatched call for service, and 14% (n ¼ 30) were classified as “perception only”
shootings (p. 173). Fachner and Carter (2015) found similar numbers for the
Philadelphia Police Department. Between 2007 and 2013, approximately 52% of
the incidents that ended in a shooting were initiated by a dispatched call for
service. Ten percent (n ¼ 35) of the shooting cases examined (N ¼ 385) were
classified as “mistake of fact” shootings (p. 30).
Paraphrasing Bittner (1970), Peter Manning (1992) wrote, “[T]he core tech-
nology of the police is situated decision making with the potential for the appli-
cation of violence” (p. 354). He later postulated that this core technology may be
altered, in both intended and unintended ways, through the introduction of new
technology (Manning, 2008). This is consistent with the literature on human
error, which has found that the integration of technology into the work envi-
ronment, even when it is implemented with the best of intentions, fundamentally

changes the complexity of human decision-making and can impact outcomes in
unanticipated ways (e.g., Rasmussen, 1986).While police dispatch technology is
certainly not new, little to no research has looked at how this complex commu-
nication technology, with multiple human interface points, has modified the core
proficiencies of the officers who must adapt it to their decision-making frame-
work in the field.
Policing scholars have routinely called for research on police decision-
making within the context of deadly force (e.g., Alpert & Smith, 1994;
Klinger & Brunson, 2009; Reiss, 1980; Shane & Swenson, 2018; Zimring,
2017). Yet, with a few exceptions (e.g., Correll, Hudson, Guillermo, & Ma,
2014; Fridell & Binder, 1992; James, James, & Vila, 2016; Klinger, 2004;
Pickering, 2016), very little work has gone into unpacking how officers, situated
in the moment, decide whether or not to pull the trigger. This is somewhat
surprising given the focus and controversy surrounding police shootings
(Klinger, Rosenfeld, Isom, & Deckard, 2015; Zimring, 2017) and the relatively
advanced state of decision-making and error research in other high-risk endeav-
ors. In fact, the systematic study of error has been used as a vehicle for under-
standing work place decision-making, professional reform, and improved
outcomes in a number of other risk-laden occupational fields including medicine
(Institute of Medicine, 2000), commercial aviation (Wiegmann et al., 2005),
transportation (Green, 2017), and the military (Snook, 2002). James Doyle
(2010) and a growing group of others (e.g., Hollway, 2014; Shane, 2013) have
called for a similar lens to be applied to various aspects of the U.S. criminal
justice system including police use of deadly force (e.g., Pickering & Klinger,
2016; Sherman, 2018).
Inspired by work in behavioral economics and cognitive psychology (e.g.,
Tversky & Kahneman, 1973), criminologists have begun to explore the role of
heuristics and cognitive biases in criminal justice processes and crime causation
(e.g., Bushway & Owens, 2013; Dhami & Ayton, 2001; Pogarsky, Roche, &
Pickett, 2017; Wichard & Felson, 2016). This growing body of research has
consistently demonstrated the relevance of this theoretical lens for explaining
justice system outcomes and offender decision-making. Heuristics and cognitive
biases may also be helpful for explaining and understanding the kind of
decision-making required of officers who face rapidly unfolding and potentially
life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, the possible influences of heuristics
and biases, other than implicit racial bias (e.g., Chaires, 2015; Correll et al.,
2014), have not been systematically applied to research on the police decision to
use deadly force. The research described in this article is intended to help fill this
gap. Using a randomized controlled experiment, which incorporated an inter-
active firearms training simulator and 306 active law enforcement officers from
18 agencies, this study explores the effects of dispatched information on an
officer’s decision to shoot.

Police Quarterly 23(3)
Heuristics and Situated Decision-Making
Experience in any practical domain allows practitioners to develop patterns of
key information within their realm of expertise. These patterns or mental models
permit them to quickly evaluate situations and to act with less than perfect
information by systematically focusing on what is important while ignoring,
often at a subconscious level, what is not (Klein, 2011). The police are no dif-
ferent (e.g., Stalans & Finn, 1995), and the classic observational studies of the
police are replete with references to this kind of rapid pattern assessment fol-
lowed by decisive and often consequential action. James Q. Wilson (1968) wrote,
“[O]fficers are routinely called upon to ‘prejudge’ persons by making quick
decisions about what their behavior has been in the past or is likely to be in
the future” (pp. 38–39). He noted that officers seemed to be particularly attuned
to two types of cues: “those that signal danger and those that signal
impropriety.” In a similar vein, Jerome Skolnick (1966) postulated:
The policeman, because his work requires him to be occupied continually with
potential violence, develops a perceptual shorthand to identify certain kinds of
people as symbolic assailants, that is, as persons who use gesture, language, and
attire that the policeman has come to recognize as a prelude to violence. (p. 45)
William Muir (1977) called this process “pigeonholing” and wrote:
To anticipate what was going to happen, policemen developed a sense for the
patterns in human affairs. They formed concepts, or classifications, which helped
them to assimilate and distinguish between discrete persons and events. Concepts
were attended by visual procedures by which policemen processed the details of the
moment into these abstractions. (p. 153)
While the policing...

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