“Engineering Resilience” Into Split-Second Shoot/No Shoot Decisions: The Effect of Muzzle-Position

Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
AuthorPaul L. Taylor
Subject MatterArticles
Resilience” Into
Split-Second Shoot/No
Shoot Decisions:
The Effect of
Paul L. Taylor
The purpose of this study was to explore the feasibility of engineering resilience into
the split-second decision environment police officers face during potential deadly
force encounters. Using a randomized controlled experiment that incorporated a
police firearms training simulator and 313 active law enforcement officers, this study
examined the effects of muzzle-position – where an officer points their weapon – on
both officer response time to legitimate threats and the likelihood for misdiagnosis
shooting errors when no threat was present. The results demonstrate that officers
can significantly improve shoot/no-shoot decision-making without sacrificing a signif-
icant amount of time by taking a lower muzzle-position when they are dealing with
an ambiguously armed person – a person whose hands are not visible.
police, deadly force, resilience engineering, human performance, system safety
School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, Colorado, United States
Corresponding Author:
Paul L. Taylor, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, 1380 Lawrence Street #500,
Denver, CO 80204, United States.
Email: paul.taylor@ucdenver.edu
Police Quarterly
2021, Vol. 24(2) 185–204
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611120960688
Errors should be taken as the starting point for an investigation, not an ending.
—Sidney Dekker, 2014
On September 27, 2016 two El Cajon, California police officers were dispatched
to a call of a man who was “not acting like himself” and “walking in traffic”.
According to an El Cajon Police Department Press Release (2016), the following
incident occurred when the officers located the man:
The subject refused multiple instructions by the first officer on scene to remove his
concealed hand from his pocket. Because the subject did not comply the officer
drew his firearm and pointed it at the subject while continuing to give him instruc-
tions to remove his hand from his pocket ...The subject paced back and forth
while officers tried to talk to him. At one point, the subject rapidly drew an object
from his front pants pocket, placed both hands together and extended them rapidly
toward the officer taking up what appeared to be a shooting stance. (p. 1)
One of the officers, at whom the object was pointed, shot and killed 38 year old
Alfred Olango who, it turns out, was holding an electronic vaping device. Cell
phone and surveillance video footage of this tragic incident show the officer who
shot Alfred Olango pointing his firearm directly at him as he ordered him to
remove his right hand from his pocket (Parvini et al., 2016).
Unfortunately, these types of police involved shootings – in which the shoot-
ing officers assert that they believed a person presented a deadly threat in the
moment when in fact, in hindsight, it turns out no actual threat existed – are not
uncommon in the United States and have been classified by police practitioners
and academics in a number of ways. Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Cecil
Rhambo called them “cell phone shootings” and said that his department had
“5 to 15” of them each year (Police Executive Research Forum, 2012). The Los
Angeles Police Department (2018) calls them “perception only shootings” and
of the 211 shooting incidents reported by LAPD between 2013 and 2017, they
accounted for 14% (n¼30) (p. 173). Fachner and Carter (2015) called them
“mistake of fact” shootings in their research on the Philadelphia Police
Department’s use of deadly force between 2007 and 2013 and found that they
accounted for 10% (n¼35) of the cases they examined (N¼385). Scharf and
Binder (1983) classified these types of shootings as “false-positive errors”, which
they defined as, “A person presumed dangerous but, in fact, not actually armed
or dangerous is killed by the police” (p. 23). Taylor (2019a) expanded on Scharf
and Binders’ false-positive error category with a typology of police shooting
errors and defined these types of shootings as “misdiagnosis errors” – situations
in which officers intend to discharge a firearm and hit their intended target but
the result is an unintended outcome (e.g., believing someone was armed an
officer shoots a person who was actually unarmed) (p. 814).
186 Police Quarterly 24(2)

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