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Duty Dangers: The Deadly Cost of Technology

All that cool stuff in your car, on your belt, and on your body can rob you of situational awareness, if you let it distract you.

April 16, 2012  |  by Dean Scoville and Ron Martinelli

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

Hardly a day goes by when the news, the blogs, and social media sites are not abuzz with talk about the latest new technology. Virtually simultaneous to the announcement of the latest form of wizardry, someone will ask what application the technology—such as the Navy's new rail gun or that First Amendment nullifier out of Japan, the SpeechJammer—might have for law enforcement.

And for good reason.

While new technologies have rarely been developed specifically for use in law enforcement, the application of these technologies has helped to expedite and streamline many aspects of our profession, providing us with faster and more efficient ways of producing, accessing, and processing reports, crime analysis, and forensics. In the early 20th century, automobiles broadened the reach of law enforcement. Later, the use of police radios led to better coordination of police resources.

Today, crime and forensic databases enhance our investigative abilities, readily narrowing suspect searches. State-of-the-art communications and GPS tracking systems allow us to respond more rapidly and safely to calls for service. Smart phone and tablet apps have also become fixtures for America's Android-carrying centurions, and even social networks are assisting police agencies in everything from recruiting applicants to identifying suspects. Increasingly, technology allows officers to accomplish these things at ever diminishing cost, a blessing given the economic constraints on many municipalities.

Distracted Officers

But technology has not been without its understated dangers, particularly for millennial-generation officers. These men and women who are currently entering the law enforcement workforce are finding that advancements in the tech arena come with a price, often saddling them with distractions to their situational awareness and officer safety.

For this social networking generation, the more technology you put on a person, the more that person will become distracted. It is extremely dangerous to officers, and it's extremely dangerous to the public.

There are two principle factors at play: psychophysiology and biomechanics.

Psychophysiology deals with psychological awareness and cognitive processing. Biomechanics is the ability to use hand-eye coordination and things of such nature. Technology is increasingly becoming a nexus for the two.

An officer's safety and well-being depend greatly upon situational awareness, cognitive processing, pre-contact threat assessment, tactical communication, and hand-eye coordination. While the human brain can store and recall nearly infinite amounts of personal experiences and trained information, the skill sets law enforcement officers need to ensure the safety of themselves and others take time and practice. An officer's ability to cognitively process or engrain and automatically recall information without thinking in high-stress situations can be significantly diminished or obstructed by the introduction of increasingly complex technological devices placed in emergency vehicles and on their persons.

Fatal Mistakes

Today, much of the focus on electronic technology from an agency perspective seems to be on limiting "liability." But officers can become so frustrated and distracted by setting up, logging onto, and repeatedly monitoring devices that they lose all "situational awareness."

Younger, more techno-savvy officers tend to quickly become over-reliant and dependent upon electronic gadgets to a point where they cannot competently operate and cognitively process when the devices go down. In contrast, their older counterparts not born of the "computer generation" may lack even a basic foundation in computer technology and find themselves psychologically overwhelmed.

Agency administrators can unknowingly diminish officer and citizen safety by creating policies that require officers to operate and monitor advanced, high-maintenance technological devices such as dashcams, MCTs, and body worn recording devices on officers. Officers who are not technicians can easily find themselves facing disciplinary action either because they failed to report a malfunctioning recording device or forgot to engage the device while involved in a high-risk, high-stress situation.

At its most disastrous, the introduction of technology combined with poor training methodologies can even factor into fatal mistakes. The shooting death of a suspect by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer who mistakenly fired his service sidearm instead of his TASER is a clear example.

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

STEVE @ 4/18/2012 8:50 AM


Trigger @ 4/24/2012 6:12 AM

I look back to 1978 when I started in law enforcement. We had the latest and greatest equipment back then in big patrol cars. I look at the equipment that is pretty much standard in todays smaller patrol cars and wonder if I would fit in the car let alone be savy enough to handle the new technology. Sometimes advancements are not always good especially when they lead to distractions. Good Luck to the young officers who are on todays front lines.

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