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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

Much of this phenomenon is attributable to the human mind's capability of taking in only so much information at one time before it becomes subject to sensory overload. Regardless of the technology, its presence places both physical and intellectual constraints on the officer who is expected to keep up to snuff with it. Just look at some of the devices currently competing for an officer's attention.

In the Car

Today's patrol vehicle equipment is demonstrably different than that of 30 years ago. Many officers depend on portable radios with hand packs. In order to be minimally effective, the officer must ensure that the hand pack is synced with a computer mounted within the patrol car. The officer's mobile computer must, in turn, be tied into servers located in the central dispatch emergency communication system. Just like the other network, a disconnect at any of these points will cost time and cause frustration for officers trying to come online and go 10-8.

Onboard dashcams, an increasingly common accessory to the patrol unit, have caused many agencies to adopt policies that require their officers to ensure the dash cameras are online and working properly before they can go in service, let alone take any law enforcement action. Some programs—such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Advanced Surveillance and Protection (ASAP) Unit—integrate these communications and surveillance systems with others such as acoustic gunshot detection devices and automated license plate recognition readers.

Mobile data terminals (MDTs) and in-car computers have been used in patrol cars for several years. Despite their ability to expedite information to the officer in the field, MDTs providing a stream of distracting beeps and alerts can delay returning data to the officer when needed and can divert the officer’s attention away from driving or a situation that may be evolving outside of the patrol car.

On the Officer

Some officers carry—whether it's required by their department or for their own personal liability—cameras that can visually and audibly document their actions and the actions of people they contact.

Some officers also carry PDAs or smart phones that serve as real-time communication devices and can also be used to download information to computers. Others carry handheld audio recorders to document conversations with witnesses and suspects in the field.

Trying to bring all of this equipment online at the start of a shift is absolutely distracting and detracts from the officer's situational awareness.

System Overload

Physically restrained by the confines of the equipment in their cars and on their uniforms, and mentally constrained by the procedures and expectations involving their use, officers increasingly find that these technological gizmos inhibit them from functioning as police officers.

A Portland (Ore.) Police Department officer was reportedly so technologically overloaded in trying to go online at the beginning of his shift that he mistakenly loaded lethal rounds into a bean bag shotgun. It was only after he fired five rounds, four of which hit the suspect, that he realized his near-fatal mistake.

He was in a very poorly lit environment at the time he was readying himself to go 10-8 that day. The sensory overload caused by that environment was certainly a factor in what ultimately became a tragedy. This officer is also the first peace officer in his state to be criminally indicted for what is essentially a mistake. Sadly, this was just one of more than a dozen similar incidents in recent years.

Another case in Southern California occurred when officers' dashcams weren't properly functioning or weren't engaged because the microphone was effective only for a limited distance. Because the officers engaged the suspect beyond that distance, there has been a lot of needless pressure placed on the officers from the plaintiff’s attorneys.

Officers who become sensitive to the limitations of the technologies they utilize and limit their actions as a result will undoubtedly place themselves and others in danger.

The need to protect and serve the community may occasionally be at cross-purposes with a police agency's desire to protect itself and its personnel in a court of law. The driving impetus for a law enforcement agency's desire to enhance its self-preservation has largely been the threat of litigation. This is a threat that has found many departments incorporating a variety of technological fail-safes designed to give their personnel a variety of tactical and procedural options while simultaneously affording themselves a means of tracking and documenting those actions. Ironically, the technology that is implemented to monitor officer actions in an attempt to avoid litigation may ultimately create its own brand of litigation.

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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