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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

While administrators, risk managers, technology software engineers, and device developers may have all the good intentions in the world in enhancing law enforcement's ability to work safer and easier, they never experience stress inoculation under life-threatening circumstances. So they lack context and reference points for what officers experience. The system designers and agency implementers forget to look into the future and picture an officer deploying their devices under the worst possible circumstances.

Training Vs. Devices

In its 2011 report, "Moving toward the Future of Policing," the RAND Corp. says: "While the role of technology will grow, the true value of technology is as a complement to human capacity for police work and problem-solving—not a substitute." Police organizations will need to determine their optimal portfolio of technology that works best with the human resources they have available. We must bear in mind that not all technology is useful or appropriate for department functions. Managers will have to exercise prudence and strategic foresight in their technology investment decisions and determine how a technology will improve department operations. What are the trade-offs or risks? What are the alternatives that will also help the department achieve its strategic vision?

Before departments exploit the latest technologies, they need to ensure that a good portion of their limited funding is put toward legal updates, officer safety, and tactical training. If officers conduct themselves within best police practices, and act in conformance with department policies and state statutes, then it is very hard for liability lawsuits to survive summary judgment and qualified immunity motions. Juries are far more inclined to buy into an officer's represented fact pattern than a plaintiff's fact pattern, unless what the officer has done is egregiously negligent on its face.

With the funding challenges that exist for law enforcement today, one of the first things that gets cut is training. This is wrong. When you don't have much money to spend, you need to turn that money into training rather than gizmos because the training is going to reinforce the best practices with the officers. Officers will act in the manner in which they are trained to act.

The human brain can become overloaded with so much technical input during a critical incident that it fails to draw information properly because there is too much distraction. Officers in this situation have difficulty prioritizing what they need to do for survival.

To counteract the neurophysiological and physiological effects of sensory overload from high-tech devices, departments must choose only those technologies that make police work easier and safer, implement those technologies effectively, provide clear policies and procedures for using the technologies, train their officers in the comfortable use of those technologies, upgrade the technologies to maintain their proper function, and continually reinforce each of these mandates. Officers who choose to employ technologies on their own—such as smart phones with apps, PDAs, and voice recorders—should test the compatibility of their data with other department and court personnel.

According to technical and network security expert Deb Shinder, "Another oft-unrecognized risk of using high-tech gadgetry is that officers may come to depend on it and actually lose their knowledge and skills (in the same way many kids today don't know the multiplication tables because they've always had calculators). For instance, if officers come to rely on GPS to get to scenes, they may not learn the streets. Just as carrying a backup weapon can save your life, carrying the old-fashioned knowledge in your head can save your skin or someone else's in an emergency."

Shinder also warns that some officers will be more adept at using technology than others. Departments should consider the capabilities of all of their officers in utilizing new technologies before implementing them in the field. It will take the concerted efforts of both the department and its officers to properly deploy any new equipment or procedures.

The Personal Touch

Our job ultimately is about the encounters that we have with people, both good and bad, and our ability to both verbally and tactically resolve situations in the safest and most effective way. Most often the simplest way to do this is to go back to our foundational roots of law enforcement and be able to talk to people, be able to make critical decisions that are rational and objectively reasonable.

The RAND Corp. report explains: "Technology enables, but the human element is key to the future world of policing. Technology supports human decision making; it cannot replace it. There is no substitute for good human links across forces or for the support of the local communities in apprehending crime."

The vast majority of officers are trying to do a good job. Departments must show their officers that they are trusted. Before they hand them guns, TASERs, pepper spray, and batons, they must assign their officers with proper supervision, direction, and training programs to support them and their mission. You can't say that you don’t trust your officers and then give them the power of life and death by arming them.

Departments need to be very careful about the technological wizardry they force upon their officers. They need to have the right reasons for placing certain types of technology in the patrol car or requiring an officer to carry that technology.

Even in this technologically advanced age, law enforcement is ultimately and will always be about people and relationships: The ability to talk to people, the ability to engage people, the ability to focus on officer and citizen safety, the ability to conduct pre-contact threat assessments, and to have an officer function at a level that is least distracting. Officers have to process what they are experiencing. They have to analyze what they are seeing, they have to develop tactical plans and engage those tactical plans. When milliseconds count, the officer should not be distracted with engaging technology for the purposes of documenting what takes place. It's more important that the officer be trained in best practices and have confidence in his or her physical and mental skills to be able to engage the public and to conduct police operations.

Dr. Ron Martinelli, Ph.D., BCFT, CFA, CLS, is a former police officer and detective with more than 22 years of street experience primarily with the San Jose (Calif.) Police Department. He is a multi-certified use-of-force instructor, CSI forensic criminologist, and police practices expert specializing in officer-involved shootings and major uses of force. He is nationally recognized for his research on the subject of psychophysiology and stress-induced responses.

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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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