Dave Smith: Reducing Officer Errors

With the scrutiny you now face, it’s critical that you do everything you can to prevent “slip and capture.”

Dave Smith Headshot


As I pulled into the parking space I was engaged in an intense conversation with my wife, the Sarge. I put the rental into park and took my foot off the brake. The rental car rolled forward, and my beloved laughed and shouted, “You just turned off the air conditioner, Goofball.”

We both laughed as I realized I had intended to put a vehicle in park that had a gear shift in a traditional position, and not the dash mounted one on the car I drove at home. I do silly little things like this all the time, like walking into the garage and opening the freezer when I am intending to open the storage cabinet to get more paper towels. The road from “intention” and “action” can often take odd turns.

I wish this phenomenon was always something we could laugh at, but all too often it is something we recognize after a terrible tragedy. I first learned about this when I was a kid, wildly excited to become a pilot. I would take my dad’s aviation periodicals and read them excitedly at school. Besides articles about the latest Cessna or Piper or Mooney models, every magazine had a column diagnosing an aviation tragedy. The vast majority of these sad stories ended with the diagnosis of “pilot error.” The “error” that killed lots of pilots was one in which their intended action was not the one they actually performed. Perhaps it was due to a change in the type of aircraft flown, like the one that killed America’s greatest World War 2  fighter ace Richard I. Bong who died test piloting an early model jet. Sometimes pilots thought they were lowering wheels when they inadvertently raised flaps killing their lift… and the aircraft’s ability to stay in the air.

I carried my fascination about human errors into my police career and my studies of human performance, always seeking ways to mitigate our human propensity for making mistakes. For law enforcement, most mistakes (such as driving accidents) are deadly to the officer making them, but when others are affected we often get the headlines.

I was thinking about that while watching Dr. Larry Miller, Ph.D., testifying at the recent trial of Officer Kim Potter who inadvertently drew her Glock while “intending” to draw her TASER. Dr. Miller, author of such books as “The Psychology of Police Deadly Force Encounters,” explained to the jury how a phenomenon called “slip and capture” often causes us to do something other than what we intend to do.

There is little doubt that former Brooklyn Center, MN, Officer Kim Potter never meant to shoot and kill Daunte Wright.

In past years we would have seen civil litigation or a settlement occur in the wake of such a tragic mistake. But in today’s highly political world Officer Potter was charged criminally, and the stage was set for a bizarre trial in which the prosecution’s star expert witness, an academic fellow, decided the best way to deal with a suspect resisting arrest, and climbing into his car while resisting, was to just let him go. “Let him go!” I yelled at the television screen, forcing both my dogs to move to another couch.

The officers had been serving a warrant, the fellow had been driving without a license on expired tags, and he had an unidentified female passenger who might just be someone he had an order of protection to stay away from. The state of Minnesota’s case seemed to rest on the fact that the officer was reckless in drawing the wrong weapon, instead of just negligent; the difference between criminal and civil. Never mind that the whole incident was the result of the conduct of the now deceased perpetrator.

Listening to Dr. Miller, I was reminded of all the steps law enforcement has taken to prevent human errors. From tactical breathing to crisis rehearsal to scenario-based training, I have seen our profession become more and more effective in preparing for and mitigating the propensity for our species to screw up. The problem is that crime fighters are humans performing intense skills under extreme pressure, expecting to be judged in hindsight with slow motion video, including still frames in many cases.

I watched with great concern as all of this unfolded in the trial, and Potter was convicted. At the same time, I hoped the lessons learned from this experience would emphasize some vital training points for all of us.

First, do your repetitions, especially when getting a new model, upgrade, or replacement of an existing tool you already have an established “habit” of using. Next, practice your arousal control techniques, mental rehearsals, breathing, and good self-awareness. Finally, decide that you are responsible to prepare yourself, don’t wait for some trainer, sergeant, or class to come along. Practice by yourself or with your partner or seek out training on your own. Ultimately, we are the best antidote for our own errors;  understand them, practice against them, and prevent them.

Related Podcast: How Could a Veteran Officer Mistake a Duty Pistol for a TASER?

About the Author
Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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