Things Break, Weapons Fail, Stay Safe!

I had a great topic all figured out for this month's column. In fact, I was all fired up about something, and couldn't wait to put pen to paper (that's senior citizen talk for "write it down"). Then something happened to me last week that made me put that idea on the shelf until next time: I had to spend a week without my computer.

For those of you that know me, I know you can't believe that I would survive that long without my daily bits and bytes, and my infusion of Internet folderol, but it's true. Actually, it wasn't an entire week, just three days...but it felt like a week. Here's what happened.

I had a minor problem with my laptop, which serves as my main computer--the screen was growing dim. Having a good warranty on my machine, I contacted tech support, and they promised to send out a technician with the appropriate parts. Sure enough, two days later a guy showed up at my house, and labored for a couple of hours to replace the LCD panel and video card on my machine.

That should have been my first clue as to the trouble that would ensue, since we're talking about a job that shouldn't take more than a half an hour, tops. It really just involves taking out a bunch of screws, sticking in the new parts, and putting the screws back.

Anyway, after he left, things seemed okay, so I used the computer for most of the weekend, then took it with me on a business trip to Georgia on Monday. Along the way, being stuck in an airport, I fired it up to check e-mail, and it went berserk, with the screen first freezing up, then flashing off and on. Of course I shut it off immediately, and from then on until I got home three days later (and a different technician showed up to fix what the first guy had messed up) I was sans technology.

Now here's what this story is all about--how much we rely on technology, and how problematic it can be when we're suddenly denied technology that we're used to taking for granted. During those three days, I suddenly was unable to access my files, and things that I had promised to send to other law enforcement people didn't get sent. E-mail didn't get checked and answered, and who knows what else didn't get done. Lots of problems--no solution but to wait three days. I had become over-reliant on my computer, and took it for granted. When it suddenly let me down, much of my professional life had to be put on hold--I couldn't get things done.

Cops go "Tech," too

When I first got into police work, we didn't have a lot of equipment. Uniforms and leather, of course (yes, "leather" actually used to be made of leather). Firearms, usually in the form of a .38 or .357 revolver, and a 12 gauge shotgun. Cuffs, extra ammo, and a flashlight. That was about it.

No OC, no TASERs, and often no baton. Maybe a "nightstick" that was usually left in the car (collapsibles hadn't been invented yet, at least not for police work). Many of us carried off-the-shelf civilian flashlights, since the high grade aluminum lights that we're all so used to today were just coming on the market. Body armor was rare, in fact it was pretty much non-existent unless you were wearing the big, heavy duty stuff like the bomb squad guys wore.

Vehicles were sometimes just purchased off the dealer's lot, especially if you worked in a small town--no police packages for some of us. One town I worked in had a Ford dealership and a Chevrolet dealership, so one year we would get a Ford, and the next year we would get a Chevy, alternatively replacing each car every two years with the same make, to keep the local merchants happy.

Vehicles were usually equipped with one or two rotating lights, a siren, and a radio, but there were no consoles for all the equipment to mount into. Gear was just bolted to the underside of the dashboard, and there was usually a single toggle switch drilled into the dashboard for the lights.

The "computer" that was used back at the station to run warrant and license checks was actually an old teletype machine hooked to a phone line. When you stopped a motorist, a simple warrant check could take 20 minutes (and sometimes a half hour), during which you sat by the roadside and waited.

Oh, and no portable radios--at least none that worked beyond about 100 yard range. And no cell phones.

Technology as a Crutch

So, why this walk down memory lane? Think about how much has changed. We did many of the same things back then with equipment that was right out of the dark ages, tactically speaking. Granted, police work today is not much like it used to be. Although the basic job is the same, the nature of it has evolved. In today's world the threats are more varied, and the attitude of the public we serve is lacking in much of the respect we used to get. The nature of our society has shifted, litigation is much more common, and the citizens we serve live busy, sometimes frenetic lives. The world grew up.

We have largely dealt with these changes through the development and evolution of technology. Aside from the basic uniform (and even that's changed!), officers of today and their equipment bear little resemblance to the coppers of the 60s and 70s.

We have grown to rely on that equipment, and sometimes that technology has let us down. When it does, if we are too dependent upon it, we can get hurt. Officers have died because, while under attack, they sprayed their attacker with OC spray, and when it didn't work as they expected it to, they continued to spray, rather than switch to another option.

Officers have used electronic control devices to attempt to gain control of resistant subjects, and when their ECD didn't have the expected effect--usually because they missed with one probe, or otherwise didn't have a good circuit--they continued to pull the trigger again and again, although they could see that the suspect wasn't incapacitated.

Officers have applied handcuffs improperly, and suspects have managed to maneuver themselves into positions where those officers could be disarmed and killed.

Officers have exchanged gunfire with suspects, hitting their targets over and over again, but when the suspect wasn't incapacitated, officers haven't moved to good cover, and have been seriously injured and killed as a result.

This is a lot more serious than me comically going through "computer withdrawal" in a Georgia airport. Our over-reliance on technology has the very real potential to get officers hurt.

No use of force option is foolproof, and nothing works all the time. Law enforcement must continue to train with all use of force options that are provided to officers, but that training must evolve into scenario based training where officers are required to use decision-making skills. Failures should be programmed into weapons training, so that officers learn how to react when their first choice for control fails to incapacitate the suspect.

Most importantly, we need to concentrate a lot more on training officers how to manage their citizen contacts in ways that will lessen the likelihood of resistance, and therefore the need to use force. This is not merely a liability issue, but is very much an officer safety issue. Proper approach, positioning and situational awareness are critical for officer safety.

With few exceptions, most use of force encounters start with a verbal exchange between officers and suspects. Verbal and non-verbal interaction is present in almost every arrest/use of force situation that officers encounter. Departments must place increased emphasis on training officers to defuse tense situations through proper verbal management skills wherever possible, while at the same time, training them to watch for and properly interpret non-verbal signals sent by the people that they interact with.

Technology makes the job of police officers safer and easier every day. However, when we become over-dependent on that technology, it can get us hurt.

Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)