A study of a little-explored phenomenon called “dispatch priming” reveals how erroneous information given to officers before they reach a scene can set them up unwittingly for making disastrous shooting decisions once they confront the subject of the call.
Officers expecting a gun to be present, based on pre-arrival communications, are much more likely to shoot a suspect who is holding nothing more threatening than a cell phone, for example.
Such “mistake-of-fact” confrontations—where police perceive someone as “armed and dangerous” but who turns out post-shooting to have been “neither armed nor immediately dangerous”—are among the most controversial events in the criminal justice system, the new study notes.
“Officers often have to make decisions in situations where information, though provided by apparently trusted sources, may be incomplete and/or inaccurate. Understanding the human factors that drive these tragedies is critical for OIS investigators and use-of-force reviewers. And understanding the risk of being unconsciously influenced by inaccurate dispatches should be a strong reminder to street officers to maintain alertness, and maximize time, distance, and cover whenever possible in their approaches.” – Dr. Bill Lewinksi, Executive Director, Force Science Institute
The study was conducted by Force Science instructor Paul Taylor, an Advanced Force Science Specialist and former municipal officer and sheriff’s deputy who is currently a doctoral candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY.
At this writing, his paper, “Dispatch Priming and the Police Decision to Use Deadly Force,” is pending publication in the journal Criminology.
Here are highlights of his findings, along with their associated psychological underpinnings.