You confront a suspect you’ve been told may be armed. No weapon is visible, but his hands are hidden in his pockets. You have no cover, no concealment. If he suddenly whips a hand out, he may be gripping a gun…a benign object…or nothing at all.
How you react to that pressurized uncertainty —and whether your split-second decision proves to be righteous or a tragic misjudgment—may depend on how you’ve positioned your own firearm in anticipation of possible trouble.
That’s a key finding of just-published new research by Dr. Paul Taylor, a former officer who’s now an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Colorado-Denver and a figure of rising prominence in the field of deadly force dynamics.
In tests of reaction time and quality of decision-making involving more than 300 active LEOs, Taylor has found that:
• there is “very little difference in response time” among three pre-threat muzzle positions that are commonly taken by officers while they assess and attempt to control a potentially dangerous subject;
• there is a “significant and strong relationship,” however, “between muzzle position and the likelihood” of making a shooting-decision error;
• by sacrificing a minuscule amount of reaction time, an officer may be able to cut the risk of committing a mistake-of-fact shooting “by more than half” by initially employing one particular muzzle position.
While stressing that further research is needed to confirm and refine these findings, Taylor believes his experiments offer hope for preventing “at least some of the tragedies that have become all too familiar” in dicey police-suspect encounters.
The Set-up. Across a six month period, Taylor tested a “demographically representative” mixture of 313 officer volunteers recruited from 23 state, county, and municipal agencies in three states. The test group, mostly males working patrol, ranged in age from 22 to 67 and had from 1 to 36 years on the job.
One at a time, armed with a laser training pistol and situated before a simulator projection screen, they were randomly instructed to assume one of three muzzle positions:
• Aiming, where the muzzle was pointed at the screen with sights aligned with the officer’s visual gaze;
• High-ready, with the gun held roughly level with the officer’s sternum;
• Low-ready, with the gun at navel level.
“Fingers were off the trigger and resting along the slide in all cases,” Taylor explains. “For high-ready and low-ready, they were told to position their arms and handgun as they normally would in those postures and to hold the position unless they decided to shoot.” Movement from their initial assigned position at a crisis point and “the decision as to whether and when to pull the trigger were left entirely up to the officers.”
Forced Crisis. A dispatcher’s voice assigned each officer to the same call. A worried citizen had phoned 911 to report a strange male suspiciously snooping around the property of a neighbor who was away on vacation. The caller had described the possible trespasser and said he “appears to be holding a gun.”
With the officer in his assigned ready position, video of a subject matching the description then appeared on the screen 10 feet away. His hands were tucked into his jacket pockets. With no cover or concealment available, the officer was told to “interact as if this is the first person they were contacting on the dispatched call.”
Six seconds into the encounter, the man rapidly yanked his right hand from his pocket and pointed something at the officer, igniting a shoot/don’t shoot crisis point. Again by random selection, the object was either a gun—or a cellphone. The officers’ reactions were studied via computer analysis later.
“Shooting at any time during the cellphone scenario was considered a misdiagnosis error,” Taylor explains. “Not shooting during the gun scenarios was considered a false-negative error.” The speed with which any shooting occurred was also measured.
Time & Error. First of note, Taylor’s analysis showed that “all of the officers fired their simulated handgun in response to the gun scenario. That is, there were no false-negative errors.”
Response time did not prove to be a major difference among the three muzzle positions. “The only significant difference,” Taylor reports, “was between the aimed position with a response-time average of 0.51 seconds and the low-ready position with an average of 0.62 seconds.” And that difference was only 11/100 of a second—“less than half the average time it takes to pull the trigger of a semi-automatic handgun between shots.”
The most striking difference among the three muzzle positions concerned “misdiagnosis error”— shooting the suspect when he pointed a cellphone rather than a firearm.
The most prone to this mistake-of-fact misjudgment were the officers who engaged the suspect from the aimed-muzzle position. Nearly two-thirds of officers in that posture fired their weapon in response to the cellphone “threat.” The second highest shooting error rate (over 50%) was associated with the high-ready position.
In contrast, officers who initially confronted the suspect in the low-ready position performed significantly better. Only 30% of those officers misjudged the threat and fired at the suspect when he brandished the cellphone.
Taylor notes: While the decision-error rates of the aimed and the high-ready muzzle positions are relatively comparable statistically, the risk of “making a shooting error more than doubles when starting from the aimed position as compared to the low-ready position.”
In other words, at an average “cost” of merely 11/100 seconds of additional reaction time, officers on average could “cut their chances of making a misdiagnosis shooting error by more than half by starting in a low-ready position rather than an aimed position,” according to the study’s findings.
Speculations. Taylor suggests some possibilities for this marked disparity.
• At the eye-level aiming position and “even at the high-ready position,” an officer’s arms, hands, and firearm may obstruct a full view of the suspect and thereby “decrease the time the officer has to actually see an object being produced from a pocket or waistband. Instead these officers are left to interpret the relatively small portion of upper-body movement they are able to see over the top of their firearm. This could affect an officer’s propensity for error.”
Even the 11/100 of a second required to move from a low-ready to a firing position may be enough extra time to better define a questionable object and check an officer’s swing, Taylor speculates.
• Also, having the firearm lowered may “improve an officer’s ability to communicate” with a subject and, “perhaps in some instances, increase the chances of diffusing a situation before split-second decision-making is even required.” Taylor points out that “a significant body of research” has confirmed the importance of facial expressions in effective human communication, and an officer’s facial “language” is best read by the suspect with the officer’s gun lowered.
Caution. Overall, Taylor considers his findings “promising” in terms of identifying “a proverbial sweet spot, a muzzle position that does not significantly slow an officer’s response to a deadly threat while minimizing the likelihood for false-positive errors.”
But he cautions that “significantly more” investigation is needed by researchers and trainers before any flat recommendations are considered. Until more is understood about the dynamics involved, he strongly advises against departments issuing policy about muzzle positioning that would tend to restrict officers’ options.
The formal paper on Taylor’s experiments, titled, “Engineering Resilience” Into Split-Second Shoot/No Shoot Decisions: The Effect of Muzzle Position, appears in the peer-reviewed journal Police Quarterly. You can read a free abstract or access the full study for a fee HERE.
Dr. Taylor can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org