The Psychology Of Cops On Armed Duty

In the USA about one in four police shootings involve an unarmed “victim”.  Cops mistake mobile phones and even stuff like hairbrushes for guns in some shoot outs in which unarmed folk get killed.  It seems carrying a gun cues you to see guns (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. [Jessica K. Witt & James R. Brockmole; Action Alters Object Identification: Wielding a Gun Increases the Bias to See Guns).

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has carried a gun – it’s obvious that carrying one makes it more likely someone might take a pop at you.  The question is whether we can do anything to make the perception of officers having to carry weapons better and more aware of this problem.  The standard firing range tries to get shooters not to blast off at the woman carrying a baby and so on.  This isn’t made any easier by also having to get rounds off and into the bad guys.  Television gives us a very wrong picture of this.

We can only expect people to do their best after we’ve given them the best training we can manage.  My guess is the best we can do is encourage an open culture on the inevitable mistakes.  This isn’t made easy by public ignorance on how difficult the rules of engagement are or the law.  If I’d been living near the recent mauling of police officers by the pit bull, I hope I’d have gone out and blown the beast away with my shotgun (actually I don’t keep one these days) – but if I had the wrangling would go on forever.  The situation is not much simpler for police officers.

Officers need to be able to rely on quick armed support (as does the public when nutters with guns are involved or dogs with mad owners).  Some of this is psychological and to do with the harm done in being exposed to unnecessary danger and the depression of lack of support.  We also need our cops not to stand by using health and safety excuses over shallow ponds and fairly tame canals.  We’re getting it wrong at both ends.

If we are going to arm our police better (and we should), we need proper regulation both public and police can trust.  It’s sensible regulation we are no good at.  The case for arming police needs better explanation of the psychology of the armed moment.