04 October 2012

Dangers of Law Enforcement's Addtiction to Technology Part I

When I started my law enforcement career as an Army MP in 1992, the technology I had was a D Cell Mag Lite.  At the time, most people did not even have pagers yet and reports were written in black ink by hand.  The reports would then be taken to the Desk Sergeant where he would check them with a red pen, before handing them back for correction.
Today things are much different.  Everyone has a cell phone, most cars have computers, and we carry Tasers on our belts.
During the introduction of my Officer Survival Course, I tell of my Great-Great Grandfather Francis “Hawkeye” McGrail, who joined the Elizabeth NJ police department in 1896.  Then I ask them what is the one thing that has not changed since he walked the beat and now, and will never change in the future.  What is the one constant?  The answer is that requardless of how technologically advanced we get, the bottom line is that in order to take them to jail, you need to put your hands on them.  There is no way around that.  As much as the public hates it, and as much as it makes bosses cringe, there will always be times when police have to hit people with hands and sticks, Tase them, and shoot them.  This reality is often diluted by those immersed in technology.  The fact is that our reliance on technology can actually increase the necessity to use force.
We are in the people business, and our number one tool is Interpersonal Communication Skills.  A fancy way of saying you need to be an effective communicator.  A huge part of this comes from active listening.  To effectively respond to a situation, we need information.  We can hear 720 degrees, but can only see where we are looking.  The problem is that we are overwhelmed with sounds.
Think of yourself as a hunter sitting in a tree stand.  Your first indication of approaching game is sound.  You keep as still and quiet as possible so as not to alert the game to your position.  How effective would you be if you were playing a radio, listening to your cell phone notify you of Facebook updates and texts, a phone call from your significant other, or if you were typing a document on a lap top in the stand? 
Lack of awareness on the street could have more serious ramifications than not filling a deer tag.  Think of the last time you parked in a favorite report writing spot, usually in the middle of a lot so you can see all around you , or in a place that would only allow someone to approach from the front.  Your car was running, your heater or AC was on, music was set just low enough so that you could hear the police radio, and your in car computer added some dim light to the interior.  During this time, you probably sent or received a phone call or text on your cell phone.  These are just the sounds inside the car.  Our brain naturally “gates” these noises and naturally prioritizes them.  Basically putting all sounds in through a series of strainers, until you only really hear those things which are most important to you.  Your senses are nowhere near as keen as if you were in that deer stand.  When you do need to give your time and attention to your cell phone or computer, not only does your scope of awareness narrow, but so does the scope of your vision.  You are experiencing what I call “techno vision”.  As you focus on the what is at the end of your hands, your entire world narrows to the field between your arms.
The best example of this is people who are texting while driving or walking.  While reading or typing, their entire world sinks to the size of the screen and the rest of the world is put on hold.  Police fall victim to the same behavior.  We have seen other officers quick draw their phone from their belt even when it is not appropriate to do so, such as during a contact.  Our phones now get a Pavlov’s dog response.
As habit, I did not carry my phone on my duty belt, but instead left it in the car so as not to be distracted.  Well, that and having it or someone elses go off during a building search.  When you are trying to sneak around, that vibrating is deafening.
When it comes to traffic stops, the best advice I can give is the same as I used to give trainees when writing citations, since this used to be the thing that would cause officers to lose situational awareness.  I told them to look up from their ticket book every few seconds or whenever they realized they were not looking up.  Same goes for using all the things in your car that beeps, buzzes, or flashes.
Now more than ever, the policeman has to avoid falling into the technology trap, and instead exploit technology to increase his survival.
In Part II of Law Enforcement Technology Trap, we will discuss the impact of technology on reading suspects and use of force.

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