Do cops have too many tools on their belts?

Is it possible in our quest to make officers safer we've compromised their ability to make sound decisions during crucial moments?


Most of us remember a time when law enforcement was a simpler profession. Back in the day, an officer went on the street with a sidearm, a baton, a pair of handcuffs and a radio on his belt. In the squad car, there was a radio to communicate with dispatch and other officers. If you needed to make a phone call, you went to a payphone and radioed in the last four numbers of the phone you were at.

If you wanted to meet up with another officer, you either had to call him over the air or drive around until you found him or her. It was a simpler time and somehow, even with the lack of all the accessories we have today, we got the job done.

If there was a conflict with an aggressive subject, we had four options: verbal commands, hands on, the baton as a leverage tool or strike weapon, and deadly force. The use of force “continuum” was taught because it was clear which tool was acceptable based on the level of resistance. All of that has changed.

(AP Image)
(AP Image)

OC Spray
When OC spray was accepted by law enforcement, most of the practitioners were thrilled to have another use of force option. The argument for was compelling. This tool could keep officers safer by allowing for a control tactic that did not require the officer to go hands-on.

But with the advent of OC, the use-of-force continuum began to grow more complicated —clarity was starting to blur. Officers working in agencies with OC spray had different options on the continuum than the officers working for agencies without it. Officers already on the job who worked for agencies adopting OC had to now remember when they should be using OC versus when the baton should be used. We saw a tool that was in some ways helping us, and in other ways beginning to make things much more complicated.

Electronic Control Weapons
The continuum became even more convoluted when electronic control weapons came into play. Again, a great and powerful tool, but with it came the question: “When do we use it?”

For some agencies it was with active aggression, other agencies allowed its use with the passive aggressor. Many articles have been written documenting the benefits of officers carrying ECWs. What we must consider is that during the time when officers had less options, the decision-making process was simpler. We now must ask ourselves which is more important: having more tools or ease of decision-making?

Science and Officer Safety
Were there benefits to officer safety being realized from the introduction of these tools? From a data-driven standpoint the answer is arguably yes. Having additional less lethal options as a way to address situations gave officers an effective way to intervene in violent situations that protected their personal safety.  It allowed officers to handle the event in a less aggressive way than engaging in hand-to-hand conflict.

That said, if the officers were faced with a use-of-force incident and they were delayed in their response because they were deciding which tool to use, is that moment actually safer for the officer?

Science tells us the more options we have, the longer we will take to make a decision. Having too many options puts a person into a subdued version of a panic reaction. We start to consider all the options and potential outcomes instead of taking action. The more important the decision (use of force versus choosing where to go for dinner), the more intense the sense of being overwhelmed, and thus, the slower the reaction.

While these studies were done in non-law enforcement settings, the human experience of the process is universal. Each of us does something called sequential elimination before making a choice. This is not always done in the conscious mind, but it is done nonetheless. We know from studies that if you have a smaller choice set, you make better decisions. What does this mean for law enforcement and our ever-growing tool box?

We should not only look at force options when we talk about too many tools in law enforcement. Officers are faced with countless choices on a daily basis. One example is to address a violation through adjudication court, by issuing a local ordinance violation or filing criminal charges. Scientific research shows us there is a phenomenon called decision fatigue.

Studies have been done that prove there is a finite store of mental energy available to each individual for exerting self-control. Even the smallest decisions we make each day deplete this energy and detract from the next decision-making process. Many of us have experienced this in our own lives after coming home from work. Think about the last time you had a long day and your spouse or partner asked you to choose a restaurant to go to for dinner. Chances are you just couldn’t decide. This is decision fatigue in action.

If you think about this applied to the law enforcement profession, it is scary. Science tells us our officers just starting their shift will be more capable of making decisions than officers who have been on shift working for several hours. Each decision the officer makes throughout their shift detracts from their innate ability to bring their best to the decision-making process. And, of course, we cannot control when a use of force decision will have to be made during an officer’s shift.

Is it possible in our quest to make officers safer by giving them a variety of tools we have actually compromised their ability to make sound decisions during crucial moments? If we listen to science, we must at least be willing to consider that this might be true. By understanding decision fatigue, we can begin to understand how the human factors happening in each of us might be playing a role in some of the major issues we are seeing in the law enforcement profession.

Now that we have this information, what is our next course of action?

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