As has been widely reported, septuagenarian Tulsa reserve sheriff’s deputy Robert Charles Bates shot and killed gun trafficking suspect Eric Courtney Harris with a .357 Magnum revolver instead of a TASER, killing Harris. The part-time law enforcement officer appeared on the Today Show [above] to apologize for manslaughter. “It could happen to anyone,” Bates declared. Could it? Sgt. Jim Clark of the Tulsa Police Department excused Bate’s negligent discharge, claiming Bates was the “victim” of “slip and capture.” Say what? . .
According to Sgt. Clark, slip and capture is “a high stress phenomenon in which a person’s behavior slips off the intended course of action because it’s captured by a stronger response.” The term debuted in the Oscar Grant case, the man shot by a BART police officer who also believed he was firing his TASER.
“Slips and Capture” is a phrase coined by police use-of-force consultant Bill Lewinski in 2009, as part of the defense of an officer charged with the accidental shooting of a suspect in an Oakland, California train station. Lewinski has a doctorate in psychology from Union Institute and University, a distance learning university in Cincinnati. His company, “Force Science Institute,” specializes in damage control for police departments, advertising “We save lives and reputations” on their website.
The “Slips and Capture” theory first appeared as a newsletter article in “Force Science News #154” after Lewinski began work on the Fruitvale Station (BART) shooting defense.
Despite the Wikipedia hive mind’s insinuation that Dr. Lewinski is less than academically sound or scientifically objective, I respect the Force Science Institute and the work it produces. (TTAG republishes FSI’s email blasts from time to time.) The problem here is one of semantics.
“Slip and capture” is a new term for an old phenomena: force-of-habit. More scientifically, during stress a person’s conscious mind tends to switch off. Their subconscious mind “takes over” and implements a survival-oriented stimulus -> response pattern (e.g. flinching, ducking, running, attacking). They don’t think about their actions. They act. Well, react.
Firearms trainers capitalize on the innate human tendency to react instinctively to danger with repetitive drilling and other subconscious programming techniques. Trainers instill firearms-related subconscious stimulus -> response patterns, aiming to create [what they mistakenly call] “muscle memory.”
THREAT! Draw gun, aim at target, and move and shoot. Done. Like that.
The main advantage of subconscious reactions: speed. The main disadvantage: the complete lack of critical consideration. And once a subconscious stimulus -> response pattern is wired into a person’s “lizard brain,” well, there it is. There is no conscious override. Just ask someone suffering from a phobia.
I’ve warned readers about the dangers of these firearms-related subconscious stimulus – response patterns many times before. In The Myth of Muscle Memory, I stated, “The vast majority of “bad shoots’ involve well-trained cops acting on pre-programmed instinct. They react without thinking and the wrong people die.”
All of which means the term “slip and capture” is entirely misleading. It assumes that a person intended to do the right thing but couldn’t because they reverted to training. Bates wanted to shoot his TASER but reached for his gun instead. I don’t see it that way. Bates didn’t think about what he was doing when he drew his firearm. He reacted to the situation. And Eric Courtney Harris died.
The real cause of Harris’ death was Bates’ training. Or lack thereof.
Tulsa World reports that the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office falsified Bates’ training records, including his firearms certifications. “Supervisors were transferred after refusing to sign off.” Corruption aside, it’s clear that Bates wasn’t trained to instinctively differentiate between his firearm and his TASER. So he instinctively chose his firearm,
I know that sounds confusing and contradictory: instinctive training is dangerous, failing to train instinctively is dangerous and non-trained instinctive responses are dangerous. The trick here is to understand that firearms training is a tricky business. It needs to be designed, implemented, checked and fine-tuned on a regular basis; with a complete and working understanding of stress-related psychology.
For example, if you train to draw your weapon, aim and fire in one uninterrupted sequence until your gun’s dry, that’s what you’ll do under stress. If you train to draw your weapon, aim, assess the target and decide whether or not to fire and then fire (or not), that’s what you’ll do. Should do.
Robert Charles Bates was not properly trained in the use of his TASER and/or his firearm (a revolver-shaped red flag if ever there was one.) The fact that Bates was a part-time, maybe even wannabe cop will be the prosecution’s focus. Which is a shame. Like most tragedies, Harris’ death was a multiple system failure, but especially and most importantly a failure of firearms training. In short, Bates is absolutely correct: this could happen to anyone.