Republished from a forcescience.org email blast:

When are you [referring to a police officer] most likely to experience the shock and potentially deadly consequences of an unintentional discharge:

a) While clearing an area in response to a call?
b) While performing routine firearms tasks, including cleaning your weapon?
c) While already engaged with a suspect in high-risk circumstances?

And where is this unwanted firing most likely to occur:

d) On the range?
e) In your department’s parking lot or locker room?
f) At home?

According to a new study by a research team from the Force Science Institute, the answers decisively are “b” and “e”.

The good news, in the researchers’ estimation, is that most unintentional discharges [UDs] could be eliminated by adhering to simple safety procedures.

Recommendations for reducing these dangerous mishaps are included in a report of the study’s findings recently accepted by the peer-reviewed journal Applied Ergonomics. At this writing, publication date for the paper, titled “Toward a Taxonomy of the Unintentional Discharge of Firearms in Law Enforcement,” is still pending.

FILLING THE KNOWLEDGE GAP

The FSI team consisted of staff behavioral scientists Dr. John O’Neill and Dr. Dawn O’Neill and executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski.

“UDs are a deadly threat to both officers and bystanders such as colleagues and civilians, yet they have been understudied in scientific literature,” O’Neill writes, and the “paucity of research” has left a “critical gap between science and practice.” His group’s primary goal, he explains, was to identify the circumstances and officer behaviors that tend to be associated with UDs in hope that an analysis would result in “proactive strategies to prevent or minimize their occurrence.”

The cooperation of law enforcement agencies for the study was solicited through Force Science News, and the researchers collected detailed “descriptive information” on 137 UD occurrences from a cross-section of departments within the United States.

The team parsed this total into 16 “discernable contexts” in which UDs occurred, 15 different behaviors officers were engaged in at the time of discharge, four general types of firearm involved (pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and rifles), four types of trigger action, and resulting injuries “ranging from flesh wounds to fatality.”

A comprehensive breakdown is contained in the pending publication and provides a cautionary cataloging for officers and trainers alike by identifying the conditions under which UDs may be most likely. Here are some of the highlights:

DUTY STATUS/THREAT POTENTIAL

The researchers were able to confirm that over 70% of UDs occurred on duty.

By their assessment, over half “occurred in contexts with low threat potential”; that is, locations/situations “that did not involve response to a call” and where there was little “potential for encountering a threat during the incident.”

Roughly another one-fourth took place during a call and were rated as having an “elevated threat potential,” while about one-sixth occurred under a “high threat potential” where the involved officer was already engaged with a suspect or likely to become so. (For the rest, the source material was insufficient to assign a threat potential.)

Within these categories, the researchers documented these findings:

Low threat potential: In this group, UDs most often occurred on a firing range (22%), in departmental parking lots (20%), in a locker room (17%), or at an officer’s residence (10%).

Elevated threat potential: Most of these happened while the involved officer was clearing an area (over 65%) or at the end of a call (19%).

High threat potential: Here, UDs most frequently took place while the officer was conducting a felony traffic stop (29%), searching for an armed suspect (29%), providing cover (14%), or using physical restraint (nearly 10%).

OFFICER BEHAVIORS

When UDs occurred, the involved officers were engaged in some “routine firearm manipulation” 60% of the time. To a much lesser extent, they were performing a physical activity that produced an unexpected muscle reaction responsible for their firearm discharging (24%) or conducting “unfamiliar tasks” (11%).

Within these categories, specifics include:

Routine manipulation

UDs most often occurred when officers were clearing a weapon, accounting for about one-third of the incidents in this category. Other relevant manipulations included storing/moving the weapon (about 23%), holstering/unholstering (17%), conducting function checks (16%), and performing maintenance (10%).

Muscle reaction

This, O’Neill explains, involves “using any part of the body to climb, jump, kick, punch, pull, push, run, squeeze, or otherwise engage in an activity unrelated to the firearm’s trigger” but that provokes an involuntary reactive contraction of muscles in the finger that happens to be positioned on the trigger.

Specifically, this “muscle co-activation” resulted from an officer using another finger (to activate a frame-mounted flashlight or laser, for example) (36%), losing and trying to recover a grip on the firearm (21%), using a leg to jump or kick (18%), or losing balance (15%).

(Findings by other researchers regarding this phenomenon are covered in some detail in O’Neill’s paper.)

Unfamiliar tasks

UDs in this category occurred when officers were switching a gun from one hand to another (40%), handling unfamiliar firearms (33%), or dealing with unfamiliar holsters or belts (27%).

INJURIES

Most documentation submitted to the researchers did not specify whether injuries occurred as a result of the UD. However, about 15% did acknowledge injury, all involving officers, and there was one fatality.

GETTING SAFER

The system for categorizing UDs that the research team developed allows for the pinpointing of problem locations and behaviors, which can then be addressed with enhanced training and procedural discipline, Lewinski told Force Science News.

Overall, the researchers estimate, a high percentage of UDs could be prevented. Among their suggestions for minimizing their occurrence:

• Observe the fundamentals of safe firearms handling: Always consider every gun to be loaded and index your trigger finger along the slide or frame, outside the trigger guard, until you intend to shoot. Include practice with your non-dominant hand and with new or unfamiliar equipment.

• Before dry-firing or disassembling a firearm, verify there is no ammunition in the chamber. “If not already in practice, trainers are encouraged to consider crucial clearing steps in firearms disassembly that officers must perform in order to pass training, such as ejecting the magazine, racking the slide, and visually inspecting the chamber,” O’Neill writes.

• Reinforce safe habits “to fluency with speed and accuracy” through dynamic training scenarios. As O’Neill explains, “Officers may be able to perform a skill on the range in a static position and under low-stress conditions, but the same skill may not [automatically] generalize in other contexts involving dynamic movements and higher physiological arousal.” Reality-based training should include “scenarios designed to elicit muscle co-activation.”

• In the absence of training to fluency, anticipate a possible uptick in UDs as officers transition to the new standard-issue weapons.

• Mandating the reporting of all UDs, but with retraining substituted for punishment like days off or termination, may result in a more comprehensive picture of such incidents, which, in turn, will better “inform policies and procedures” for safe firearms operation.

• The research team encourages trainers to “compare and contrast” the study’s findings with “UDs that have occurred within their own agency,” to tailor extra emphasis on “idiosyncratic” risks. “It is crucial that [agencies] continue to analyze the contexts, officer behavior, and firearm designs that contribute to UDs in order to inform qualification training, remediation/re-qualification training, policies, and procedures,” O’Neill writes.

Last month, the authors presented key findings of the study at the 7th International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics in Orlando, FL. Next month, they’re scheduled for an oral presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology in Austin, TX.

Meanwhile, O’Neill’s team would like to expand its database on UDs on a continuing basis, with an eye to further researching this vital subject. If your department is willing to share UD information on a confidential basis, please email O’Neill at john.oneill@forcescience.org or call FSI headquarters at 507-387-1290 and leave your contact information.

Currently, the research team is developing a standardized form that agencies can use to collect important UD data for their internal use and for outside reporting purposes when appropriate. We’ll let you know when this form is available.

When published, the title of the team’s study will be “Toward a Taxonomy of the Unintentional Discharge of Firearms in Law Enforcement.”

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38 Responses to Force Science Institute Study on Police “Unintentional Discharges”

    • That Las Vegas vid with the red Corvette was all over youtube about ten years ago.
      She put one in the pavement next to his head, he raised up on his elbows and looked at her, the cop who already had him restrained looked like he wanted to shoot her, and eventually she sheepishly reholstered.

  1. So they finally made pills that make people more intelligent and responsible? Oh, more suggestions for procedures to follow. “Take your finger off the trigger” is one of the first rules, maybe we could just work on that one for a while?

  2. Pet peeve- pulling the trigger automatically after clearing the gun. In IDPA and other competitions, you do this upon RSO command to “prove” the gun is unloaded. And with a Glock and others you have to do it before disassembling for cleaning. But SO MANY people I see do it routinely, and I don’t see any reason for it. You just cleared the gun, you “know” that its empty (but Rule No. 1), so why “prove” it by pulling the trigger? It builds bad muscle memory, a really bad habit.

    • Never pull it until instructed to do so. Never. I hate people at the line who act before the command is given. Also the SO should say so clear, then wait and say hammer down. Also there are a number of drills where you shoot, holster and shoot again. Dropping the trigger in a safe direction is a damn good idea anyway. If it is clear, nothing happens. If you fucked up you have a new hole that is not in someone.

    • They may have been taught to press check the gun consistantly. Of course if the dry fire isn’t immediately followed by checking for trigger reset…. maybe not.

  3. Put police on the same footing as us ordinary citizens, and I will support them. As it stands now, cops lie, cheat, steal and yes, get away with murder with impunity. If, by chance, they are implicated, cop-friendly prosecutors and judges see to it that they are not punished, but are quite often promoted.
    You see, “laws” are what the cops say they are and are only for us civilians…

    • And when a pattern of abuses gets so bad that even a sheriff or police chief will fire him,, he files a grievance and demands arbitration, and it seems like it’s guaranteed that if he didn’t rape any children while in uniform, the arbitrator will give him his job, a couple years’ back pay, and any promotions that he might have been eligible for if he hadn’t been fired.

      Meanwhile, if somebody in the private sector screws up 1% as bad, he just gets fired.

      • “And when a pattern of abuses gets so bad that even a sheriff or police chief will fire him,, he files a grievance and demands arbitration . . .”

        Or, he just moves to a different department. In police work you can screw up big-time, get fired, and still get hired at another department. Apparently background checks that would keep you from getting hired for an accountant’s job, are no problem in police work.

    • Government employees, especially cops, need to be on a lower level than citizens. They do not have rights on the job, they operate under delegated privileges.

      It is well past time to disarm cops. Citizens should be armed, not government employees.

  4. It looks to me that the officer was trying to aim at the perp, but actually was not. The suspect is alive only because the “highly-trained” officer was just as bad at aiming her gun as she was at keeping her finger off the trigger.

    We now teach to aim at the ground in front of a suspect being held instead of at the suspect for this exact reason. Obviously, with the finger off the trigger

    Incompetent and negligent instructors, such as Gabe Suarez, teach that the finger should be on the trigger with the gun pointed at the aggressor — yeah, really, he does.

  5. The root of the problem is something the guys over at BB&C complain about often: many cops are not gun people.

    They don’t really like guns, they basically have no interest in learning about guns or new gear and they don’t practice anything firearms related nearly enough.

  6. Amazing how for the wonderful police it’s an unintentional discharge but for us mundanes its negligence. Unintentional sounds like it’s just an unfortunate event that the officers have no control of, but negligent is something that’s totally avoidable and the fault of the operator.

  7. If the locker room or parking lot was the correct answer(s) it would be Mostly other polices offices shot instead of civilians.

    Best ideas are
    Take away Glocks and give them a 30 lb trigger pull.
    Give them a 10 digit combination on a smart gun that a lot of them think we should have.
    Take away their guns period- never heard of a negligent slap stick.

    While the above is sarcasm and is not funny, I don’t get where they come up with this data.

    The truth is that with most police officers, their total round count in training for a year is about the same as (or less than) I shoot each time I go to the range. I know this as facts from previously being a part-time officer but always shooting/qualifying with the department as a department. It is a joke!

    Training not only developes the ability to obtain gun (bullet placement) control but also reinforces the actual “proper” handling of said issued firearm.

    Thanks for hearing my rant!

  8. Hey,finally something from FSI that looks legit.

    Yes, if LEOs followed common firearm safety rules intended to prevent negligent discharges, they wouldn’t have negligent discharges. I’m glad you came right out and said the obvious that EVERYBODY already knew, Bill.

    There was a deputy a couple of months ago who shot himself in the leg with his ‘pistol in his holster’ in front of the station with other deputies present, or in other words, he ‘reholstered it after showing off to his pals with his finger still on the trigger’.
    That would seem to fall in line with Bill Lewinsky’s “most likely” scenarios for negligent discharge.

    Even Hollywood got it right at least once. In one of the “Lethal Weapon” movies, I think it’s #3, Roger was standing in front of his locker, finger on the trigger, and holstered it finger and all at the beginning of a shift. So of course Martin started punching and kicking lockers and acting crazy to cover up the noise and try to convince the others it wasn’t a gunshot.

  9. The Police Apologist Institute needs to hire a good copy editor or proofreader. They misspelled “negligent” about twenty times as “unintentional” in this article.

    • Suddenly, I don’t feel like the only, or even the biggest, Lewinsky basher at TTAG.
      Multiple people are calling him out as a shill for government sponsored violence in these comments.

  10. This is first and foremost propaganda. They are using a NON EXISTENT TERM….”unintended discharge”.
    There is no such thing. There can be something called an “accidental discharge” where the round in the gun
    is fired WITHOUT the trigger being pulled. This is due to a design flaw or mechanical failure of the gun and
    as such are AMAZINGLY RARE. Then you have what is called a “NEGLIGENT discharge” where the round
    in the gun was fired because THE TRIGGER WAS PULLED. These are NOT accidents and they should NEVER
    be called “unintended” as the person pulling the trigger WILLFULLY drew the weapon from a holster and then
    WILLFULLY placed a finger on the trigger. When you allow someone to create and define the terms THEY control
    the language and thus reality. Guns discharge for two reasons….mechanical failures…which are exceedingly rare,
    and because the trigger was pulled. If the trigger is pulled WITHOUT a legal basis to do outside of training and practice then said action is NEGLIGENT….often CRIMINALLY NEGLIGENT. NEVER allow the media too define anything as they ALWAYS do so to support their agenda, not the truth.

  11. Ever notice that police unions are “fraternal”? This should tell you something. The “thin-blue-line” is a gang, little different than street gangs–at least when it comes to “covering-up” their questionable and quite often, illegal and criminal behavior.
    In today’s day and age, “officer safety” trumps de-escalation of force. This, in part, is due to the militarization of the police along with training in Israeli police tactics. This becomes a problem, with the “us vs. them” attitude that is fosters, along with the fact that Israel is a very different place, being on a constant “war footing”, and by necessity, its police tactics are very different.
    There are too many instances of police being “given a pass”, even when incontrovertible video and audio evidence is presented. Grand juries, guided by police-friendly prosecutors, quite often refuse to charge those police officers who abuse their authority.
    Police officers, who want to do the right thing, are quite often marginalized and put into harms way, by their own brethren…When a police officer is beating on someone that is already restrained while yelling, “stop resisting” THAT is but one reason police have a “bad name” in many instances…this makes the “good cops” who are standing around, witnessing their “brethren in blue” beating on a restrained suspect, culpable as well…
    Here are changes that can help reduce police-induced violence:
    1. Get rid of police unions. Police unions (fraternities) protect the guilty, and are responsible for the massive whitewashing of questionable police behavior that is presently being committed.
    2. Eliminate both “absolute” and “qualified” immunity for all public officials. This includes, prosecutors and judges, police and firefighters, code enforcement and child protective services officials, and others who deal with the citizenry. The threat of being sued personally would encourage them to behave themselves. Require police officers to be “bonded” by an insurance company, with their own funds. No bond= no job.
    3. Any public funds disbursed to citizens as a result of police misconduct should come out of police pension funds–NOT from the taxpayers.
    4. Regular drug-testing of police officers as well as incident-based drug testing should take place whenever an officer is involved in a violent situation with a citizen–no exceptions.
    5. Testing for steroid use should be a part of the drug testing program. You know damn well, many police officers “bulk up” with the “help” of steroids. Steroids also affect users mentally as well, making them more aggressive. The potential for abuse of citizens increases greatly with steroid use.
    6. Internal affairs should only be used for disagreements between individual officers–NOT for investigations involving citizen abuse. State-level investigations should be mandatory for all suspected abuses involving citizens.
    7. Prosecutors should be charged with malfeasance IF any evidence implicating police officer misconduct is not presented to the grand jury.
    8. A national or state-by-state database of abusive individuals who should NEVER be allowed to perform police work should be established–a “blacklist” of abusive (former) police officers.
    9. Most people are unaware that police have special “rules” that prohibit them from being questioned for 48 hours. This allows them to “get their stories straight” and makes it easier to “cover up” bad police behavior. Police must be subject to the same laws as civilians.
    10. All police should be required to wear bodycams and utilize dashcams that cannot be turned off. Any police officers who causes a dash or body cam to be turned off should be summarily fired–no excuses. Today’s body and dash cams are reliable enough to withstand harsh treatment. Body and dashcam footage should be uploaded to a public channel “on the cloud” for public perusal.
    11. All interrogations must be video and audio recorded. Police should be prohibited from lying or fabricating stories in order to get suspects to confess. False confessions ARE a problem in many departments. Unknown to most people, police can lie with impunity while civilians can be charged with lying to police…fair? I think not…
    12. Any legislation passed that restricts the rights of ordinary citizens, such as firearms magazine capacity limits, types of weapons allowed, or restrictive concealed-carry laws should apply equally to police. No special exemptions to be given to police. Laws must be equally applied.
    Police work is not inherently dangerous…there are many other professions that are much more dangerous.
    A little “Andy Taylor” could go a long way in allaying fears that citizens have of police.
    That being said, I have no problem with police officers who do their job in a fair, conscientious manner…however, it is time to call to task those police officers who only “protect and serve” themselves.

    • Concerning your #11, those recordings should include the suspect entering the room, and continue without a break until he/she leaves the room. The “technique” of letting the suspect sit, alone, for many hours, without food, water, or a bathroom break, before anyone even asks a question could also be called “torture”.

      • You are correct. Recording should be continuous from the time the suspect is in custody. Thanks for pointing that out.
        Regards,

  12. First a Punta Gorda cop puts several rounds into a retired librarian at a ‘this is why we shoot everybody who might possibly be a threat’ demonstration, I mean ‘shoot-no shoot drill’, and now a cop in Rockwood, Tennessee took live ammo to a blanks-only demonstration at a public school:

    https://photographyisnotacrime.com/2016/08/13/tennessee-cop-fires-live-bullet-instead-of-blanks-during-gun-safety-drill-in-middle-school/

    Pro Tip for law enforcement: Don’t use community outreach programs to graphically demonstrate your incompetence with firearms.

    • Why in the hell are these cops doing these “demonstrations” with f*cking blanks, anyway? How about NO AMMO AT ALL when you’re waving a gun around in a crowded room?

      Or is the point of the demonstration to give everyone tinnitus?

  13. Am I missing something? So, they do this big, expensive study, then they come back with recommendations for training requirements for police departments that nearly mirror exactly what we the people in the firearms business have been teaching for years.

  14. I am going to say it again like I have a hundred times before
    Glocks needing to pull the trigger to perform a routine field strip is a design flaw
    Other striker fired pistols like the Shield can be taken apart without pulling the trigger, there is a lever to release the striker
    You can talk all you want about following safety rules, the brain is the best safety, etc.
    Safety rules will be violated due to fatigue, unfamiliar holsters, and attention errors where you” see” the chamber as empty when it is not empty
    We see this type of error all the time in Anesthesia where people ” see” what they expect to see and do not see the reality
    We have done our best engineer this out of the anesthesia machine
    For instance it will not allow you to turn on any other gas if the oxygen is not turned on
    I am amazed that firearms designers have not engineered safety features into handguns that make them safer without slowing down the draw
    Like a depression to rest your trigger finger in so it can be indexed near but not on the trigger
    Like levers for takedown of striker pistols
    I like grip safeties as some foreign object pulling on the trigger can’t fire the gun unless you also hold the grip properly
    I always say ” no Glocks for doc’s” as I think they are unsafe by design

  15. Once an individual, certainly a professional, is trained the subject matter is no longer ‘unintentional’ it becomes a ‘negligent discharge’. A huge difference.

  16. I would like to get the Force Science Institute and the Violence Policy Center into one room at the same time, to create a Vortex of Stupid that would open a rift in the space-time continuum, possibly allowing a time-travel jump that could avert the sinking of the Titanic or the assassination of Abe Lincoln.

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