Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Mehserle mess

In honor of the sentencing this week, I thought it long overdue to pontificate on the shooting of Oscar Grant.

I think we can take at face value the supposition that Grant did nothing that evening that warranted the use of deadly force. But at the same time I think we also can take at face value Mehserle's assertions that he meant to use his Taser rather than his gun. After all, to believe otherwise would be to ascribe some motive that Mehserle had to kill Grant - a man whom we have no evidence Mehserle had ever met before (and, no, we have no evidence that Mehserle harbored any racist leanings that might explain his actions).

If anyone thinks Mehserle got off lightly, let's just put some things into perspective: he is going to spend another year of his life in prison, having already spent the better part of a year there. He will have a felony conviction on his record, which will make him utterly unemployable in any career even remotely related to what he is trained to do (since he is a felon, he will no longer have legal access to firearms, so he can't work as a security guard, and I don't believe felons can get a private investigator's license). And then, there's all the baggage that goes along with being an ex-con - having to check the "yes" box on all of his future employment applications that ask about felony convictions. All of this because he committed an error.

That said, we can, and I believe should hold police officers to a higher standard. But at the same time, I believe at least some of the blame should be attributed squarely to where it belongs. This was, fundamentally, a failure of ergonomic engineering.

Policemen and soldiers train themselves so that in times of stress they can rely on their instincts to carry out actions quickly and without thinking about them. They need to do so in order to stay alive, given that they are in situations where they are in contact with other people bent on doing them bodily harm. They need to act in the amount of time that the rest of us would mentally say, "Oh shit!" and soil ourselves.

I'm sure Mehserle trained for hours to pull a gun, raise it up to a target and pull the trigger.

Now go back to the picture of the actual model of Taser that Mehserle carried.

I'm sure the Taser folks were thinking that if they shaped their weapon that way that they could leverage the training that the users already would have in operating similar, but more deadly weapons.

Mehserle had time for exactly one thought that night, and his brain said, "Quick! Tase him!" Everything that followed from that decision was instinct and training. He reached for and grabbed his weapon. At that instant, had his Taser training been with a weapon that had a different shaped grip, or that you operated with a thumb trigger rather than an index finger trigger, then the reptilian portion of the brain that was following along the script would have said, "wait, this doesn't feel right." And that probably would have been enough to change the outcome. But the fact that the gripping action for the Taser X-26 was the same as his service revolver didn't give him a chance to recognize his error before it was too late.

It's too bad the book has already been written about technology failures like this. The story of Johann Mehserle and Oscar Grant absolutely deserves to be written alongside those of the Bhopal disaster and the Therac 25.

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