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As a paramedic, I am not criminally charged for genuine mistakes. Police shouldn’t be, either. | Opinion

If we focus on punishment rather than process improvement, officers will continue making the same mistakes.

A security guard at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., is armed with a Taser stun gun after what the health system calls an epidemic of violence against its workers.
A security guard at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., is armed with a Taser stun gun after what the health system calls an epidemic of violence against its workers.Read moreHeidi de Marco / MCT

Everyone makes mistakes. I’m a paramedic, and first responders like me have to make quick decisions in stressful situations; even with extensive training and experience, honest errors happen.

When mistakes occur, we must pause and carefully examine the cause. If we determine a mistake — even one with fatal consequences — was the result of an honest error, not gross negligence, the doctor, nurse, or paramedic generally doesn’t lose their job or go to jail. Instead, we focus on figuring out why the error occurred, and how to prevent the same mistake in the future.

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I don’t have to worry about what will happen to my livelihood if I make a split-second, tragic mistake, as long as I immediately report it and am honest about what happened.

Recently, a police officer killed a 20-year-old man named Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., when she pulled a gun instead of a Taser, which her chief attributed to a mistake. Both she and her chief have resigned, and she is now facing criminal charges.

Many people — including Wright’s family — want accountability. Their anguish is understandable. But I believe any decision to bring criminal charges should only happen after an investigation is complete. If the investigation into Wright’s shooting determines his death was the result of honest error, then I feel this officer should have the same protections that I do, and the charges dropped. Instead, since this is not the first time an officer has allegedly mistaken a gun for a Taser, law enforcement more broadly needs to take responsibility and make changes to prevent this from happening again.

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The aviation industry has long championed the mindset of process improvement instead of punishment after suffering a series of high-profile accidents. Now, air travel has become so safe that you are significantly more likely to be killed by lightning than a plane crash. Emergency medicine has followed in aviation’s wake in response to the epidemic of medical errors, which result in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Pilots and paramedics aren’t harshly punished for honest errors, even big ones. Instead, leadership investigates how the error occurred and how to strengthen controls so it’s less likely to happen again.

We shouldn’t fire health-care providers or throw them in jail for genuine mistakes, even when fatal. Doing so encourages cover-ups and causes people to be defensive instead of forthcoming, which makes it harder to learn from their missteps and strengthen the health-care system. Discipling human error doesn’t stop human error. It just puts injury on top of injury. And although police officers face different kinds of situations than health-care workers, and have challenges and stressors that are unique to their field, I believe they would benefit from the same “process over punishment” approach to error that happens in health care.

To start, law enforcement needs to make more changes to prevent confusion between a gun and a Taser, because it has happened before — at least two dozen times in the last 20 years, leading to charges against some of the officers.

To help officers more easily distinguish between lethal and nonlethal tools, Tasers may have to be reengineered to reduce any confusion, perhaps eliminating the pistol grip, or adding a loud, automated voice announcement from the Taser itself upon drawing it from its holster.

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More consistent training may universally ingrain better muscle memory to distinguish between the two tools in a high-pressure situation. Some officers already place their Taser on the opposite side of their bodies from their gun, with the grip positioned so that they draw it with their nondominant hand, thereby reserving their dominant hand for their gun. In 2019, the Bucks County district attorney determined an officer in New Hope had mistakenly shot a man in police custody after using his gun instead of a Taser; both tools were holstered next to each other on the officer’s dominant side.

These are just potential solutions. I don’t work for a Taser manufacturer, and I’m not a police officer. But in my field, research suggests that improving labeling — such as on high-risk medications — can help prevent errors. I also lock controlled substances on one side of my paramedic bag and keep other medications on the opposite side, and I never mistake the two, even when under high stress.

If we focus on punishment rather than process improvement, officers will continue making the same mistakes. Then they, along with would-be recruits, may decide that the risk of being a cop is simply too high.

Matthew Melchiorre is a nationally registered paramedic based in New Jersey.