Police Shootings


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By Charles  Remsberg
The Police Marksman - Nov/Dec 2004

In his 23 years  with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office, Homicide Lt. Joe Hartshorne has heard  plenty of na´ve questions. One that especially troubled him was asked after a deputy shot and killed a suspect who drew on him with what turned out to be an  unloaded revolver. A lawyer who served as a civilian reviewer asked the deputy,  Why didn't you just look in the cylinder and see that the gun was empty before  you shot And that, Hartshorne notes, was from someone sitting in judgment  of cops' decisions. So many people seem to think that shootings by the police  are murders and that in homicide we cover up the murders. Now, thanks to  Hartshorne's determination to correct such dangerous thinking, there's less risk  that fanciful notions will trump harsh reality when it comes to assessing  extreme encounters by the LASO.

In August 2004, he and Mike Bumcrot, a  retired Detective sergeant with similar commitment who consults with the department on criminal investigations, assembled a special audience of 250 in  the council chamber of a Los Angeles suburb to hear some eye-opening revelations  about the dynamics of deadly force. Included were lawyers who defend officers in civil litigation, district attorneys, representatives of the county's Office of  Independent Review and the Risk Management Bureau, medical examiners, coroner's  field investigators, training officers, homicide detectives, IA, major crimes investigators and invited guests from other local and federal law enforcement  agencies-a veritable congress of those whose opinions count after officer-  involved shootings.

To guide them through the truths of lethal  confrontations, Hartshorne and Bumcrot recruited the leading researcher of the practical aspects of police use of force. Dr. Bill Lewinski, a specialist in law  enforcement behavioral psychology and a member of The Police Marksman national  advisory board, has spent more than two decades identifying and scientifically documenting the mental and physical aspects of life-threatening encounters-particularly action/reaction times and movements. For the first time,  his work has established precise measurements, to hundredths of a second, of the  speed with which suspects can attack and the disturbing extent to which officers  are trapped behind the reactionary curve in responding. His surprising  discoveries, ranging from why some assailants end up shot in the back to why  officers can't immediately stop shooting once they've neutralized a threat, have  made him one of the nation's most sought-after expert witnesses in controversial  police defense cases.

In June 2004, Dr. Lewinski established the  nonprofit Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University Mankato to expand his unique experiments, to attract other researchers to the field and  to inform peace officers and civilians alike about little-known and  little-understood realities of the street. The latter mission was the focus of  his appearance in Los Angeles. Civilians, as well as veteran law enforcement personnel, left the council room acknowledging they'd learned things that  impacted upon officer-involved shootings that they'd never known before. In  Hartshorne's opinion, Dr. Lewinski's hours-long presentation, financed from  LASO's narcotics forfeiture funds, . . . should be duplicated in agencies  across the country. Bill explained phenomena that we thought existed but didn't  understand and couldn't define. There have been times when an officer would  explain what happened in a shooting, but the physical evidence didn't seem to  support his story. You knew he was telling the truth but you didn't know how to  explain it. Now we understand what could have happened. And we have science to  back us up.

To ease the civilians into the world of the police, Dr. Lewinski began his presentation by showing examples of tunnel vision, or what he  calls the funnel of concentration-a phenomenon with which most officers are  sorely familiar. First he screened a compilation of video clips from baseball  games in which outfielders were so riveted on catching a ball arcing toward them  that they ran into walls, into each other and into spectator railings- oblivious  that they were anywhere near such hazards. One, having caught a ball and  intending to throw it to a baseman, hurled it into the head of an umpire  standing not five feet away-directly in his line of sight but unseen until too  late. Is there any doubt these players would have avoided doing what they did,  or modified it, if they could have known the out come Dr. Lewinski  asked.

A second tape showed a leopard stalking a group of warthogs. Focused upon a vulnerable juvenile, the big cat charged toward it only to be  T-boned by an adult pig the leopard didn't see countercharging from the side.  Instantly, other warthogs s warm in and repeatedly gore the cat before they  angrily pursue it once it manages to leap free. Imitating a lawyer badgering an officer after a surprise attack, Dr. Lewinski asked: So, Mr. Leopard, how many  pigs assaulted you What was each pig doing just before the alleged attack Mr.  Leopard, please recreate in detail what you did during this encounter. He continued, There is an illusion that we see every thing and see it clearly. Actually we have good vision only within five to seven degrees of the center of  the eye. Complicating this, most shootings occur when our vision is poorest-at  night or in low- light surroundings. In 70% of shootings, officers were operating in light conditions that equate with them being close to legally blind. With the public, there is a rush to judgment about police shootings. They  want to narrow the circumstances down to a few facts that provide easy answers.  Actually, these are very complicated situations. I am not a cop apologist. Officers should be held accountable-but only for what they can control. His  research is devoted to understanding and documenting how lethal encounters  really do unfold in terms of human psychology and  biomechanics.

Immediate vs. Imminent Threat
Attorneys and  activists often assert that cops shoot first and ask questions later. Dr.  Lewinski demonstrated that officers must take preemptive action in order to  adequately defend their lives. If they wait until they actually see a suspect's  gun pointing at them, it's too late. Exhibiting outtakes from scores of studies  he has done on action vs. reaction and the lag time between the two, Dr.  Lewinski drew sobered responses even from veteran firearms trainers in the crowd. Time- coded video of a slightly built woman who had never before handled  a handgun revealed that she could draw from her waistband and fire faster than  the average officer could react from a wide variety of 'ready' positions. Only  .07 seconds elapsed from the time her gun was visible until she shot. Reacting  officers were not able to beat her when they had to draw (average time 1.5  seconds) or even when their weapons were out in a low- ready position, a  close-ready, a belt tuck, a 'Hollywood high guard,' a behind-the- leg 'bootleg'  position or 'freed up' in an unsnapped holster. Indeed, trained officers are  even slower responding from a bootleg position or with a holster unsnapped than  in drawing a holstered weapon. In some positions, the lag time was mere fractions of a second.

But if you think this is a mouse turd in the real  world, you're wrong, Dr. Lewinski stated. From most positions, especially if an  officer has to visually confirm a threat, you'll have a round coming at you  before you can react. Just one second equals four rounds from a Glock. Still,  he recently encountered an opposing expert witness, a lieutenant from a major  department, who swore in court that his officers were held to the standard of  not shooting until they see a gun pointed at them. In other words, they must  face a clear, present and immediate deadly threat or shooting is not justified  by department policy. More realistic is what Dr. Lewinski calls the imminent  threat standard. This involves an officer's reasonable belief that a potential  threat is beginning to unfold that may culminate in his being placed in lethal  jeopardy. This would include shooting on the basis of furtive movements. Laws  in most states accept the imminent threat standard, Lewinski said. But as  evidenced by the lieutenant's testimony, some departments choose (unrealistically) to set their standards higher than state law.

Shot  in The Back
Much can happen between the moment an officer decides to  shoot and his bullet actually makes impact. Although the time span may only be  measured in microseconds, it's long enough for what motivated the officer to  fire to change radically. A suspect facing an officer and pointing a gun at him,  for instance, can turn and start to run away. That movement-going from a threatening, frontal stance to a running, square back presented to the  officer-can take as little as .14 seconds according to Dr. Lewinski's  experiments. That is half the time it took for the fastest officer in his  studies to react to a simple auditory cue to stop shooting-auditory cues consistently produce faster reaction times than visual cues. In a real-life  situation, the officer is highly unlikely to even realize the change is taking  place. If he does, there's not enough time for his brain to process that  information and stop him from completing his trigger squeeze. The inevitable result is one or more rounds striking the suspect in the back. That looks, in  turn, as if the officer has committed an illegal execution.

After several  time-coded videos confirming the startling speed at which gun- wielding suspects  can turn, Dr. Lewinski walked the audience through a much- publicized case from  Los Angeles in which an officer fatally shot an actor in the back during a loud-party call. In that case, featured on 48 Hours, the lawyer for the dead  man's family, Johnny Cochran, said it was ridiculous for the officer to claim  that the suspect turned away at the critical moment before the bullets hit him.  He couldn't turn around and get his back to the officer in the time it takes to  shoot! Cochran insisted. But Dr. Lewinski, engaged by LAPD, used his research  to prove otherwise. Unable to shake his evidence during a six-hour deposition a  week before trial was scheduled, Cochran's team backed away from taking their $5 million lawsuit to court and accepted a nuisance settlement to drop the  matter.

Extra Shots
To the media and other civilians, it looks  like vindictive overkill when an officer continues to shoot even though a suspect has been neutralized. Dr. Lewinski's work shows that this is more likely  to be a matter of immutable reaction time. In studies with the Tempe (AZ) Police  Department, he established that once the average officer in the midst of a committed, intense effort to save his life perceives a stimulus to stop  shooting, it takes him an absolute minimum of .3 to .6 seconds to process that  information and back off. That means he's likely to unavoidably make an  additional two to three trigger pulls, firing extra bullets after he determines that the shooting should stop. In his research, Lewinski said he has  encountered only three officers who, once they had made the mental commitment to  shoot, were capable of interrupting that action the instant they wanted to. One  of these did so in a Minnesota city by jerking his gun off his assailant; he  still reflexively continued his trigger pull and sent a bullet flying into  nearby rush-hour traffic!

Someone asked about traditional training that  taught officers to fire two rounds then stop and assess. In Dr. Lewinski's opinion, this was not acceptable in real- life gunfights. How many rounds are  going to bite you while you're assessing Moreover, in the excitement and  surprise of a sudden attack, an officer may not even hit his assailant with the  first two rounds. He cited one case in which a California officer fired five  fast rounds-all at less than five feet-and missed a suspect before finally  connecting on the next four. It is safer for an officer to shoot and assess  while he continues to fire than to shoot THEN assess.

Shell Casing  Placement
One of the latest findings at the Force Science Research Center relates to where casings ejected from a semiautomatic handgun fall during  a gunfight. This can be important in determining where a shooter was positioned  when firing. Traditionally, forensic experts have argued that there is a predictable pattern of shell casing placement related strictly to the type of  gun and type of ammunition involved. In other words, it's strictly a matter of  mechanics. But when an officer in the Southwest went on trial for murder  recently, Dr. Lewinski determined otherwise. The prosecutor argued that the  officer was lying about where he was standing relative to a supposedly  threatening suspect when the officer fired his single, fatal shot. A firearms  examiner agreed, pointing out that a 9mm Glock, like the officer was using,  ejects shell casings to the right rear. The casing from the officer's pistol was  found to the front left of the position he claimed, which suggested he must have  been standing in a spot where the suspect could not have been a threat. Dr.  Lewinski suspected that certainty of shell-ejection patterning might be valid in static range shooting but not necessarily so in a dynamic, real- life  confrontation. In real gunfights, officers may shoot while twisting, while  falling down, while running and so on. In carefully controlled tests, he and a  research team determined that brass placement varied, depending upon how a gun  is angled and canted when fired. When the gun was hel d in the same way the  officer testified he held it, 80% of the ejected casings fell, not to the right  rear, but in the front left quadrant, confirming that the officer could have  been positioned where he claimed. This finding was admitted into evidence and  the officer was eventually found not guilty. If ballistics people do not take  into account an officer's grip, angle and movement when shooting, they can put a  cop 15 feet away and in a vastly different position from where he actually pulled the trigger by relying on traditional shell casing ejection patterns. How  he holds the gun and moves with it turns out to be the most important factors in  where ejected casings land, according to Dr. Lewinski.

Memory  Problems
After a shooting, an officer is often ordered to Tell us everything that happened from start to finish and don't leave anything out. If  he says he can't remember some things, he's perceived to be lying because  people don't forget really significant, emotional events. Dr. Lewinski  explained that It's true they don't forget, but they will not remember everything. There is memory loss in 100% of shootings. Legitimately, officers  may not recall 90% of what happened and they do not remember an event as  continuous action. They tend to remember in chunks-specific, brief memories,  fragmentary images. He cited an Arizona officer he recently defended successfully who shot and killed a woman trying to run him down with her car.  The officer remembered only three elements of the entire episode: the determined  look on the suspect's face, an image of her front tire quickly turning toward  him and her upper body as a target. The current neurophysiological model of  how the human brain works is directly opposite to the legal model which expects  full and accurate recall. The more an officer is pressured to remember  information missing from his memory, the more likely he is to fill in the  blanks with what seems logical or right. Supplying con nectors between fragmentary recollections serves to answer investigators' questions and is also  a way, psychologically, to gain control over the situation. Unfortunately, it  takes only a few repetitions of you telling what you think occurred for it to become so locked in as memory that you could pass a polygraph on it, Dr.  Lewinski explained. This can set an officer up for a perjury charge when  documented evidence contradicts his version of events. Dr. Lewinski cited  research by Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a former police psychologist from Oregon and a  member of the FSRC's National Advisory Board, identifying perceptual and  cognitive distortions officers frequently experience during extreme encounters.  These include time distortions (the event seems to occur in fast or slow  motion), sound distortions (diminished or intensified), tunnel vision, distorted  visual clarity, automatic pilot phenomena (the officers firearm suddenly  appeared in his hand and on target with no conscious memor y of how it got  there), dissociation (the sense of observing the event as an out-of- body experience rather than as a participant), temporary paralysis, even vivid  hallucinations-one officer saw his partner's head blown off during a  confrontation even though the partner was not actually harmed. Some of these  things help us marshal our resources and focus our response to survive while a  shooting is taking place. But they can cause problems when we are attempting to  explain our actions afterward, Dr. Lewinski explained.

Interviewing  Techniques

God knows what. On the other hand, time to sleep is very important to  memory consolidation. You can remember about 30% more piec es of data after you  sleep. As you gain some psychological distance from a traumatic event, your  legitimate memories tend to get better and stronger. He has no doubts about  what he terms the most significant element of an officer's factual recall of  circumstances surrounding a shooting. That's a non-threatening walkthrough at  the scene with an under standing attorney and without criminal investigators  present. After all evidence and evidence markers have been removed, the officer  needs to go back and see the setting without being afraid that something he  blurts out will come back to haunt him. If you go back to the scene, you can  remember a lot more about what happened. Lewinski recommended that  investigators with the proper skills conduct a cognitive behavioral interview,  This is a sophisticated interview technique based on principles of clinical  psychology and requires special training. It involves placing an officer back in  his shooting experience mentally and walking him through what he remembers  frame-by-frame while encouraging him to use all his senses to stir his  recollections. Traditionally, Dr. Lewinski explained, we've been regarded as  thinking creatures who feel. Really we are feeling creatures who have come to  think. That's why tapping into emotions and senses can greatly enrich the memory  bank. Ideally, an officer's statement should be videotaped, not written. It's  important to see the officer's face- the sorrow, the tragedy, the fear. You  won't have to ask if the officer was afraid, which cops will often deny. You'll  see it. Don't jump to understanding too quickly. I find that I misunderstand  most when I think I've got it. Keep your mind open and ask more questions about  what the officer means rather than forming a judgment based on what he says initially. Effective interviewing requires a tricky sensitivity to get an  officer to clarify as much as he can about what he remembers rather than  pressing him to fill gaps in areas where his memory is doubtful or nonexistent.  You get as much information as you can by probing what he has retained versus  putting expectations or demands on him to answer all your  questions.

Future Expectations
Among future studies, Lewinski  said the Force Science Research Center is planning to investigate an important phenomenon called inattentional blindness. This involves an officer neglecting  to see things in high stress situations that are plainly and directly in his  field of view because his concentration is overwhelmingly dominated by other  stimuli. Also on tap are leading-edge experiments regarding peripheral vision,  complex visual cues, how expectations affect the brain and reaction time,  effective distractions for delaying assailants' attacks, how officers read  cultural and contextual indicators, how much training is necessary to develop competency, and much more. The FSRC's work will soon be significantly aided by  the donation of a finely calibrate d, customized, $100,000 interactive  judgmental training simulator by IES Interactive Training of Littleton, CO. For  trainers, the big challenge ahead is adjusting tactics instruction to accommodate the realities Dr. Lewinski's research is disclosing. Up to now, he  said, we have based training on logic and persuasion-what seems to make sense  and what articulate instructors have convinced us is right. We need to base it  on scientific research because we now know that what's true is not always what  seems most logical. Dr. Lewinski ended his presentation with a private session  for homicide investigators in which they were invited to ask him questions about  current cases. One investigator commented afterward that I shared details of an  incident where an officer told me he was absolutely sure he had shot an armed  suspect in the chest-but the suspect was shot in the back. The deputy couldn't figure it out. I know that Dr. Lewinski's explanation of what probably happened  will go f ar in helping to ease that deputy's mind. Reflecting upon Dr.  Lewinski's research, an attendee who asked not to be identified said, We pay  out some large sums of money in officer-involved shootings that mirror the kinds  of difficult-to- explain situations Lewinski spoke about. After learning about  his research, there is absolutely no doubt this will change. The next day,  Hartshorne reported that the department was buzzing with discussion of Dr. Lewinski's findings.

Bill's presentation was the best training I've seen  in 25 years at Homicide Bureau, declared Sgt. Bumcrot who is reputed to have  investigated more officer-involved shootings than any other detective in the  country. I sat in awe of his findings. We've already begun to change some  policies because of them. Dr. Lewinski can be contacted at the Force Science  Research
Center's web- site:


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