With the almost constant barrage of unjustified police shootings in the news, you’d think that police training would start emphasizing how to not gun down innocent people. But if you thought that, you’d be dead wrong. Instead, the typical police training continues to stress shoot first and ask questions later.
First, let’s look at the clear pattern: police officers see something in a suspect’s hands (or a suspect raising his hands) and immediately react by shooting him. Georgia teen Christopher Roupe was shot and killed at point blank range when he answered his door holding a wii remote. In Arizona, John Loxas was shot and killed on his front porch by a police officer while Loxas held nothing in his hands except his nine month old grandson. This same officer had fatally shot 5 others, and each time his police department had found the shootings to be justified. Videos show Texas police officers shooting Gilbert Flores for putting his hands up over his head. In Chicago, Ontario Billups was gunned down by a police officer who supposedly mistook the bag of pot he was holding for a gun. And we all remember the horror of Amadou Diallo, standing on his stoop holding a wallet and shot 41 times by police.
So what are police being taught with regard to when to shoot suspects? Police training should be emphasizing de-escalation, but instead, the officers are mostly drilled with the opposite message. Seth Stoughton, a law school professor and former police officer, describes the message constantly reiterated to cadets at police training: “There are countless variations, but the [police training] lessons are the same: Hesitation can be fatal. So officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute because the last minute may be too late.” The police training mantra Stoughton learned was, “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” Boiled down to its essence, shoot first, ask questions later.
One of the most prominent and problematic police training experts in the country is psychology professor William J. Lewinski. Lewinski has testified or consulted in hundreds of cases, each time claiming that a police shooting was justified. He charges $1000 per hour, and he delivers a polished performance for the money. His testimony is always the same: the police officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person, even when shooting someone in the back. The officer acted appropriately even if witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer’s version of events. Essentially, according to Lewinski, police officers should always shoot first, ask questions later.
Lewinski’s company, the Force Science Institute, has trained tens of thousands of police officers around the country. They’ve trained police departments from Cincinnati to Las Vegas, Milwaukee to Seattle. They also give seminars and offer training certificates in most major cities. The message of the trainings is that police officers need to shoot before making a full assessment of the true threat.
With officers being trained to embrace this knee-jerk reaction (or trigger-jerk reaction) to fear, it’s no wonder we continue to read about new police shooting tragedies with no sign of a break. And, of course, the reflexive shooting becomes all the more troubling when unconscious racial biases are added into the mix. Officers fear black men, and they therefore react by shooting black men far more frequently than other groups. It is time to rethink how we train police officers. There are no national standards. Until officers start learning to pause, assess, and de-escalate where possible, we are going to continue to read about the cops gunning down innocent lives.