THE BLOG
11/30/2014 09:06 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Police Shootings as Accidents

Dieter Spears via Getty Images

Some deaths from police shootings are crimes, ranging from negligent homicides to outright murder; but it's very difficult to know how many and nearly impossible to be sure about any particular case. We have had almost no success in dealing with these incidents by attempting to hold particular officers responsible.

The standard that an officer is justified in using lethal force if they are responding to a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm many be appropriate in deciding whether the officer is guilty of a crime; but it provides no protection for others. The officer may come to the confrontation already feeling fear -- is any increment to that fear sufficient? Can one tell instantly the difference between startle or surprise and fear? The incident last week in Cleveland where a 12-year-old with a BB pistol was killed is an example. The officer, no doubt, thought a real gun was being drawn to fire at him. The gun wasn't real and the kid, knowing it wasn't, could not have been trying to shoot the officer -- two mistakes in a flash resulting in a tragic death. We may never know if negligence, indifference or hostility made enough of a contribution to the causes to make this criminal; but the accidental component of the chain of causation is obvious.

Scientific investigation of accidents works when it is followed by action to implement the resulting recommendations. We have reduced the number of highway deaths per mile traveled by a factor of three in the last 30 years. The number of airline tragedies has gone down even more. Air crash investigation gives us an informative example of how it can be done. Leaving airliners aside, even small plane crashes produce a detailed and publicly released investigation report in every case. In the case of car crashes, the larger number lends itself to a sample. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gathers a sample that is scientifically designed to be representative and intensely studied in detail.

We don't even collect statistics on the gross number of people who are killed by police officers, we only have guesses that start at 400 and go upward. We have precise information about every officer killed, 33 of them by gunfire in 2013.

If we do study officer-involved shootings and find probable causes for them, we are going to, in my opinion, discover that training and the cultural perception of constant threat is the major factor -- it won't be bad will by the officers. Police and gun users in general are trained to shoot. They are not given real hands-on training in recognizing when an apparent threat isn't real. We may know in an intellectual way that a dark blob coming out of a pocket is as likely to be a cell phone or a wallet as to be a gun and that reaching for a waistband is far more likely to be about holding ones pants up that going for a weapon. We know that when we have time to think. So we think that we will know when to shoot or not to shoot.

But, when it's a crisis confrontation, there's not time to think. The training that's been ingrained into the body and the lower parts of the brain takes over. That training in our police agencies has been shoot, shoot fast and keep shooting. Every once in a while a training target that's supposed to represent an innocent, not to be shot, may pop up; but restraint isn't seriously taught. We should let three-quarters of the targets be subtle false threats and have the trainee who shoots a target showing a tiny little dirty orange plug in a barrel (signifying a toy gun) go home and start the course over. That would help.

Part of the problem is that we use being armed as the symbol of authority. Law officers feel they aren't genuine if they aren't carrying a firearm -- not just on the job but off-duty and after retirement. We have a bizarre federal law that says that officers can't be stopped from carrying guns by state or local governments or even by their own agencies when off duty. There is no room for the view that guns are a risk that must be weighed against the need for them. Deadly force is the only tool that's universally available for dealing with problems.

It's no wonder that honest cops of good will end up wondering: "What have I done?" Of course, being human, their wonder quickly turns into rationalization and a desperate search for an explanation.

If you want to understand just how bad are the reflexes trained into ordinary officers, you can look at the fusillade incidents where many officers empty their guns at once. Recent examples include one in LA where an estimated 33 officers fired 600 shots, one in Miami where dozens of cops shot 50 rounds, and an incident in Nebraska which killed a crew-member of the Cops TV Show as well as the suspect. It is not possible to believe that all of these shooters had identified a target that was a sufficient threat to require deadly force. General fire in the direction thought to be occupied by the enemy is a wartime tactic, but is extremely dangerous when practiced in our cities.

The trainers get their own attitudes from the industry of advisors who make a living painting a dangerous world and recommending aggressive ways to deal with it. Much of this is supported by gun and equipment manufacturers who want to sell things both to agencies and to the portion of the public who emulates law enforcement; but there are also those who are just consultants and advisers.

The Force Science Institute is an example of an organization that is well-known in the law enforcement community and illustrates the positions and attitudes of people who proclaim themselves experts in offensive and defensive use of force by law officers. They publish a continuous stream of justifications for the use of force. An example last month is in their newsletter Force Science News #267 which has "Suspects on a curb: Are you as safe as you may think?" as an article or in the next issue "What locations are riskiest for you? New study IDs worst sites." It's not any one statement or article but the development of a mindset that encourages shooting first and thinking later.

So if we can't effectively hold individual officers responsible, how do we get safety for our citizens. How do we get the policies and training that we need? I believe the answer is that we have to demand responsibility from the leaders and organizations; then they will get it from their people. We don't need certainty "beyond a reasonable doubt" to fire a police chief or to take a police department into receivership. If we do convict an occasional policeman in a rare clear case, that's likely to be viewed as just one "bad apple" and nothing will change. Management fired and departments disbanded will have an effect. First we need transparency, not just in some places but nationwide.