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Why Cops Pull The Trigger: Pulling Back The Curtain On Police Shootings

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"Why Cops Pull The Trigger: Pulling Back The Curtain On Police Shootings"

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Last Friday, Los Angeles Police Department officers shot dead a mentally ill man who had already gotten out of his car after a police chase with his hands up. The incident, which was broadcast on national television for all to judge, was the latest in a string of more than a dozen police shootings that have surfaced in the news just in the last few months. Before that, it was the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tyler Comstock after his father called the cops to report that his son drove away in his car. And other incidents involved death during traffic stop, calls to police for help with a mentally ill family member, and a man whose watering hose was mistaken for a gun.

While national data is not collected on police shootings, available studies suggest excessive use of police force is rarely punished. In the Iowa incident, the county attorney deemed the shooting legally justified, raising renewed questions about when police can and should turn to use of a gun, when another tactic or tool might do the job. While the LAPD incident is still under investigation, a critical look back at several of the other recent incidents through ThinkProgress interviews with former officers, firearms trainers, and academics, reveal that policy and training may be as much to blame as human error.

When You Call The Cops For Help

The Iowa chain of events started when Tyler Comstock got into an argument with his father because he wouldn’t buy him a pack of cigarettes. When Comstock drove away in his father’s truck, his father called the cops to intervene. His father lamented afterward, “It was over a damn pack of cigarettes. … And I lose my son for that.”

Criminal justice professor and former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos said the family was wrong to call the police. While many think officers play a role in community affairs, Moskos says police view their jobs otherwise. “This idea that cops are always at your beck and call is the basis of the 911 system and it doesn’t work,” Moskos said. “When you call the police, you have to remember what cops do is arrest people. If you don’t want to be arrested, you probably shouldn’t call the police.”

Or if you don’t want someone to die. Several other recent incidents involved calls to police to calm down a mentally ill relative, and to report a suspicious person who turned out to be seeking help for a car accident. Kyle Kazan, a former police officer in Los Angeles County, said shootings in these sorts of circumstances are “not uncommon,” because when the cops show up, “they don’t know why this person is acting up.”

The Chill Of The Chase

Once the Comstock dispute became a police matter, several former officers agree the fatal mistake was that officers opted to chase the car — and to keep chasing. Most departments now have strong policies strictly limiting police chases because they are so particularly dangerous. Just this week in Los Angeles, four police chases led to five deaths. Many jurisdictions allow police pursuits only for felonies, only where the suspect has not been identified, and only with the permission of a supervisor. None of these circumstances applied here, and the officer was advised at least twice by dispatchers to halt the chase.

“I can’t think of a more useless time to chase than when you know the suspect is a family member,” Moskos said.

In fact, the chase appears to have violated the Ames Police Department’s Pursuit of Motor Vehicles policy, because it dispatched 6 to 7 vehicles, contrary to rules that limit chases to two vehicles unless the on-duty shift supervisor specifically directs otherwise. The county attorney’s legal assessment finding the shooting legally justified did not even mention the chase, let alone whether it contravened department policy.

David Long, a former Department of Labor special agent who conducted firearms trainings, faults the county attorney’s report for not acknowledging the significance of the chase to the outcome. “[The report said] the chase was putting other people at risk. Well he was putting other people at risk because he was being chased,” said Long, who now teaches criminal justice and legal studies at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif.

Unfortunately, once the chase began, the situation quickly escalated. Comstock didn’t pull over for police, reportedly running a red light, driving erratically away from police, and leading them to the Iowa State campus. Police rammed Comstock’s car, and later he, in turn rammed theirs. Police blocked his car with theirs on the lawn of the university, where officers approached the car and asked Comstock to get out. When he didn’t and he jerked the car backward again, officers fired seven shots into the vehicle.

The county attorney reasoned that gunfire was an appropriate response because the vehicle is considered a deadly weapon, and some commentators agree. Moskos and Kazan both said at that point, the use of force was justified because Comstock could have harmed the officers or college students with his vehicle.

“I wish the guy had just given up [during the chase],” Kazan said. “I wish this didn’t go down this way. This guy didn’t need to be dead and this officer doesn’t need to have this kind of shooting on his conscience for the rest of his life. It’s a toughie. It’s bad for all.”

But Long said even at that point, the shooting was “problematic.” “If he was unarmed, I could not see how he would be posing a danger in a vehicle that was no longer in operation,” he said. Even if the vehicle was jerking forward, he said, (which it reportedly was) police could have used lesser measures against a suspect they knew was unarmed, such as breaking the window with a baton, and then using pressure points, a Taser, or other measures to incapacitate Comstock. There are dangers to using a baton because the officer exposes herself to the suspect. But given that police knew who Comstock was and why he was driving, those risks were minimal, Long said.

Immobilizing someone in a vehicle poses particular challenges, which is why policies advise cops to avoid car chases in the first place. Many of the other tools available to police don’t work on someone who is in a locked, sealed vehicle.

Weapons Of Less Destruction

For those incidents that occur in open air, police have many more options. This is why the LAPD shooting Friday of Brian Newt Beaird after the car chase had ended and he exited his car was particularly alarming. A few weeks after Comstock was killed, police shot dead a mentally ill man after he came out of his house carrying a shovel. The month before, a man seeking help after a car accident was Tased and then shot dead by police after a homeowner called the cop to report the man at his door.

Once police turn to their guns, protocol is to aim for the chest or head and to keep shooting until the threat is removed. In other words, they are aiming to inflict grievous bodily harm if not death — not minor injury. So why are police turning to a deadly weapon simply to incapacitate an unknown threat when other, lesser measures, might do?

While technology and science limit the options for non-lethal incapacitation, many tools exist that have that precise intended purpose. “I think there’s always room for improvement in non-lethal technology. … With that said I think we have at our hands right now a high-level of nonlethal technology available to police agencies,” Long said. “And I guess in the situations that it’s used appropriately, we don’t hear about it. But there’s many instances that I perceive that nonlethal force was the appropriate way to go and instead we have somebody shot to death by the police.”

Tasers were designed as a nonlethal option for incapacitating a suspect. But they have been clouded in controversy for their inappropriate use, and for their potential to sometimes prove fatal. Moskos said a Taser is “very rarely used instead of a gun.” Frequently, this is because cops don’t carry the Taser with them when they leave the vehicle. Moskos said he is happy that cops don’t carry Tasers more frequently because they are “vastly overused.”

Still, Tasers are significantly less deadly than guns, particularly if officers don’t aim them at the chest. And Long said they should be carried — and used — much more frequently as an alternative to guns, and less frequently in the course of a non-threatening police stop. Also intended to be nondeadly, but occasionally lethal, are bean bag rounds — small fabric pillows with lead shocks shot out of a gun to temporarily immobilize a suspect through a huge shock. “It kind of distributes the lead shot over the target so it’s definitely not designed to kill to be lethal,” Long said. “It’s … designed to cause minimum long-term injury.”

Long also called pepper spray “a wonderful tool.” “A suspect holding a shovel not yet swinging it, you hit him with pepper spray and it’s good to probably ten to 15 feet, that can disable him,” he said. He also said a Taser or a bean bag round would have been more than sufficient.

Another weapon officers have is their own force, which Moskos said officers should use more frequently, but training and fear get in the way. “It should be a hands-on job, but the people who make the rules don’t like that because they get sued and cops get hurt, and so they go for this notion of hands-off policing,” he said. “One crazy person, six cops, grab the motherfucker, and six people can take out one person.”

Long said officers could keep some of these tools in their cars or on their belts, if departments provided for that. But, he added, just because an officer doesn’t have a non-deadly tool on hand doesn’t change the standard for using lethal force. Under federal and most local policies, officers are permitted to use deadly force “in defense of yourself or a third party who can reasonably be said to be in danger of grievous bodily injury or death.” “The key word is reasonable,” said Long.

In the LAPD incident, one early theory is that one officer shot a bean bag round, and other officers mistook it for a gunshot, prompting them to support their fellow officer with more gunshots.

“If you should be using nonlethal force and your nonlethal weapon doesn’t work as is appropriate, then why are you turning to a lethal force weapon when nonlethal is appropriate?” he said. “Just because your nonlethal doesn’t work, doesn’t hike the use of force continuum to lethal, so that makes no sense.”

‘Militaristic’ Policing

Long attributed some of this “militaristic” mentality to a shift during the War on Drugs, which “basically gives police a carte blanche to do what they want and get away with it.”

Other factors include the types of individuals who are attracted to policing. Police love a chase. Even as Moskos blasted the officers in the Iowa incident for engaging in a vehicle pursuit, he said he probably would have done the same in their situation, which is why it’s so important to have rules and a chain of command that curb that behavior. “There’s a strong instinct to catch the bad guy as a cop. That’s what you do. … And it’s fun. And the adrenaline’s flowing. … So you have to assume that cops will want to chase and you also fight that urge. … Usually that decision is not up to the officer. And it shouldn’t be in most cases.”

Other important training elements include dealing with the mentally ill, who are disproportionately victims of deadly force. Among the recommendations of a recent report to police chiefs on the use of force against those with mental illness or addiction problems are “slowing down the situation” by getting a supervisor to the scene, and identifying “chronic consumers” of police services. The man with the shovel had been a frequent consumer of police services, without incident. And in the LAPD incident, the victim was believed to be schnizophrenic and may have fled from a traffic stop because he was scared by the police lights and heard voices — not because he was drunk, as police contended.

The psychology of policing is also influenced by officers’ exposure to a disproportionate amount of violence. As Philadelphia Commissioner Charles Ramsey said in a report on police use of force, “When you ride around all day long and you’re dealing with shootings, you’re dealing with robberies, you’re dealing with all this violent crime that’s constantly going on, that’s going to also influence how you respond in certain situations. And we have to take that into account in our training. We teach our officers to try to interact with people and realize that not everybody in a given neighborhood is a thug or a criminal, they’re not all out to hurt you. These are important things that I think we’ve got to face head on.”

Data suggests that current training is only exacerbating this psychological bias. Psychology Professor Dennis Rosenbaum is studying officers and has found that they come out of police academy already having a bias toward use of force.

The Record Effect

Prominent, oftentimes racially charged police shootings of unarmed individuals are nothing new, and have caused public outrage for decades. But recently, they have emerged in the news with seemingly greater frequency.

Long said this isn’t because anything has changed; it’s because the public has more information from photos, videos, and other recordings.

“I can’t even call it a trend,” Long said. “I think it’s been going on for years and years. But just with the advent of technology of people being able to capture these events, I think they’re coming to light more and more. In the past, I think people would just fabricate and deny and nobody was the wiser.”

In fact, wearing cameras is another reform that has been associated with a dramatic reduction in use of police force. Dashcams — cameras attached to police cars — have become very common. And many jurisdictions are passing bills to equip police with “body cameras.” When police aren’t wearing cameras, some incidents are still suppressed by the wrongful arrest of photographers and journalists during force incidents.

Even in the best of circumstances, however, and in the eye of a recording device, incidents sometimes happen because police are afraid, particularly when the threat of danger is unclear.

“It’s the only job I’ve ever had — and I’ve had several — where your number one goal is to survive your shift, your number two goal is for your partner to survive your shift, the number three goal is for the shift to survive the night or the day,” said Kazan, who has since left the police profession to work in real state.

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