New study: We're getting better prepared to win on the street and in court
Part 1 of a 2-part series
We all know some of the "truths" of officer-involved shootings:
- A high percentage of officers leave law enforcement after they’re involved in a shooting.
- Suspects who try to kill officers are usually drunk, drugged, or deranged.
- When multiple cops are in an armed confrontation, they’ll likely experience “contagion fire” and blast off a wild fusillade of rounds.
- In matters of deadly force, when you’re sued, you’re screwed.
Maybe not. Based on a new study of lethal force, it may be time to dump these and other venerable “truths” about police encounters into the dustbin of myth.
What is true, according to the latest findings by Dr. Darrell Ross, long-time police trainer, researcher, and expert witness, is hearteningly positive: modern training is paying off for officers in high-stress situations, and the life-or-death decisions they’re forced to make “in nanoseconds” are being overwhelmingly supported in the judicial process.
In short, says Ross, his study reveals “a resounding common trend: We’re getting better prepared for the realities of the street, and we’re winning there and in court.”
Because of the select nature of Ross’ research sample, “it cannot necessarily be generalized to all police shootings,” observes Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “But his excellent and important work brings to light fascinating discoveries about some force encounters that should encourage and motivate trainers, as well as stimulate additional research.”
Ross, who heads the Dept. of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University, presented his research into suspect behavior, “contextual cues,” and officer performance, during a 4-hr. session at this year’s annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Assn. (ILEETA). He recently supplemented his remarks in lengthy interviews with Force Science News.
We begin our series of reports on his important findings with his sometimes-surprising discoveries about officer/subject factors in deadly clashes and the aftermaths that swirl in the wake of controversial cases.
Ross analyzed roughly “10 years’ worth of case material” from 86 lethal force incidents. These confrontations involved 121 officers from 94 municipal, county, state, and campus LE agencies, large and small, from across the U.S., although predominantly (45%) from the Central states. All told, these officers fired 340 shots. Ninety-seven per cent of the suspects were killed, but all officers survived, although about 4 in 10 suffered injuries requiring treatment.
“All were high-profile incidents in which I was an expert witness for officers and their agencies in lawsuits, usually Section 1983 [federal civil rights] actions,” Ross explains. Wrongful and excessive force was universally alleged. Because of his expert status, Ross had extensive access to reports, investigative files, crime scene evidence, detailed personal interviews, depositions, sworn testimony, training records, and other revealing documentation. He personally visited 65% of the shooting locations under time and weather conditions that mimicked the event to accurately perceive the atmosphere.
For the most part, the shootings occurred in 1 of 4 circumstances: the investigation of a suspicious person or activity (32%), during a domestic call (20%), during a vehicle stop (18%), or after a vehicle pursuit (15%).
All officers and all suspects were male. Of officers, 55% were white, 30% black, 15% Asian. Their average age was 34, average time in LE 11 years. Some 80% had at least 2 years of college. Seventy per cent were working patrol at the time of the shooting, and for 93%, the shooting analyzed was their first.
Seining through thousands of facts in his resource pool, Ross has netted a number of factors that he feels are particularly significant in terms of force dynamics, training, and performance. Some examples:
In contrast to the persistent belief that most offenders shot by police are chemically or emotionally disturbed, 85% of the suspects in Ross’ study were sober. A minority (25%) were “mentally impaired.” More than 1/3 had no prior criminal history. “Officers need to be aware,” Ross says, “that they can get dangerous resistance from virtually anyone. People do crazy wild stuff even sober, and without a hard-core criminal past.”
Also, 65% of the suspects shot were white, challenging the media- and activist-fueled impression that police deadly force involves “just white officers killing blacks.”
Forty per cent of the offenders in this study used or tried to use a motor vehicle as a weapon, and more than 1/4 of the officers involved were actually struck--figures that Ross considers surprisingly high. “Is this a new national trend, or something just true of this sample?” he wonders. He isn’t sure. But training in avoiding vehicular assault, such as the pioneering program launched for the Tempe (AZ) PD by Sgt. Craig Stapp, an advisor to the Force Science Research Center, certainly seems prescient to these circumstances.
In all but 3 of Ross’ cases there was a lone suspect and he confronted a lone officer 43% of the time. In 27% of the encounters, multiple officers were present but only 1 fired. Even when multiple officers discharged their weapon (usually a Glock handgun), they averaged just 4 rounds apiece. Media-hyped scenarios in which multiple officers perforate a single suspect with unrestrained volleys are rare anomalies indeed, Ross points out. Much more commonly, even in the presence of other officers “each individual tends to display a disciplined discernment of threat and an understanding of when it is appropriate for him to use deadly force.”
With multiple rounds flying, “you would think that errant shots might hit innocent bystanders,” Ross notes, “but I found no cases of this.”
Interestingly, officers shoot better when they’re alone. Those facing a suspect by themselves delivered their rounds with an 80% accuracy rate. With multiple officers firing, the group accuracy fell to 60%.
Few shootings evolved from a static, flat-footed stance. In most cases, officers were physically active shortly before shooting, either conducting a foot pursuit (30%), grappling with the suspect (20%), and/or exerting other movement (40%). Four out of 10 said they had to shoot while moving, with 3% firing while being dragged by a vehicle. “All this affects heart rate, breathing, and other physiological responses, and needs to be accommodated for in training,” Ross says.
He believes officers in the study benefited from a generally high level of physical fitness. Ninety per cent reported maintaining some type of aerobic and strength-conditioning workout at least once a week, with 34% hitting the gym 3-4 days a week and 15% 5 days a week.
Only 15% of the officers had the luxury of using cover. The rest were caught unprotected and even if they tried to move to cover, they didn’t have time to reach it before the shooting was over. Amazingly, 1 out of 4 was not wearing soft body armor.
About 75% of the shootings occurred after the involved officer had been on duty from 4 to 10 hours, from 1/2 to 2/3 into their shift. About 15% were working overtime. Would this suggest that fatigue may have been a factor in the decision to shoot? Ross says he detected no evidence of this in his interviews with the shooters, which typically lasted 3 hours and extensively probed influences on the officers’ frame of mind. “But be prepared for plaintiffs’ attorneys trying to drag this in as a red herring to bolster a weak case.”
Modern training methods were strongly evident in the shooters’ backgrounds. All had trained in shooting from varied positions and extensively in shooting at night. Seventy-five per cent had practiced instinct shooting, 85% had experience with Simunitions rounds, and 3/4 had scenario-based firearms instruction and exposure to FATS-type systems. Forty per cent had been to a Street Survival Seminar, 55% had trained in reading body language, and roughly 1/3 practiced mental imagery exercises.
“All this reflects really good academy and in-service training, employing a wave of techniques that have emerged over the last decade,” Ross says. “As officers and as total personalities, these men were very squared away, well prepared for their deadly force encounters.”
Encouragingly, Ross did not find evidence of the profound personal and professional nosedive that some observers would have us believe commonly follows in the wake of a shooting. Two years afterward, 90% of the involved officers were still employed in law enforcement. Indeed, 30% had achieved promotions in rank and responsibility.
Only 25% said they had experienced post-shooting stress, usually relatively mild transitory events like nightmares, sleep disruption, temporary substance abuse, obsessively dwelling on the incident, job and relationship problems, and such. Twenty per cent said they had experienced some marital problems in the aftermath, but only half of that group ended up divorcing and most reported that the special stress of the shooting was only one of many factors contributing to the split.
Eight out of 10 said their departments were supportive, providing access to critical incident debriefing, counseling, legal assistance, and/or other indications of “being behind the officer,” Ross reports. “The better the department gave the officers positive support and encouragement, the better they were able to deal with post-shooting stress issues.”
Having lived through a shooting experience, would the officers hesitate to pull the trigger if faced with similar circumstances again? Eighty-eight per cent said No. The 12% who said they might pause, potentially putting their lives at greater danger, are a “small but important minority,” Ross says, “who represent a training challenge that should not be overlooked.”
Overwhelmingly, officers and departments in the study fared well in the lawsuits against them. More than half won without even going to trial, when judges ruled in their favor with summary judgments. Of the 1/3 who went to trial, all won, thanks in part to officers “testifying well in court and writing solid reports,” Ross says. Fourteen per cent settled out of court, (not necessarily indicative of bad cases but more likely of risk-management jitters, Ross speculates). None was charged criminally.
Even though 35% of the suspects who were shot turned out not to have a lethal weapon, judges and juries seemed to understand the severe limitations officers were operating under when making their decisions. For instance, 65% of the shootings occurred outdoors at night or in low-light conditions. And while contact with a suspect may have gone on for several minutes, officers in 95% of the cases had less than 2 seconds (less than 1 second for 70%) to perceive a sudden threat and react to it. “Legally,” Ross points out, “an officer’s force decisions don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be objectively reasonable given the totality of circumstances.”
Ross cites several arguments commonly advanced by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in an effort to discredit the force decisions the officers made in the cases he reviewed:
--The officer “created the harm or put himself in harm’s way” because he used poor tactics.
--Officers are trained to use lethal force only as a “last resort.”
--Officers are trained to use “the least amount of force necessary.”
--Officers “must demonstrate a ‘rational fear’ of an imminent threat to justify shooting.”
--Officers are “directed to use levels of force incrementally over several seconds;” i.e., to advance gradually, step by step through trial and error, up the force continuum.
All these assertions are erroneous, Ross insists, and were recognized by judicial reviewers in his study as not representing modern constitutional standards.
The strength of Ross’ study, he says, is that it highlights “trends and patterns that officers, trainers, and administrators need to know about. These are officers who survived on the street and in court because of their decision-making. Their experiences reflect what’s happening in the field.
“Training should be designed to match reality. If you want your officers to be as successful as these officers, you have to devote the time and money in training to model what they were challenged to cope with and hope you get the same results.”
Read Part 2