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The angry specter of "shot in the back" rises once again
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A volatile and crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side came close to exploding recently after an officer shot a convicted teenage drug dealer in the back. Police said the 18-year-old, with at least nine arrests on his record, was pointing a 9mm pistol at the officer during a street stop when the officer’s fatal round was fired.
Disbelieving and outraged, neighborhood residents reacted across several days by hurling rocks, bottles, and epithets at the police, claiming cops on their streets are to be feared as much as violent criminals. The deceased’s family filed the inevitable lawsuit for “wrongful” death. And the Chicago Tribune reported that many who protested the shooting “questioned how [the suspect] could’ve been aiming at police when he was shot in the back.”
That question, at the heart of a long list of controversial police shootings across the U.S. and abroad, was answered by science years ago. Eight and a half years ago, to be exact — on 3/9/99, when Calibre Press’ Street Survival Newsline first reported to the law enforcement community the results of a ground-breaking study by Dr. Bill Lewinski, the behavioral scientist who now heads the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato
It was followed by two articles by Lewinski in The Police Marksman Magazine, documenting his findings in detail: “The Suspect Is Shot in the Back. Is Your Shooting Clean?”, with Dave Grossi in the Sept./Oct. 1999 issue, and "Why Is the Suspect Shot in the Back?” in the Nov/Dec. 2000 issue
According to the medical examiner’s office, the shot at the young Chicago criminal entered his upper left rear shoulder and exited through his neck. Exact details of the circumstances are still under investigation at this writing, but Lewinski’s research offers a credible explanation of how such cases often play out.
“Simply stated, it’s a matter of time and motion, of action and reaction,” Lewinski says. “Once the dynamics are understood, they make perfect sense.”
Starting with 25 law enforcement students and then progressing through other groups of volunteer role players, Lewinski recorded on time-coded videotape a variety of threatening movements commonly made by assailants when attacking police officers.
Over a series of tests, he timed how long it takes threatening subjects to raise a .22-cal. revolver from beside their thigh to shoulder height and pull the trigger. He found that to just “throw” a shot without aiming or establishing target acquisition takes an average of .25 second.
He then calculated times for other suspect movements, including how quickly a subject fully facing an officer can spin 180 degrees and run straight away. “This took an average of .54 second, with the fastest recorded as .37 second,” he says.
Keep those figures in mind.
Lewinski also timed officers’ responses—how long does it take an officer’s brain to perceive an action (like the threatening movement of a suspect’s gun), process that information, and complete a reaction (like firing his service weapon in self-defense).
Even starting with his or her gun in a ready position at approximately waist level, the average officer needs .73 second to raise the weapon up to near eye level, get a flash sight picture, and squeeze off a round, Lewinski discovered. Firing without a sight picture requires .64 second. Drawing a sidearm, of course, takes longer—up to 1.9 seconds or even more, depending on the type of holster involved.
Do the math, as Lewinski did based on his extensive data. “If a suspect was raising a weapon to shoot an officer as the suspect turned and ran and the officer reacted by firing, the suspect would have turned so far by the time the round hit him that he would unavoidably be shot somewhere in the back,” Lewinski explains.
“The angle of bullet entry would vary depending on the speed of the officer and the rotation of the subject. But any rounds would strike from a slight side/rear angle to a direct 90-degree rear entry.
“Even if the officer had his gun up on target—aimed at the suspect’s chest—when the suspect started to turn, enough of the rotation would be completed that the round would strike toward the suspect’s back.”
But couldn’t the officer see that the suspect was turning away and stop himself from pulling the trigger?
No, Lewinski insists. He examined over 600 cases of shooting decisions made under high stress by officers and could find only two instances in which an officer was able to keep himself from firing at a suspect once he had decided to do so.
“The reason is rooted in survival psychology,” Lewinski explains. “Once your brain decides you need to shoot to protect your life, it is nearly impossible to physically interrupt the completion of that action. You are concentrating on making your defensive action happen as quickly as possible. There simply isn’t time for you to notice and process that some cue in the environment has changed.
“In a life-threatening encounter on the street, an officer has to react as the situation presents itself, not as it is going to become.”
Lewinski has used his action/reaction studies in scores of civil and criminal cases as an expert witness on behalf of officers and agencies accused of wrongdoing in fatal shootings. (A number of these have been written up in detail and can be found by searching the archives of this column and of the Force Science News, which appears on the PoliceOne website.) In these cases, his testimony has saved government entities millions of dollars in civil damages and has kept a number of officers accused of murder or manslaughter from going to prison.
He notes: “When judges and juries understand the dynamics involved, the timing disparity between action and reaction, they can see clearly how an officer can decide to shoot to defend himself against a frontal threat, how one or more rounds can impact in a suspect’s back because of the suspect’s turning movements, and how that result is neither illegal, negligent, or malevolently intended.”
It is expecting too much, of course, for activist protesters and families of suspects killed by the police to accept this. When they raise questions about officers’ actions, they’re not looking for scientific answers. Facts don’t drive their agendas.
The challenge is how do we reach the mainstream media so this information becomes a legitimate part of the stories they report? How do we reach prosecutors and I.A. investigators and review board members who will determine the righteousness of an OIS? How do we reach ordinary, open-minded citizens so they understand these dynamics before it has to be explained to them in a jury box?
Eight and a half years and counting….