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Calif. Citizens' Academy puts civilians in the OIS hot seat

The dominant goal of citizen police academy programs is to get civilians to walk a mile in an officer’s boots. Thanks to the creativity of Force Science Analyst Steven Goard, those who attend the academy conducted by the Livermore (Calif.) PD walk an important extra mile--through the landmines of a simulated OIS investigation that tests their memory and perceptions of a personal controversial shooting.

The participants, including some police critics, learn first hand the vagaries of human behavior under pressure and the challenges of credibly defending a deadly force decision that may seem suspicious to outside observers.

“Invariably they’re shocked by the experience,” says Goard, who has now developed the OIS-investigation feature across 10 of his department’s citizen academy sessions.

Among many satisfying payoffs, he recalls the reaction of an African-American woman in her late 60s. “I feel guilty,” she told Goard as she shook his hand after the exercise. “For years, I’ve been skeptical of the police. I bought into the way the media report police shootings. I just didn’t have the knowledge to enlighten my thinking.”

Speaking for the Force Science Institute, executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski notes, “Part of our mission is to educate the public about the truth of use-of-force dynamics. Steve Goard has crafted a memorable way of doing that. It’s an approach that other agencies and the communities they serve could benefit greatly from following.”

At 38, Goard has been a Livermore cop for nearly nine years, cycling through assignments in training, SWAT, sex crimes investigation, and patrol. An avid student of human behavior, he’s currently working toward a master’s degree in psychology. He’s read so deeply on the subject that his fellow officers have nicknamed him Bookworm. After FSI began offering its certification course in Force Science Analysis, he attended at his own expense to further pursue what he calls “my passion.”

Even before that training, he’d been integrating Force Science concepts into his department’s semi-annual citizen academy after hearing Lewinski speak at a seminar in nearby San Francisco. Further fueled by his Analyst training, he expanded and polished the initial content into its present format.

The citizen academy meets roughly four hours a week for 17 weeks. About half way through the term, after they’ve sat through use-of-force lectures, experienced a simulator exercise, and fired some of the department’s SWAT weapons, Goard introduces the 30-35 participants typically enrolled to a special force-on-force scenario.

Partnered up and armed with Glock Simunitions pistols in a shoot house built by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, they’re instructed to respond to a given 911 call and “handle the scene as you think appropriate based on what you’ve learned in class and as you think police officers should in real life.”

At the scene, each pair encounters role-players in circumstances that quickly evolve into a tense situation designed to make the “officers” feel threatened. Details vary, but the core action generally involves a subject pulling out a cell phone, reaching for a wallet, brandishing a toy gun (plainly signified by an orange tip), gripping a power drill, or displaying angry gestures.

“Invariably at least one of the student partners shoots, and most often both do,” Goard explains. “When the scenario is at its highest peak, a safety officer standing directly behind them activates an air horn or fires several blank rounds at the floor from a .38 handgun.” Everything is captured from different angles by a battery of hidden video cameras.

Immediately after the scenario, the partners are separated and told that since 1 or both used deadly force, they will need to undergo a mini OIS investigation. They are then told to fill out a questionnaire or submit to an oral interview about what happened.

The questions are based primarily on information typically sought after a police shooting, according to what prosecutors and survivors of real OISs have told Goard. In part, these include:

• Describe the call.
• What did you first observe at the scene?
• What were the suspect’s actions?
• What did you do?
• What, if any, level of force did you use?
• If you used your firearm, how many rounds did you shoot?
• Describe the suspect.
• Describe the scene.
• What kind of weapon did the suspect display, if any?
• What did you feel or experience during the encounter?
• What was said by you and by the suspect?
• What did your partner do?
• Did you hear any loud noises?
• Did you see any guns with orange tips?

And so on. “We get a lot of blank looks or blank spaces on the questionnaires because they don’t remember,” Goard says.

That task over, with no further discussion “I tell the students that I’ll be doing a presentation for the class at a later date to discuss their scenarios,” Goard says. During off hours at home, he then carefully edits footage from the cameras to reconstruct a comprehensive picture of each encounter and burns all of them to a DVD that will later be played and given to the students.

The defining moment comes weeks later shortly before graduation day. Goard starts off with some important preliminaries. First, the students are asked to again write down an account of what happened during their scenario. Then Goard shows them dash-cam recordings from YouTube or PoliceOne’s BLUtube of various “mistaken judgment” shootings involving cell phones, toy guns, and other controversial elements. “I ask them to comment, and they generally remark on how ‘really bad’ the incident looks and express doubts about the involved officers’ justification for shooting,” he says.

Finally, he plays the videos of them using force and compares what the hidden cameras documented with the articulation of events they gave. “You can actually feel the shock in the room,” Goard told Force Science News.

Certain consistencies arise class after class:

After their encounters, “all the students report seeing a gun or seeing a gun actually fired at them, which prompted them to shoot,” Goard says. “Yet in the videos, they see themselves using deadly force on people with wallets, cell phones, drills, and unarmed.” One student described a role-player as threateningly pointing an automatic rifle; in reality the “suspect” pointed aggressively with his arm.

• “They’re also always surprised at what they didn’t see that was right in front of them, how much the mind ignores under stress,” Goard says. “Amazingly, none of the students recall hearing the air horn or the blanks being fired, nor do they complain about their ears ringing even though they didn’t have ear protection. And they never see the orange tips on toy guns. A common comment is, ‘I didn’t have time to pay attention to that.’ They were worried about whether they were going to die, not about looking for orange tips.”
• Typically, the students fire more rounds than they estimate in their reports. One who said he shot only 4 times actually shot 19. Some have inaccurately claimed there was no suspect weapon in their scenario and that they didn’t shoot at all.
• Some are sobered to see that they kept “shooting and shooting and shooting--maybe 6 or seven additional rounds--even though the suspect was down and not fighting back.” Or that they shot a suspect in the back when they said they had shot him in the chest.
• At least 85 percent of the students find they haven’t given accurate descriptions of the suspect, of important scene elements, or of their partner’s behavior, Goard says.
• There tend to be major differences between accounts the students give when initially questioned about their shooting and when describing the event again weeks later. In some cases, their memories have improved significantly with time. But there have been instances in which students in their second telling describe scenarios they weren’t even involved in, having apparently internalized someone else’s experience during conversations about the exercise. There are also notable differences between the accounts partners offer about the same scenario, just as there often are between fellow officers in real-world shootings.

The inconsistencies and omissions open the door for Goard to confront the students with some of the suspicions officers under investigation often have to contend with in similar circumstances: Are you lying... conspiring...contriving amnesia...trying to cover up unsavory truths?

Goard completes his presentation by explaining some of Force Science’s research findings regarding reaction time, turning time, “excessive” shots, attentional blindness, and other behavioral phenomena associated with high-stress, life-threatening encounters. He also reports on the well-known studies of perceptual distortions conducted by Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a National Board Member for FSI and a faculty member for its certification course. “The students are always very surprised at how similar their experiences are to her discoveries,” Goard says.

“Overall, it’s quite a ride,” he concludes. “From the feedback we get, I do believe that the exercise broadens the citizens’ views of officer-involved shootings and opens their minds to the ways controversial shootings can be sensationalized. We’re only 35 miles from where the BART shooting occurred, so we’re very familiar with how police actions can get distorted.

“It’s interesting to hear data, but it’s always more powerful to get at least a taste of how data transforms into reality. And the fact is that these people may someday be jurors, judging a police-shooting case. Hopefully, they’ll remember their experience and cut a well-intentioned officer some slack.”

Goard left us with a fascinating footnote. He mentioned that the academy graduates often share the DVD of the scenarios that he gives them with civilian friends while explaining the cognitive shortcomings that were exposed during the mock investigation. “Sometimes those friends attend future academies,” he says, “and even though they’ve seen the scenarios they still make the very same mistakes when it’s their turn behind the gun.”

For more information, Steve Goard can be reached at: SGoard@ci.livermore.ca.us.

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