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Has policing in America gone too far?
After police in Sacramento shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s yard, California lawmakers proposed legislation that only allows police to shoot people if there are no other reasonable options. But as Newshour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports, law enforcement officers are already trained to prepare for and de-escalate tense situations.
"Proceed, Providence, is that affirmative, is that the right vehicle?"
Providence Rhode Island, November 9th, 2017. A call came across the radio. Be on the lookout for a white Ford F-150.
"It's a newer model, white Ford F-150."
A suspect had stolen a police cruiser, then ditched it. Now he had hopped into the truck.
"He just went over to the high speed lane, he is still continuing on Route 10."
Police quickly located a white Ford, and pursued the driver up route 10 North to an exit ramp.
"He just went on the 95 North. He may be getting stuck in traffic there."
They surrounded him. It was 9 o'clock in the morning, in heavy traffic. He tried to flee the scene. And they proceed to put 40 9mm rounds into the cab, and it turns out it was the wrong guy.
The white pickup was a Ford. Just not the right Ford. The driver, who was killed, had nothing to do with the stolen police cruiser. A grand jury found the shooting to be justified anyway, because the man's driving was putting lives at risk. The Rhode Island ACLU said it was the officers who put lives at risk by firing at the truck.
I'd be the last person in the world to second guess an officer in that type of situation, but in many of these instances, you have to question whether there was something else that could have been done to prevent them being in that situation where it's shoot or be killed.
Of the many difficult questions that surround a police shooting in America, Paul Jensen's has long been on the periphery. He's the CEO of Massachusetts-based Security Devices International, SDI for short. SDI has spent nearly a decade developing products Jensen believes can safely stop a threat from a range of distances without the officer having to shoot to kill.
"Live on the range. Fire!"
One example. SDI's 40mm blunt impact round, or BIP. Fired from a military grade grenade launcher, it's what they call a stand off weapon. Traveling at 300 feet a second, it's accurate at up to 160 feet hitting a target with the force of a baseball coming off a bat. Its silicone tip expands upon contact, slowing the round and broadening the area of impact. It's very painful, but it doesn't penetrate the skin.
Stop breathing and gently pull it. Dead center.
Jensen won't say how many BIPS SDI has sold, but he does say the company has doubled its sales in each of the last three years. It sells to police departments all over the U.S. and also law enforcement groups in Canada, the Middle East, and Asia. But the company is competing in a crowded space. There is the ML-12 out of Indiana, a device that can fire 12-gauge less lethal rounds, everything from pepper spray projectiles to bean bags. Or the Defenzia M-11 out of Arizona. It looks like a handgun and it shoots rubber impact rounds. Or this bullet slowing device from Alternative Ballistics, also from Arizona. All of these products have been sold to police departments. Which raises the questions, "How often are they used?" and "How effective have they been?"
What about real data points? Are you getting reports from police officers that say we've fired the device this many times, or we pulled out the device in this type of scenario. Anything like that?
I don't believe there's any central repository for that type of a database where law enforcement across the board inputs that kind of data, how it's used, how frequently it's used, when it was used effectively and when it was not used effectively, so we don't see it on an incident to incident basis.
What you are trying to do is predict an outcome.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Jon Shane is a retired police officer. He says that's exactly the kind of data that police need. But it's near-impossible to find.
Who's keeping track of police use of force and where is this information being held?
On a national scale, it's sort of spread around to a few different places. The FBI has some of the data. The CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, they have some of the data. There's some emergency room data also. But all these disparate systems are not linked. We don't know the micro-interactions between the victims, the offenders, the officers, the environment. We have no idea how those things coalesce and come together to make a shooting.
Shane says this is a byproduct of how policing is structured in America. Each of the country's 18,000 police departments operate and report independently. There is no standard for data collection regarding the use of force. Shane says it is this contextual information, details that range from the race and age of the officer, to the race and age of the victim, to the specific details of the shooting, that are critically important. He believes, a national, shared database that includes this type of information would not only influence police tactics and strategies, but, potentially alter outcomes.
Once we're able to collect information on three different things. The offender, the officer, and the environment, we are going to see how those three things come together to make a police shooting. We're going to be able to identify what happens at each of these given stages and how different situational circumstances will inform what that officer could or could not have done.
But Shane says absent a mandate from the Federal Government, it's unlikely such a database will ever be created. Some police departments are not waiting.
CHIEF GARY MACNAMARA:
We need to have conversation about the use of force with police officers. But, sometimes the conversations are unfortunate, because all of our officers are often times judged by one or two high profile cases. Conversation is good, but understanding is better.
Gary Macnamara is Chief of Police in Fairfield Connecticut. He and his colleague, Chief Keith Mello of nearby Milford, say law enforcement in their state has set out to modify and improve training in how and when it uses force.
We train our officers more in when not to use force than when to use force. We train them in the use of force, non-lethal and deadly force, but we take greater effort in that decision making process not to use force unless it's appropriate.
This type of de-escalation training is now mandatory for all new Connecticut Police Officers.
CHIEF KEITH MELLO:
We're focusing more on mental health issues. Trying to better understand that person in the field. But we're also now, probably more so than in the past, looking at the conduct of both the officer and the suspect, did the conduct cause the situation to be escalated?
Was there a push from the state, was this in response to a particular incident? Why the official change?
It's certainly a result of some of the high profile incidents we've seen throughout the country, many on YouTube. And when something like that happens, we all ask ourselves the question how would I have handled that?
In 2015, using funds from seized assets, the Milford Police Department invested in this training simulator called the Virtra-V 300. They share it with eight other Connecticut Police Departments. It allows officers to run through virtual scenarios.
DETECTIVE TYRONE DANCY:
"Sir, what's your name sir? What's your name?"
In this scenario, Detective Tyrone Dancy has responded to a call from a distraught man holding a baby on the side of a bridge.
"We can work it out, absolutely, nobody is hurt."
All the while, Detective David Pecoraro is listening, escalating or de-escalating the simulator accordingly.
"Do you really, really think you can help me?"
Absolutely we can help you.
In this instance, Detective Dancy was able to calm the man, convincing him to peacefully surrender.
I thought if I took my gun out it might escalate based on his mindset, and his reckless behavior, he may have decided to toss the baby, or maybe suicide by cop. I thought if I presented a firearm it would escalate the situation and made it worse.
But the simulator is not just about de-escalation, it's also about preparation. Here, Detective Dancy is coming in as a backup officer, responding to a domestic disturbance.
"He's got a knife!"
"Drop the knife. Drop it!"
You didn't draw your firearm until the knife came out.
Until I saw the knife. I went to what we call the low ready position, where I'm ready to take a shot if need be. I can't do it now, because there are people who are in the background who could be hit if you fired your weapon, but in the meantime let me use my verbal skills to try and de-escalate this.
What about a less lethal option? In this scenario, is a less lethal option available, or possible, or even reasonable?
With what we're presented now, no. The only time we would use that kind of a scenario with less lethal is if we had what we call a contact cover option. Where you had an officer who was free with a deadly force option while you present the less lethal force option.
In this instance, Dancy shoots, but he misses. And his fellow officer is stabbed and killed. In fact, this scenario is one of the most difficult, officers almost always miss.
You hear people say why don't you just shoot him in the arm or the leg, it's very difficult to do that. It is very difficult to shoot a moving target, let alone shooting them in the leg while he's moving. Very difficult. We train to shoot at the center of most available mass. And, even doing that is proved to be difficult on a moving target.
Do you think this type of training increases or decreases the use of force?
DETECTIVE DAVID PECORARO:
You know, there's a lot of emphasis on use of less lethal, but the reality is many officers throughout the state, and throughout the country, have been killed because they didn't recognize the situation that required deadly force. So, it's not whether or not it increases or decreases the use of deadly force, I think this machine does a very, very good job of allowing officers to be trained in the proper use of many levels of different force.
Data combined with information combined with discussion combined with training, all collectively, hopefully, will have a difference.
And that's really where we're trying to put our focus. Could we have handled this differently. Not could we use force, but should we use force.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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