Why Cops Aren’t Always Wrong in “Suspicious” Shootings

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A strong message about deadly force encounters that critics of the police, as well as investigators and prosecutors, need to hear is sent in a feature article that appeared this summer [’06] in “The Scene,” the journal of the Assn. for Crime Scene Reconstruction.

The article, authored by Drs. Jeffrey Bumgarner, Bill Lewinski, and Bill Hudson of the Force Science Research Center and Minnesota State University-Mankato, reports details of 4 classic research experiments concerning reaction time conducted under the auspices of the FSRC with 102 officers of the Tempe (AZ) PD.

These ground-breaking studies have been essential in documenting that an officer’s defensive reaction is almost invariably slower than a suspect’s life-threatening action, that a suspect presenting a face-to-face threat can legitimately end up shot in the back because of this reactionary lag, and that an officer may involuntarily continue to shoot after a threat has ended because the decision to stop takes time for his brain and body to process.

The science behind these conclusions is carefully and clearly explained in the article. And this information is important to understand, the authors argue, because most academics, other civilian critics of police, and even many investigators and prosecutors tend to believe that every “suspicious” law enforcement shooting results from an officer’s malevolent intent.

“There is an apparent reflex to find the police at fault in almost any circumstance,” the authors observe. Critics commonly “presume improperness and excessiveness unless the evidence clearly demonstrates otherwise.

“Consequently, when the physical evidence at first glance appears to contradict the account given by the ‘offending’ police officer, there is almost never an extension of benefit of the doubt to such officers. Nor is there an assumption that a rational explanation which supports the officer’s account might exist and is awaiting discovery.” Instead, violence by police is regarded as “an avoidable tragedy that can be significantly reduced if police organizations and individual officers would get their acts together.”

In fact, “many incidents involving the apparent misuse of force by police officers can be explained by the realities of human psychological and physiological limitations. Police officers cannot be expected to defy biological and physical laws as they perform their duties. To require…flawless reaction of police officers in the field is to ask the impossible. And to send officers to prison when they fail to do the impossible is a most grievous injustice.

“Only through deference to scientific research,” like that reported from the Tempe studies, “may we begin to understand how at least some deadly force encounters play out….”

The article is well worth reading and passing along to others who need to understand its content or who may benefit from it.

It’s called “An Examination of Police Officer Mental Chronometry” (chronometry refers to how quickly the human mind and body can react to stimuli). The subtitle (“I Swear…I Don’t Know How I Shot Him in the Back”) and the article itself are much less academic. The report appears in the July 2006 issue of The Scene.

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