The Firearm Training Simulator, located in the Stanley W. Ekstrom Foundation Use of Force Exhibition
When a law enforcement officer uses deadly force, it is big news in the community where it occurs. Citizens hear the initial reports of what happened, and they naturally evaluate whether the officer acted appropriately. This happens an average of 1,040 times per year across America.
An officer’s duty is to protect and serve the public. This requires making choices under dangerous conditions that could dramatically affect people’s lives. When we learn about an officer using deadly force, we process the information through the lens of our personal experiences and with the benefit of hindsight. But how should we judge whether an officer’s use of force was truly appropriate?
In many cases, an officer’s decision to use deadly force is clear: The facts show that the officer was presented with a situation in which the use of deadly force could not be avoided. In other cases, some community members may question whether the officer really needed to deploy lethal force. Video recordings of the incident can clarify or confuse how people perceive what occurred. If the case is particularly controversial, citizens may respond with protests and demands for justice to be served.
The Mob Museum’s Stanley W. Ekstrom Foundation Use of Force Exhibition and Training Experience allows guests to explore the complexities surrounding police use of force. There are two elements:
- An in-depth exhibit that examines the many facets of police use of force, from the training that officers undergo to prepare for use-of-force situations to the lingering effects of police shootings on individuals and the community. The exhibit includes a video featuring the voices of police officials, community members and officers who were involved in deadly force incidents.
- An interactive experience in which guests participate in training exercises similar to those that officers undergo to prepare for use-of-force situations, including digital and live role-playing scenarios.
The exhibit is open to all Museum guests, while the training experience is separately ticketed.
The complexity of police use of force is reflected in everything from the laws and policies that dictate the actions of officers to the psychological influences during and after a deadly force incident.
Use of force and the law
After a controversial police shooting, we may be surprised when an officer’s actions are ruled “justifiable.” Force may appear excessive based on witness testimony or a video recording. But a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gives police considerable latitude.
Graham v. Connor states: “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. … The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”
Therefore, an officer’s actions are considered legal as long as they could be deemed reasonable at the time. Even when officers make mistakes, typically only those officers who willfully engaged in excessive force will be charged with a crime.
Most U.S. law enforcement agencies have detailed use-of-force policies. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s policy balances the need for officers to use force in certain circumstances with the expectation that they will respect the “dignity and liberty of all persons.”
LVMPD’s policy advises its officers to use “de-escalation” tactics to bring a situation “under control in a safe and prudent manner.” However, deadly force may be used to:
- protect himself or others from what is reasonably believed to be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.
- prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect who the officer has probable cause to believe has committed a violent felony crime and is an imminent threat to human life if escape should occur.
A use-of-force continuum shows the tactics officers are expected to use based on a subject’s level of resistance. According to LVMPD’s use-of-force policy, “officers shall modify their level of control in relation to the amount of resistance offered by a subject.”
Some experts question the wisdom of use-of-force continuums, arguing that officers should consider other options that don’t appear on the chart. A continuum describes escalating force to control a situation rather than presenting options to resolve a situation more peacefully.
Increasingly, officers are being trained in de-escalation tactics to bring potential use-of-force situations under control with the least amount of impact.
- Verbal commands and persuasion
- Withdrawing to a more secure position
- Delaying action to diffuse tension
- Call in supervisor to introduce a more experienced and objective perspective
Low-level physical tactics:
- Empty-hand controls (use of bare hands; no weapons)
- Baton (as escort tool)
If a subject more aggressively resists an officer’s commands, less lethal levels of force may be used:
- Baton (jabs and strikes)
- Lateral vascular neck restraint (choke hold)
- Pepper spray
The FBI collects an array of information about crime in America, but its statistics on police use of deadly force are not reliable. The information is based on voluntary reports from the nation’s more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies, many of which do not participate.
A few private groups have created databases to more accurately tally police use of deadly force. These efforts are works in progress as researchers refine methods to gather accurate information. Perhaps the best independent source is FatalEncounters.org, which compiles information from media reports and other sources across the country.
About 1,040 people died in police shootings each year between 2013 and 2016, according to FatalEncounters.org. This average does not include cases of “suicide by cop” or individuals who committed suicide during a law enforcement interaction. Because of incomplete historical data, it is not clear whether police shooting deaths have increased or decreased over any extended period.
In recent years, the news media have given considerable coverage to cases of black people killed by police. Some critics point out that more white citizens are killed by officers each year. This is accurate. However, white people represent a greater share of the U.S. population. White people make up 62 percent of the population but account for 49 percent of those killed by police. Black people make up 13 percent of the population but account for 24 percent of those killed by police. Thus, black people have a greater statistical likelihood of being killed by police.
Over the past 10 years, an average of 51 law enforcement officers have been killed “feloniously” each year. This means they died in the line of duty as a result of a felony criminal act committed against them, such as a shooting or stabbing, as opposed to officers killed accidentally in vehicle crashes, drownings or other inadvertent causes.
We all possess subconscious attitudes about other people. This is a part of human nature that can make us perceive people who are similar to us in a favorable light. Conversely, we may react with unease or fear when we encounter people who are different from us. Our personal experiences and exposure to information, such as news and entertainment media, influence these subconscious attitudes, called implicit biases.
Implicit bias can affect how we treat other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity and age. For example, while an officer may choose to believe in equal treatment for all, the same officer may subconsciously react to individual citizens with more or less suspicion, solely base on appearance. Research indicates that black citizens are more often subjected to police force than white citizens. This has prompted accusations of police bias against black people. But how many of these cases are a result of conscious racism? Many researchers believe implicit bias is a more likely culprit.
Some police departments have created training programs designed to reduce implicit bias. The theory is that if officers recognize their implicit biases, they will be more likely to avoid acting upon them.
Officers faced with making split-second decisions to use deadly force may also contend with a range of perceptual distortions brought on by the stress and intensity of the situation. Studies show that officers experience a range of distortions, including:
- Time slows down
- Sounds are quieter
- Tunnel vision
- Increased attention to detail
- Memory loss
Perceptual distortions can be different for each officer and change from one situation to another. As a result, when evaluating decisions by officers to use deadly force, the perceptual distortions they experience should be taken into account. An officer involved in a deadly force experience may not, as one study puts it, “enjoy a one-to-one correspondence with objective reality.” Researchers believe reality-based training — simulated scenarios with live role players — can help officers deal with perceptual distortions in real-life situations.
Law enforcement officers work nights, weekends and holidays. Long and irregular hours are the rule, and fatigue can result. Studies show that fatigued officers:
- Make more mistakes than usual.
- Have more difficulty making quick decisions.
- Have more accidents. Fatigue mimics alcohol impairment.
- Have more adverse encounters with the public, including use of force.
Some police departments are addressing the problem with shorter shifts and wellness programs. These measures and others could help officers to make fewer mistakes and respond more effectively in use-of-force situations.
A recent study of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers wearing body cameras revealed that they used less force and had fewer misconduct complaints than officers who did not wear them. These findings are consistent with most body camera studies across the country, suggesting that widespread police use of body cameras could help reduce use-of-force incidents and improve relations between police departments and their communities.
A camera is an unbiased witness to a police incident, reducing the likelihood of a “he said, he said” situation. It can serve as a deterrent to criminal behavior when suspects know they are being filmed. And officers are less likely to violate use-of-force policies when they know their actions can be evaluated frame by frame.
The lingering issue with body cameras is how people interpret what they see, which is often a limited view of a dynamic situation.
Community responses to police shootings
Police use of deadly force can trigger explosive community reactions, especially when a white officer shoots a black individual. The “Black Lives Matter” movement expanded dramatically after a series of high-profile police shootings of black subjects in 2014. It also sparked a counter-movement dubbed “Blue Lives Matter,” which focuses on the dangers officers face in the line of duty.
All the while, law enforcement agencies still have to do their jobs, which can be difficult in an environment of strained police-community relations. Some police departments have responded by:
- becoming more transparent in how use-of-force cases are handled, thereby increasing public understanding and reducing suspicions.
- initiating more “community policing” and youth outreach programs to build trust through regular interactions with citizens.
- acknowledging mistakes. Police officers are human. Admitting mistakes and apologizing for them can go a long way toward building trust in a community.
- striving for procedural justice. Citizens are more accepting of police action, even when there is a poor outcome, when they believe they are being treated fairly and with respect.
A typical police department use-of-force policy calls for officers to use the level of force that is “necessary” in a given situation. But where is the line between “necessary” and “excessive” force? It can be difficult to define.
Sometimes, the line comes into focus. On April 4, 2015, North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager shot and killed an unarmed man named Walter Scott during a traffic stop. A bystander’s cell phone recording shows Scott running away and Slager shooting him five times in the back. In 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a second-degree murder charge.
Another fuzzy line separates a deliberate act of excessive force from a terrible mistake in judgment. On July 15, 2017, Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor shot an unarmed Australian woman named Justine Damond after she called 911 to report a crime near her home. When Damond approached the arriving police vehicle, Noor, sitting in the passenger seat, shot her through the open driver-side window. Some have questioned whether Noor, with less than two years on the force, had received sufficient training before the shooting.
Police training reform
Most use-of-force training focuses on reacting quickly to worst-case scenarios. For example, if a suspect’s hand is not visible, the worst-case scenario is that he is holding a gun. Officers “are constantly barraged with the message that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it,” says law professor and former police officer Seth Stoughton.
Police work is indeed dangerous, but by stressing reasons to be fearful for one’s survival, training can encourage the preemptive use of force. Some experts contend that training should not over-represent worst-case outcomes that are actually quite rare. Instead, training could present a range of options, including methods to safely deal with uncertainty, such as disengaging the suspect, waiting for support and allowing the situation to cool.
The value of transparency
Historically, police departments have been reluctant to release information about use-of-force cases. This culture of secrecy has contributed to public skepticism that such cases are being investigated fairly. Recently, some police departments have embraced “transparency” as a way to build community trust.
When a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer uses deadly force, a series of procedures is set in motion:
- A police official records a video briefing at the scene that is posted immediately to YouTube.
- Within 72 hours of the incident, a police official holds a more detailed briefing with the news media and body camera video is uploaded to YouTube.
- Once the investigation is completed, a public fact-finding forum is conducted and televised live. The district attorney’s office presents the findings and questions witnesses. Citizens and members of the deceased person’s family may also submit questions.
- The case is brought before a Use of Force Review Board, which includes four citizens as voting members. The Review Board votes on whether the officer’s actions were consistent with the department’s use-of-force policy.