Force Science News #269:

Amid shooting furors, politicians get a special "training day"

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--Scott Buhrmaster, Vice President of Operations, Force Science Institute

 

IN THIS EDITION:

I. Amid shooting furors, politicians get a special "training day"

II. Survey officer attitudes before issuing body cams, researchers urge

III. A camera doesn't lie, right? Oh yeah!

 

I. Amid shooting furors, politicians get a special "training day"

 

As police shootings in the St. Louis area stoked emotions and headlines, a group of officers conducted a "day of immersion" into the world of law enforcement for local politicians in hopes of opening their eyes and minds to the realities behind the badge.

 

The special training unfolded against a backdrop of still-smoldering protests over the fatal shooting of the teenage offender in suburban Ferguson and amidst fresh activist rage about the subsequent street death in St. Louis of another young suspect who police critics claimed was brandishing "only a sandwich," not a 9mm pistol that he fired at an officer.

 

"Even before Ferguson, some of us were talking about how to address the adverse relationship that seems to exist between the police department and some local officials," Det. Joe Steiger, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Assn. told Force Science News. "We thought maybe we could put together a PowerPoint presentation for city aldermen that would educate them on what we do and how we do it."

 

But when nearby Ferguson exploded, Steiger says, and "the grandstanding of some politicians fueled unrest rather than calm, we fast-tracked our intention." In the process, the union's conventional original plan blossomed into a much more dramatic format designed to "grab civilian hearts and minds" in a way that would not quickly be forgotten.

 

SEEING REALITY. The POA invited about 60 elected officials to a day of training, including St. Louis aldermen, civil service commissioners, and state legislators from the city. "Some of these people have been our harshest critics," Steiger says. Eighteen showed up.

 

In a classroom, they spent the morning immersed in seeing and hearing about real-world policing. Instruction ranged from a detailed explanation of the legal standards for using physical and deadly force to the screening of multiple fatal encounters caught on cameras, some in which officers were murdered, others with suspects slain.

 

Those vivid images gave POA members a chance to address questions and concerns that arose from the audience: Why did an officer's five rounds fail to stop a suspect who charged him? Why was a suspect shot 10 times? Why did an officer shoot a suspect who "just had a knife" and was standing a distance away? Why didn't an officer shoot to wound a suspect instead of killing him? Why was a suspect who seemed to be complying with orders to put his gun down shot when he reached his other hand behind him? Why did an officer not shoot when a suspect with an assault rifle persisted in threatening him, to the point that the hesitant officer was mortally gunned down?

 

One official wept during some of the footage; another covered her ears to block out the screaming of an officer in his death throes, Steiger recalls. At times, he says, the room fell completely silent.

 

"We tried to get the people to see that we're not the bad guys out there, that everything is not a conspiracy or a cover-up," he says. "We wanted to get communication going, if nothing else."

 

During the classroom session, each attendee was given a DVD copy of the widely acclaimed documentary, Heroes Behind the Badge: Sacrifice & Survival, which features harrowing true stories of fallen officers and inspiring accounts of those who have been critically injured but survived vicious attacks on duty.

 

EXPERIENCING REALITY. In the afternoon, the politicians strapped on pistols that fired blanks and partnered up to role-play police officers in two hands-on scenarios with POA members to see how they would perform in potentially dangerous situations.

 

"We didn't want to throw them into no-win situations just to embarrass them," explains Sgt. Brian Rossomanno, who structured the role playing. "The calls they responded to were winnable if handled properly, and we warned them of various red flags to watch for."

 

In one scenario, the would-be officers were shown the basics of searching a suspect, then were sent to interrupt a sidewalk drug deal where they needed to search for a weapon before placing a subject into a patrol car for transport.

 

Despite searching the suspect twice, "the huge majority missed a gun concealed in the small of his back and ended up with themselves or their partner shot" when the arrestee accessed the hidden weapon in the backseat of the unit, Steiger says.

 

"I can't believe I missed that gun," a state representative told a reporter. "Even though this is pretend, it was really scary and frightening."

 

The other scenario featured a prostitute soliciting johns while her pimp loitered about. As the "officers" questioned her and patted her down, typically missing a knife tucked into her waistband, the pimp conspicuously kept one hand in his hoodie pocket. After ignoring several commands to show his hand, he abruptly pulled it out and pointed something in his grip at the officers.

 

"Several people shot him," Rossomanno says. He fell with a cell phone in his hand.

 

"This gave us a chance to talk about how cops sometimes have to react to suspicious movements and about how fast and fluid things can be," Steiger explains. "We wanted them to feel the life-or-death pressure of split-second decision-making and to realize that an erroneous decision doesn't necessarily mean that an officer deliberately did wrong."

 

POSITIVE OUTCOME. In all, the program lasted about six hours. Although Steiger is disappointed that some of the department's most vocal critics, "who constantly criticize everything the police do," did not accept the invitation to participate, he says he got "nothing but positive feedback" from officials who were there. And he sees benefits accruing even with those who are generally supportive of the police.

 

One alderman remarked, "I've always been on the side of the police but until now I didn't have talking points for explaining things to neighborhood groups." Nearly everyone commented that they knew cops have a difficult job, "but they had no idea how difficult," Steiger says. Among the memorable take-aways, he believes, were: how fast a knife-wielding suspect can close the reactionary gap, how a suspect hit multiple times can still keep coming, and the realization that real-world police cannot perform Hollywood tricks like shooting guns out of the hands of adversaries.

 

He and the POA want to stage another training day, he says. When that comes, he hopes that "the ones who came this time can convince the ones who stayed away that it's important to get this training."

 

For more information, President Steiger can be reached at: joe.steiger@sbcglobal.net The documentary series, Heroes Behind the Badge, produced by Modern City Entertainment, is available from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund at: www.nleomf.org/officers/heroes-behind-the-badge

 

II. Survey officer attitudes before issuing body cams, researchers urge

 

For bests results, it's important for agencies contemplating the adoption of body-worn cameras to survey their officers' attitudes about this equipment before issuing it, says a research team of experts on this increasingly hot technology.

 

Understanding the "extent to which officers are open" to wearing cameras and "their views on the positive and negative aspects of them" can be critical in making the adoption process "as effective and efficient as possible," writes the team leader, Dr. Wesley Jennings, as associate professor in the Criminology Dept. at the University of South Florida.

 

As part of a new study on body cams, Jennings and two colleagues, Dr. Lorie Fridell and Mathew Lynch, have published a 15-point survey template that they have used successfully and that can serve as a model in other jurisdictions to mine officer perceptions before cameras are introduced.

 

This form is designed to reveal among other things, whether officers believe the devices will improve police and suspect behavior, affect their use of force and willingness to respond to calls, and decrease citizen complaints--factors that may prove pivotal to acceptance.

 

An abstract of the study, titled "Cops and cameras: Officer perceptions of the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement," is available free online from the Journal of Criminal Justice. Click here to see it. The full report, including the survey template, can also be accessed there for a modest fee.

 

POSITIVE ANTICIPATION. The researchers tested the survey on nearly 100 patrol officer volunteers from the Orlando (FL) PD prior to that agency issuing Taser AXON Flex body-worn cameras (BWCs). They found generally that officers were "open and supportive" about using the new gear.

 

The survey was conducted online and took each officer, most of whom were male and averaged about seven years of service, roughly 15-20 minutes to complete. Participants were asked to indicate their reactions to statements about BWC's along a five-point scale, ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."

 

Overall support. Six in 10 officers (62.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that the department should adopt the cameras for all its officers. While less than 20% said they would actually feel safer wearing the devices, 77% agreed or strongly agreed that they'd feel "comfortable" doing so.

 

Behavioral influence. Only about 20% believed a camera would improve their own behavior in the field, but more than double that (42.9%) felt that BWCs would "increase the 'by-the-book' behavior of other officers." About four in 10 thought citizen behavior would improve because of the cameras.

 

Call response. "A strong majority of officers (84.4%) agreed or strongly agreed that wearing body-worn cameras would not reduce their likelihood of responding to calls for service," the researchers report. However, as with the impact on behavior, the volunteers believed it was "more likely" that the cameras would "reduce other officers' willingness to respond."

 

Use of force. Very few officers (3.3%) agreed or strongly agreed that BWCs "would reduce their own use of force. Yet 20% felt that cameras would reduce the frequency of force by the agency as a whole. Non-white officers in the survey "rated significantly higher agreement in their perception that [BWCs] would reduce their own use of force compared with white officers."

 

Complaints. Nearly half (45.1%) thought external (citizen-generated) complaints would decline with camera use, and more than 30% thought internal complaints would drop as well. Female officers in the test group tended to be more optimistic than their male colleagues regarding the impact on both external and internal complaints.

 

(Jennings' team notes that studies in California and Arizona of departments where BWCs are actually in use have found significant decreases both in use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.)

 

RECOMMENDATION. Extrapolated, the Orlando survey suggests that police officers are "receptive and willing consumers of adopting and implementing body-worn cameras," Jennings writes.

 

On behalf of his team, he recommends that individual "police departments rigorously assess their own organizational readiness" before implementing BWCs. The survey template can provide "the necessary starting point," he writes. Given the "significant" cost of buying, maintaining, and updating cameras, "it is important to gain an understanding of officers' perceptions toward the devices.

 

"Decreasing the anecdotal evidence about officers' beliefs," he explains, and addressing any substantive issues revealed by a survey "can better set in motion empirically based practices that benefit the officer and department."

 

Dr. Jennings can be reached at: jenningswgj@usf.edu Our thanks to Michael Brave, member/manager of LAAW International LLC and national/international litigation counsel to Taser International, Inc., for alerting us to this study and to the court case below.

 

III. A camera doesn't lie, right? Oh yeah!

 

The suspect had a laundry list of beefs about his treatment at the hands of two city cops who tried to arrest him after outstanding warrants surfaced during a traffic stop in North Carolina.

 

In his federal civil rights lawsuit, for which he served as his own attorney, the plaintiff claimed that the primary officer jerked his hands behind his back, pushed him, "tripped [him] to the ground," "jumped" on his back, and punched him in the head and face, loosening a tooth. Then a backup officer Tasered him. Then the first officer resumed the beating--all while the offender, despite a history of "displaying violent tendencies toward police," was non-resistant and compliant.

 

What's more, he had a video to back up his story.

 

Or did he?

 

The time-stamped, 12-second footage he presented as evidence in a summary judgment hearing was of "poor quality, with blurry images," "unidentifiable faces," and an unexplained origin, District Court Judge James Beaty Jr. noted last month.

 

The video showed two males in short-sleeved uniforms bent over an "unrecognizable" third person, whose only body part visible in the camera frame was an arm being held by one of the men. A "fist or arm" of one of the males seemed to be "falling against the downed individual." A voice swearing and asking, "What are you hitting me for?," could be heard on the sound track, but there were "no sounds of scuffling, thrashing, other voices, or the impact of physical blows," no "exclamations of pain," and no reactions from the alleged victim that were in time with the apparent beating, the judge said.

 

Patrol car video submitted by the defendants showed that the accused officers actually were wearing long-sleeved uniforms. In the background, the accuser's black car was visible, whereas no car could be seen in the plaintiff's film. Plus, there was no fourth person in the dash-cam footage, although, the judge said, whoever took the plaintiff's video "would have to have been standing nearly on top" of the action to capture the angles shown.

 

In sum, the judge found, the suspect's video "is not authentic and cannot be an accurate representation of the events of Plaintiff's arrest." In short, it was a fake.

 

Nice try, guy.

 

Summary judgment granted.

© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.