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New Study: When Civilians Would Shoot…And When They Think You Should

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Fascinating experiments by 2 California researchers show that young civilians who might someday be on an OIS jury overwhelmingly disagree with veteran officers about when police are justified in shooting armed, threatening perpetrators.

Interestingly, tests also reveal that when facing shoot/don’t shoot decisions of their own, civilians tend to be quick on the trigger—and often wrong in their perceptions. Even in ideal lighting conditions, civilian test subjects show “a very low capacity for distinguishing” a handgun from an innocuous object, such as a power tool. Forced to make a time-pressured decision, the vast majority would shoot a “suspect” who is, in fact, unarmed.

“On one hand,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, “this research should make civilians more sympathetic to officers who mistakenly shoot unarmed subjects under high-stress, real-world conditions.

“But on the other hand, the study shows the woeful lack of understanding most non-cops have about the larger legality and appropriateness of using deadly force. And this can result in serious ramifications in the courtroom.”

The findings, by Dr. Matthew Sharps, an expert on eye-witness identification and a psychology professor at California State University-Fresno, and Adam Hess, a lecturer in criminology at the school, are reported in The Forensic Examiner [12/22/08], published by the American College of Forensic Examiners. Their paper, “To shoot or not to shoot: Response and interpretation of response to armed assailants,” can be read in full by clicking here.

In their experiments, Sharps and Hess report, they first addressed “how untrained people would react if placed in the position of police officers confronting a situation potentially involving firearms and firearm violence.”

Eighty-seven female and 38 male college student volunteers of various races were each shown 1 of 4 high-quality digital photos of simulated “crime scenes.” The settings were stage-set with the guidance of veteran FTOs from the Fresno PD, “all highly experienced in tactical realities and the sorts of situations encountered by witnesses and officers on the street.”

Three photos showed a lone M/W subject, holding a Beretta 9mm pistol in profile: one depicted a “simple” scene, “sparse in terms of potentially distracting objects”; another a “complex” scene, “including street clutter, garbage cans, and other potentially distracting items”; the third a complex scene that included several bystanders and a young, female “victim” being threatened by the armed perpetrator pointing the gun at her in a 1-handed grip.

In a fourth photo, the scene was the same as the third—except that the Beretta was replaced with a power screwdriver.

Before any pictures were shown, each volunteer was told that a scene “which may or may not involve a crime or sources of danger” would be flashed for 2 seconds or less on a movie screen. “You may intervene” by shooting at the perpetrator “to protect yourself or others if you see an individual holding a weapon,” the researchers explained. Participants could “shoot” either by pressing a button or by firing a suction-tipped dart from a toy gun.

“The conditions for all 4 scenes involved uniformly excellent lighting (strong sunlight), and the relative comfort of witnesses being seated,” Sharps and Hess write. “There was no movement or occlusion of important elements of the scenes, and of course there was no personal danger for the respondents in the experiment.”

The smallest number of individuals decided to shoot at the lone subject holding a gun in the simple environment with no victim. Yet “even under these circumstances, in which no crime was depicted,” a strong majority—64%—decided to fire. This despite the fact that the “perpetrator” as depicted could have as easily been target-shooting as committing a crime, the researchers note.

In the complex but victimless scene, 67% chose to shoot. When a victim and bystanders were added, the proportion of shooters rose significantly, to 88%—nearly 9 out of 10.

But most revealingly, when the suspect pointed a power screwdriver instead of a gun, some 85% “shot” him. “In other words,” Sharps and Hess write, “respondents were equally likely to shoot the perpetrator whether he was armed or unarmed, as long as there was a potential ‘victim’ in the scene. It made no [statistically significant] difference whether the perpetrator held a gun or a power tool.”

Across the range of scenes, “when untrained people…‘confronted’ a suspect, the majority decided to shoot him under all conditions….[The] very high number of those who decided to shoot the unarmed suspect under ideal conditions might be inflated even further under the rapidly changing and visually confusing circumstances of a typical police emergency.”

The challenge the volunteers faced in distinguishing between the gun and the power tool was relatively easy, compared to officers making split-second decisions in the field. Cops frequently have to employ “rapid cognitive processing” in darkness or semidarkness, often deciding in less than a second whether to shoot, the researchers observe.

“During that time, many factors in a scene must be evaluated: the suspect’s motions; where the weapon is aimed; the presence of other people, including other potential suspects, and whether they are in the officer’s probable field of fire; other potential sources of hazard, to self, to others, and to the suspect, in the immediate environment….

“In view of these extensive processing demands, errors in perception or cognitive processing are likely to be relatively frequent….

“[E]xtraordinary demands are placed on the cognitive and perceptual abilities of police officers in cases of gun violence. Public perception of these incidents, however, typically does not center on the cognitive or perceptual issues involved.”

Instead, officers’ errors in shooting suspects brandishing innocuous objects rather than guns are “attributed, in many sources, to racism…and failures of integrity.” It seems “incomprehensible, to many people, that officers could possibly mistake a [non-weapon] for a real firearm in the dark.”

Among several instances the researchers cite in which officers have been pilloried by the press and public for mistaken perceptions is the infamous case of Amadou Diallo, who was shot and killed by NYPD personnel in 1999 when he abruptly pulled a black wallet from his pocket during a confrontation. More recently, a subject was shot dead in Tacoma, WA, when he pointed a small, black cordless drill directly at officers.

“It should be noted that the situation in which most people [in the experiment] effectively decided to kill an unarmed suspect was similar to the circumstances surrounding” these 2 cases, the researchers state.

The intensely negative reactions of civilians toward officers involved in such incidents may, in reality, “have more to do with highly unrealistic public and mass-media expectations, and with popular ideas about deadly force, than with putative racism or integrity issues on the part of police,” Sharps and Hess suggest.

A disturbing insight into the public mind-set regarding police use of deadly force surfaced through a companion experiment conducted by the research team.

Again using digital photography projected onto a screen, 33 females and 11 males recruited from freshman psychology classes were asked to view scenes in which a male or female Caucasian perpetrator, positioned “among typical street clutter,” pointed a pistol in a 1-handed grip at a young, female “victim.”

After viewing the scene for a full 5 seconds (“far more than ample observation and processing time”), each subject was asked “what a police officer should do on encountering the situation depicted”…and why.

Previously, 3 senior FTOs and a senior police commander had evaluated the proper police response. All concluded that “there was no question that this situation absolutely required a shooting response for both the male and female perpetrator…. [A]ny police officer encountering this situation must fire [immediately] on the perpetrator…in order to prevent the probable imminent death of the victim.”

To the researchers’ surprise, the civilian volunteers overwhelmingly rated this a no-shoot situation. Only 11.36%—roughly 1 out of 10—“felt that a shooting response was called for,” the researchers report. “[A]pproximately 9 out of 10…were of the opinion that an officer should not fire…although all of the senior police officers consulted stated that the situation depicted absolutely required a shooting response.

“This result may have important implications for situations in which 12-person juries must evaluate a given police shooting….In any given, randomly selected jury of 12 citizens, these results suggest that on average, 1 or at most 2 jurors out of 12 would be likely to see an officer on trial in an officer-involved shooting situation as justified in shooting a perpetrator, even under the clearest and most appropriate of circumstances.”

Sharps and Hess want to conduct further research before drawing any solid gender conclusions. However, “no male respondent felt that a shooting response was justified with a female perpetrator,” and only 1 in 16 female respondents favored shooting the male gunman.

The reasons the respondents gave overall for their negative views on shooting graphically illustrate the cop-civilian disconnect. Some thought the suspect wouldn’t really fire because of “the daylight, public conditions of the situation.” Others “concocted elaborate rules of engagement” under which an officer might shoot: if the suspect fired first, or if the suspect had already committed murder, or if the officer had first tried to “convince” the suspect to drop the gun.

Still others “literally invoked the need for clairvoyance on the part of the police, saying that an officer should not fire…because the suspect ‘did not look like she wanted to kill.’ Several qualified their responses with the idea that if the police had to fire, they should shoot the perpetrator’s leg or arm, because…‘a shot to the leg is relatively harmless….’ ”

The researchers speculate that “many of these unrealistic responses may have derived from confusion of media depictions of police work with the real thing on the part of the public…and probably from unrealistic expectations concerning the workings and capabilities of the human nervous system….”

They conclude: “[I]f these ideas and attitudes are as widespread as the results of this initial research effort suggest, there is substantial need for better education in the realities of crime and police work for the public from which, of course, all jurors are selected.…This extreme discrepancy between public perception and actual police policy and operations warrants further attention, both in future research and in the modern criminal justice system….

“[I]t is clear that these [findings] assume special significance for the real-world courtroom circumstances under which actual witnesses, jurors, and public constituencies consider and testify as to the actions of law enforcement personnel in application to real-world violent crime.”

“Although this research is a welcome first step in helping to bridge the gap of understanding between many civilians and law enforcement, it’s important to remember that the exploration doesn’t stop here,” says Dr. Lewinski. “Force Science Research Center Advisor Tom Aveni’s work on contextual cues makes clear that in order to facilitate a more thorough understanding of these issues, this study should expand beyond static settings and expand into fluid and dynamic scenarios that better reflect issues of threat recognition and response in regard to human movement. Although we’re supportive of and grateful for the work that’s been done to date, we’re hopeful that the focus will move in this direction.”

[Our thanks to Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, for alerting us to this study. Reminder: register now for AELE’s unique workshop on Lethal and Less-Lethal Force, Mar. 9-11 or Oct. 26-28 in Las Vegas. Go to www.aele.org for more information and online sign-up.]

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