Before a mixed audience of politicians, judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement professionals, Dr. Bill Lewinski warned recently of the risk that emotion-based opinion will trump scientific reality in the mounting pressure to change police practices.
Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, appeared as the keynote speaker at the annual Officer of the Year banquet for the North Carolina Police Benevolent Assn.
“There is no question law enforcement is under a lot of pressure now, and there is no question that change is coming,” he said. “But who will make that change? What will it be? And on what will it be based?”
The “current public narrative,” he said, is that police are “rampantly excessive” in their use of force. Yet the facts belie that allegation. “The latest study available shows that in more than 40,000,000 police-citizen contacts, fewer than two per cent involved officers threatening or actually using force. Even in arrest situations, where resistance is most likely, the actual use of force runs from only one-half of one per cent to about two per cent.
“Yet as soon as a force incident occurs, attorneys for the suspect or for surviving families capture the narrative, and the popular press cooperates with their anti-police narrative.
“When plaintiffs’ attorneys can capture the attention of the public and the press and get them to buy into their version of events, it can result in massive amounts of money for them,” Lewinski claimed. He cited one California lawyer he has opposed as an expert witness in federal court who claims to have made “$20,000,000 a year for the last several years” from police lawsuits.
The media work with plaintiffs’ lawyers and anti-police activists, Lewinski said, “because at least some elements of the press are more interested in dramatic headlines than in facts and truth.” Here he cited the “hands up, don’t shoot!” narrative from Ferguson, MO–“never happened but not questioned by the media.”
Some proposals that have been floated for reducing force encounters and improving police performance are “radical and irrational,” Lewinski said. He mentioned suggestions by law school professors that police carry a blank first round in their sidearms or eliminate traffic stops to sweeten community relations and the demand by activists in one city that officers be prohibited from ever shooting anyone in the back.
“Unfortunately, even within the law enforcement profession we have movements toward policies or recommendations that that are not based on science or fact but are clearly attempts to appease critics who are driven by agendas or emotions,” he charged.
Challenging, for example, some of the policy changes recently urged by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) that we’ve covered extensively in Force Science News, he asked, “Where is the scientific research behind these proposals?”
Lewinski explained, “Our premise is that you can’t just order change. If you want change, you have to work within the parameters of human performance capabilities.
“Now more than ever we must move to evidence-based training and policing. The IACP in a response to PERF’s recommendations stated, ‘It is imperative that any reforms be carefully researched and evidence-based.’
“The techniques and tactics we teach and employ need to be based on the real-life encounters we experience, not on emotion, opinion, or backroom theorizing. Our instructional methodologies have to be judged on outcomes of proficiency, not on whether they match some arbitrary, state-decreed minimums. Each skill taught must be integrated with others to facilitate solid perception, decision-making, and action on the street.
“And we need to reinforce to our communities that it is usually the decisions that a suspect makes that dictate whether force is used, not the officer’s independent choice.” The facts are, Lewinski said, that “overwhelmingly law enforcement hires great people. Overwhelmingly, they are doing a good job.”
He mentioned that PERF’s executive director has publicly criticized the fact that last year police shot and killed 124 people who were in the midst of a mental-health crisis. “He called this a ‘national crisis’ and said it showed that officers lack the training to work with the ‘mentally unstable.’
“Given the number of people in this country who are in a mental-health crisis and violent every single day, 124 is an amazingly low number. When mental-health professionals–people highly trained to deal with this population–can’t handle a violent person hospitalized in a locked ward, who do they call? They call the cops, and the cops generally do an excellent job in that environment, as they do with other problems in other places.
“Even though officers are doing a good job, it is the nature of a profession and the nature of a professional to always strive to do better.
“These are challenging times for the law enforcement profession. I encourage you to meet the challenges you face with courage, hope, and optimism, with a base of knowledge as your foundation.”