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How to stop cops from needlessly killing so many people

Dozens — perhaps hundreds — of police shootings can be avoided, according to current and former police officers and independent experts who train cops about when and how to use deadly force.

by Keegan Hamilton
Dec 13 2017, 7:45am

Daniel Shaver didn’t have to die.

Dozens — perhaps hundreds — of police shootings like the brutal one that killed Shaver last January can be avoided, according to current and former police officers and independent experts who train cops about when and how to use deadly force. With improved training, they said, cops can work to defuse potentially lethal encounters and limit the number of people they shoot every year.

VICE News spent the past nine months investigating officer-involved shootings in the 50 largest local police departments in the United States. We found that police shoot twice as many people as previously understood, but in some departments shootings are on the decline in recent years. Some of that is due to reforms, including use-of-force policies that stress the importance of de-escalation and the sanctity of life.

A recurring theme we heard from our sources is that there’s a difference between a shooting that’s justified and a shooting that’s necessary. Norm Stamper, a former police chief in Seattle, put it this way: “Yes he had a gun, yes he made a sudden movement, but could the officer at an earlier moment, like two seconds before, have made an action that prevented that outcome? The answer almost always is yes.”

Stamper became an outspoken advocate for police reform after leading Seattle’s militarized response to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. He touts the virtues of de-escalation training, where officers are put through realistic scenarios and taught to speak softly, maintain a safe distance, and take other steps to avoid using deadly force. The training is often geared toward encounters with people who are suicidal or mentally ill — incidents that accounted for 73 shootings in our data. A whopping 68 percent of those encounters were fatal, making them by far the deadliest type of officer-involved shooting.

Read more: Shot by cops and forgotten: Police shoot far more people than anyone realized, a VICE News investigation reveals

Stamper said the purpose of de-escalation training is to “bring a measure of calmness, competency, and maturity to a situation that demands those behaviors.” Police training, he explained, has historically taught cops to take decisive action “by barking at the top of your lungs and yelling orders and producing a more chaotic scene.” He said that when the opposite happens and officers communicate calmly, “it defies the expectation of those individuals, who expect the cops to roll up like stormtroopers.”

Shaver’s shooting, for which jurors acquitted former Mesa Officer Philip Mitchell Brailsford of second-degree murder, is the perfect example of what not to do. Shaver was a 26-year-old traveling pest control worker who’d been drinking in his hotel room with a friend and showing off a pellet gun that he used for work. Somebody called to report he had a real gun and was pointing it out the window. The officers who arrived on the scene had reason to believe that he was armed. But rather than proceeding with caution and defusing the situation, they barked orders.

First they ordered Shaver onto the ground in the hallway outside his hotel room. Then they yelled for Shaver to push himself up into a kneeling position, keeping his legs crossed and his hands up. Confused and clearly terrified, Shaver struggled to comply. His legs came uncrossed and his hands momentarily dropped. Another officer, Sgt. Charles Langley, shouted: “You do that again, we’re shooting you, do you understand?!”

“Please do not shoot me,” Shaver responded, keeping his hands up straight up like a referee signaling a touchdown. Langley then ordered Shaver to get on all fours and crawl down the hallway toward Brailsford, who was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle that had the words “You're fucked" etched into the side. Shaver sobbed as he crawled toward the officers. Then he reached toward his waistband, perhaps to pull up his baggy shorts. Brailsford called it a “furtive movement,” which was justification enough for him to open fire, hitting Shaver with five rounds and killing him.

Shaver was one of four people shot and killed by Mesa Police Department officers in 2016, according to records obtained by VICE News. Another four people were shot and survived. Mesa’s police shootings roughly correspond with rates from other large police departments.

After Brailsford was acquitted, a Mesa PD spokeswoman issued a statement about its investigation of the shooting.

“We have confidence in the due process of the criminal justice system to review the facts completely and accurately,” the statement said. “Moving forward, we will continue to evaluate our policies, tactics, and training in pursuit of operational best practices. We are committed in our mission to be transparent and partner within our city to prevent and reduce crime; to build respect and trust and preserve human rights.”

The law gives cops broad discretion to use deadly force. And nearly every law enforcement expert we interviewed emphasized that most police shootings are justified. Poring over thousands of incident reports, we saw this ourselves. Many cases involved subjects who pointed or fired guns at officers. (There were exceptions: We found nearly 400 incidents where cops shot unarmed people.)

David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who is now a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the average citizen doesn’t realize how tense encounters with armed suspects can be. He would know better than nearly anyone: While on duty, he fatally shot a knife-wielding man who attacked his partner.

“They don’t understand how quickly things shift,” Klinger said. “They don’t understand how it goes from talking to someone and the next thing you know there’s a butcher knife in your partner’s chest.”

The danger of the job is a common refrain among cops when the subject of shootings arises — they say it’s shoot or be shot. But officer deaths are relatively rare. In the 50 departments we studied, 133 officers died in the line of duty from 2010 to 2016. Of those, 65 were shot and killed. By comparison, 54 officers died in car accidents while on the job.

And on the whole, police shootings are rare. Only about a quarter of all cops say they have ever fired their service weapon while on duty, and we counted 4,099 incidents over seven years among millions of encounters between police and civilians. But the number could be even lower if officers would be willing to take a different approach.

Heather Taylor, a detective with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and president of the St. Louis Ethical Society of Police — an organization within the department that advocates for reforms — said the decision to shoot is always subjective, and some cops are more trigger-happy than others. Inexperienced or aggressive officers may open fire if a suspect is merely holding a weapon, Taylor explained, and that shooting would be justified “under the color of the law.”

“In the course of my career, I could have killed some people, easily,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s did that person turn around and point that gun at me, I mean really point it at me, or were they turning around to drop it?”

When police do decide to shoot, there are many factors involved, but one variable tends to remain consistent.

“The single most important tactical concept is time,” said Seth Stoughton, a former cop who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “The longer officers have to analyze a situation and decide upon and implement an appropriate course of action, the better the officer’s decision-making and action is going to be. That means that officers need time, and you can’t have time when you’re being immediately threatened.”

Over and over, the most egregious police shootings have involved cops who found themselves too close to a subject, forcing them to make a life-or-death decision in a matter of moments. Rather than calmly assessing the situation from afar, the Cleveland cops who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice sped into the park and opened fire almost instantly, while they were just a few feet away. In Shaver’s case, the cops actually ordered him to come closer.

While it’s almost certain that better training could help prevent shootings, activists also want cops who kill without cause to be held accountable. Some officers do face justice. Just last week, Michael Slager, the South Carolina cop who shot Walter Scott, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. But he was an anomaly.

Without repercussions, many advocates for police reform argued, reckless cops have no reason to change their ways. Indeed, Brailsford, the officer who shot Shaver, testified during the trial that if he could go back and do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.

Carter Sherman, Rob Arthur, Taylor Dolven, and Allison McCann contributed reporting.