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Police Tactics in ‘Active Shooter’ Situations Face Scrutiny After Ohio Walmart Killing

The case of a black man killed by white officers while shopping for a toy pellet rifle has prompted debate about whether police training and protocols sufficiently address racial stereotypes and the use of deadly force.

by Mary Emily O'Hara
Sep 28 2014, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr

At the tail end of what might go down in history as Ferguson Summer, Americans are debating whether police training and protocols sufficiently address racial stereotypes and the use of deadly force. A string of high-profile police killings of unarmed black men have dominated headlines, but the Ohio shooting of 22-year-old African-American John Crawford in a Walmart, by a white officer, raises some of the most complicated questions.

Crawford was shopping for a toy pellet rifle at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio on August 5. Video surveillance footage from the store shows Crawford casually talking on his cell phone in the children's toy section, the air rifle swinging by his side. Another customer, Ronald Ritchie, called 911 to erroneously report that Crawford was an active shooter, and "just pointed the gun at, like, two children." Because police arrived expecting an active shooter scenario, Crawford was seemingly shot on sight rather than given a warning.

Police said Crawford did not obey commands to put down the gun, but the footage shows him with his phone held to his ear on the side from which police quickly approached. In the video, Crawford drops the gun and runs around the corner to the next aisle as soon as the first shot is fired, then appears to come back as if trying to speak to the officers, at which point he is shot again and falls to the ground. Angela Williams, the mother of the two children mentioned by the 911 caller, also died of a heart attack during the panic caused by the shooting. A coroner ruled that both her death and Crawford's were homicides.

An Ohio grand jury declined to prosecute the two officers involved in the case, but community outrage spurred a Justice Department investigation that is ongoing. Crawford's death raised two important questions that have yet to be answered: How does race play into bystander perceptions and police response to calls, and why can't cops seem to tell whether someone is actually armed before they shoot to kill?

Surveillance video released as jury decides not to indict in Ohio Walmart shooting. Read more here. 

Priscilla Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform, an oversight group working to change racial bias in the NYPD, said police departments across the country "need to come to terms with the problem that, by and large, people of color are perceived as threats by police officers and civilians in a way that others are not."

According to a 2013 report from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, American police or security forces killed a black person once every 28 hours in 2012. Out of all extrajudicial killings in Chicago in 2012, 91 percent of the victims were black. In smaller towns such as Rockford, Illinois, and Saginaw, Michigan, all of the victims of police shootings were black.

But, in Crawford's case, police were responding to what they thought was a serious threat. Active shooter incidents are dramatically on the rise. An FBI report released Thursday examined 160 separate mass shooting incidents spanning from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook. There was one active shooter incident in 2000. By 2010, that number had risen to 26 incidents in a single year.

"Before Columbine, we as a profession would wait for SWAT teams to go in," John DeCarlo, Professor of Police Studies at John Jay College, told VICE News. When active shooter incidents began to rise after Columbine, analysts determined that a death occurred every 15 seconds on average once shooting began. Rather than wait for specially trained SWAT teams to arrive, police began to enter shooting scenes immediately to try to save lives.

'When you don't have the best training, we're asking these officers to essentially go in and wing it.'

A police training slideshow shown to the Ohio grand jury in Crawford's case was released to the media this week. The slideshow urges officers to "enter the building and find the threat as fast as possible," and includes photos of children crying while leaving school buildings at Sandy Hook. Ohio officer Sean Williams — who testified that he fired the rounds that ultimately killed Crawford — saw the presentation just 12 days before the incident, the Guardian reported.

Justice Department launches civil rights investigation of Ferguson Police. Read more here.

Was an emotionally charged slideshow enough training to prepare the Ohio officers to gauge and handle an active shooter incident? According to DeCarlo, there is no state or federal standardization for active shooter protocols. There are more than 18,000 police departments in the US, and most of them are small, municipal outfits with no unified training or standards to govern them all.

The average US police department has ten or fewer officers. Those small departments, DeCarlo explained, often aren't getting the best or newest training and technologies. In addition, all departments are subject to limited budgets because they are funded through local tax dollars. Yet despite the lack of consistency from department to department, there are some generally accepted best practices for active shooter situations.

"For an officer to go into an active shooter situation with proper training is extremely frightening and one of the most serious things an officer can do," DeCarlo said. "When you don't have the best training, we're asking these officers to essentially go in and wing it."

"A single [officer] entry is frowned upon and very dangerous," DeCarlo said. Instead, most departments train officers to enter the scene as a "contact team" that uses a diamond or T-shaped formation so officers have a 360-degree view of their surroundings. Police can also screen 911 calls, and security cameras can be co-opted to observe the area before entry so that cops aren't relying on a single source relaying information that might be inaccurate or outdated.

VICE News spoke with retired US Marshal Matthew Fogg, who was stationed at an FBI command center working on the 1992 Ruby Ridge siege where his supervisor, William Degan, was killed.

"If an officer comes on the scene as a first responder and you get a call that says man with a gun, you're going to go in," Fogg told VICE News. "If it's an active situation where the person has been told to put the gun down, what it comes down to is the discretion of the law enforcement officer."

Fogg, who is African-American and vice president of the National Organization of Blacks in Government, sued the US Marshals for racial discrimination, and was awarded a landmark $4 million settlement. He said that an officer's discretion could be compromised by race.

Fogg said that, "When you add race into the formula, if you add that into the mindset of the officer that comes onto the scene and he happens to believe that African-Americans are more violent, then a lot of it is driven by whether or not he sees that target as a threat."

In the Walmart case, Williams testified that, while he was driving to the scene, police dispatchers described, "a black male waving a gun around in the store," making it clear he knew Crawford's race ahead of time.

During encounters with armed suspects, most police follow a "continuum of force," a checklist of sorts that starts that starts with verbal commands and escalates to physical holds or, finally, deadly fire. It's atypical to skip the continuum and launch straight into shooting, as Williams appeared to do with Crawford.

Police officers are not trained to shoot to disable a target. They are taught to shoot to kill, aiming for the 'K5 kill zone,' within the center of the body.

Both Fogg and DeCarlo emphasized that police officers are not trained to shoot to disable a target. They are taught to shoot to kill, aiming for the "K5 kill zone," within the center of the body.

VICE News meets the man who live-tweeted Michael Brown's death in Ferguson. Watch here.

Ed Flosi, a former San Jose police officer who ran a training program for active shooter response, told VICE News that cops have to make a "split-second decision," operating only on their "last best information."

"Officers are human — we do have adrenaline stress responses," Flosi said. "And an officer doesn't have to wait until there's a real gun on him to make a decision whether to shoot or not."

Despite claims that use of force is race-neutral in law enforcement, former officers concede that race plays a major role in how suspects are approached.

"If I stopped a car with four black guys in a car versus four white guys in a car, I knew that anything I said about those black guys, the system would back me up," Fogg said, recalling his days as a US Marshal. "But when you stop those white guys, you need more probable cause and they ask questions that they'd never ask if it was the same scenario with African-Americans."

Data from some police departments does show a distinct trend of racial profiling. The New York chapter of the ACLU compiled data from the NYPD's controversial Stop and Frisk initiative from 2002 through the first half of 2014, and found that more than 80 percent of people stopped and searched by police were black and Latino.

But undoing centuries of racial prejudice might not be as easy as a few hours of mandatory training. Fogg thinks it might take a cultural overhaul before officers can evolve.

"People walk around and they see the media coverage and they think black men are aggressive," Fogg said. "Race colors almost everything that happens in the criminal justice system. And that's something that you can't train."

Follow Mary Emily O'Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara

Photo via Flickr

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Sean Williams
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