This Woman Wants to Teach You How to Avoid Getting Shot by the Police

Why are American police officers shooting so many of their suspects? I asked Emily Iland, an advocate for safer police interactions, how we can all learn to better avoid a "stray bullet" from the cops.

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Aug 26 2014, 8:12pm

Screenshots courtesy of Emily Iland

Stories of excessive force complaints, officer related shootings, and general police dickery are becoming more and more commonplace in the United States. The tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, have cast new light on the disturbing trend of police officers responding to potential threats from citizens with deadly force. More often than not, these tragedies can be boiled down to the tension between fearful, skittish police officers (who, many would argue, have a racial bias against minorities in their head) and terrified suspects, some of whom are either mentally unstable or suffer from conditions like autism, Down syndrome, OCD, and more.

Why are American police prone to opening fire in a tense situation? To try to get some answers, I spoke to Emily Iland, an adjunct professor in Special Education at California State University, Northridge, and the producer of an instructional film called Be Safe. The film is designed to teach those with behavioral disorders like autism how to avoid misunderstandings with the police that could lead to violence. In the course of our conversation, it became clear that the methods she's trying to teach could actually help the rest of us avoid running afoul of the cops too.

VICE: In light of what is going on in Ferguson and all kinds of other events that are happening, how do you think the police should be dealing with this public opinion turn for the worst?
Emily Iland: I think they have to reestablish trust, because when something bad happens and it’s wrong or it’s perceived as wrong, then people stop trusting the police, and they start to hate them. That creates a tension. So how do you prevent people from hating you? The first thing you do is you don’t do things that would make them hate you in the first place. But once there is that tension and distrust, then you have to take active steps to help people trust you again. I think what LAPD did after the Rodney King situation is an example of what other departments can do. They are definitely not perfect, but I think they really understood where their shortcomings were, and they did a lot of things internally with their training and even shifting the way the organization perceived their relationship with the community. For example, having the department reflect the ethnic makeup of our city. People should be served by people who look like them and come from their neighborhoods. That’s a huge step. A lot of departments don’t have that yet, and I think it really helped in LA. 

I think that people are mistrustful of authority when authority is abused. That’s something that I wanted to ask you about. So, your film is for people that are on the autism spectrum, which makes them more prone to social faux-pas that could be misconstrued as threatening to the police.
And so my way of improving police behavior is improving our individual behavior. If you think about it, I’ve trained almost 4,000 LAPD myself. While I was training them to understand what autism is and how they should approach somebody, they told me a few important things. Like, if someone with autism—or anybody else—runs, we have to chase them. If somebody with autism—or any other condition, or just a regular person—fights with us, we have to fight back, and we have to win. So they’re not getting paid to go home dead at the end of the day. They’re getting paid to keep people safe, and they have an array of tools they can use, and they have very strict rules about which tools to use when. They never use deadly force unless they think their life is in danger. So, if we know that, we can help improve relationships by what we do. That’s my bottom line. In terms of training the police about how to use deadly force, I’m not a tactical expert, and when I train, I don’t talk about those things because it’s not my job or my place.

Why don’t we offer these sorts of lessons to people who don’t have disabilities? Why do you think that there isn’t more of an outreach into communities to educate them about ways to interact with the police?
I think there are efforts on the part of every police department. They have things like community nights, and I know they have—like, Van Nuys has a big one every year. Each department’s doing their own thing. But there is no integrated way to say that every department in America will do X, because they all operate independently, believe it or not. It’s not like there’s one agency that is over every department. There’s lots of variability within departments. But I also think that there haven’t been great tools up until this point, and that’s why I had to create these tools and create this opportunity called the interactive screening to bring the community together. In Chattanooga, we’re going to bring everyone together with the police.

I got a call from Chattanooga, Tennessee, from a woman who’s just a citizen, a black lady, who wants me to come in and do an interactive screening in Chattanooga, Tennessee to bring together the entire community, because that’s an event where we show scenes from the movie about what the police expect you to do. I really think it would be a fabulous thing for Ferguson, except that it’s gone so far in Ferguson that I don’t know that this would help or be the right time. But I do believe it’s the right time for every other community to decide what are they going to do to improve relationships between the public and the police.

Once the trust has been broken, how do you reverse that? That seems like such a complicated thing to do.
I think so. And I think that the Rodney King situation really parallels what’s happening in Ferguson, and I think leaders of color coming forward, as they have, is a step in the right direction. But I think until the investigation’s finished and all the facts are clear, there’s no healing in Ferguson yet.

There was an editorial in the Washington Post that came out recently; an LAPD officer said, “If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me.” Now, is that always the best thing to do? Because it seems like in some cases, it’s not. If you put your hands up, you can still get shot.
Yeah… I think those cases that go wrong are the minority, to tell you the truth. I think that it’s going well across the country, and nobody comments on, “Wow, what a great job people are doing cooperating and keeping it calm.” You know, people really rally around the exceptions, and there are exceptions and there are snap judgments that are wrong, and there are people who do the wrong thing—on both sides, right? What about the public and when they kill the police? Does that mean we should be suspicious of everyone with a gun because they might kill a cop? You know, it really has to go both ways.

Is fear just a part of being a cop, and we have to accept that sometimes people are going to get shot by accident?
Personally, that’s what I believe. The police are going to get shot sometimes by bad people, which is heartbreaking, because their job is to help. So many police are wonderful, wonderful people, just like so many of the general population are wonderful, wonderful people. To paint everybody with the same brush is a mistake on both sides. You can’t be suspicious of everyone you meet because somebody shot and killed a cop, and you can’t be suspicious of every cop because some cop shot and killed a guy who was unarmed. Both are wrong. They’re not representative of all police or every member of the public. My view is to do things that help promote mutual understanding and relationships. 

Do you believe there's hysteria going on right now? Is this controversy blown out of proportion in any way?
I think there’s a lot of emotionality in the situation and if [Officer Darren Wilson] was wrong, people should be outraged, but the problem is, it’s already assumed that he was wrong and there’s no going back. That’s kind of what it looks like to me. But I do have one area of controversy in my movie, if you’re interested in knowing about where I’m going head-to-head with the police myself?

Sure, sure.
Well, I have a section called "The Right to Remain Silent" in my movie. I teach people to ask for a lawyer, and several police have come to me and said that they disagree with me teaching that. And I said, “Really? Isn’t it everybody’s right to remain silent?” And they say, “Yeah, but it’s better if they tell us things, because then we can get down to the bottom of what’s going on and we can help them if they need help.”

That’s absurd. If you tell someone with Down syndrome to just talk, who knows what they’ll say?
You are exactly right. And that is my experience. Like, my young guy who confessed on tape to a felony crime at the age of 14 and was prosecuted. He had autism. He had the mental capacity of a nine-year-old, but he was taken out of his special day class at a local high school.

Is there an interest with the police of just closing cases? “Let’s just get a confession,” or “let’s just try and find out as much as possible from this person” and not consider the veracity of their statements?
Well, I think they’re always trying to get the information. They’re information-gatherers. Their job is to ask questions. And when someone has an invisible disability like autism—like, this boy looked like every other kid on the campus—so when he got pulled out of class, the officer doesn’t know he’s functioning like a nine-year-old, because he can talk. But he can’t decide, “should I say this, or should I not say this?” This boy could not judge for himself what to tell and what to withhold. He didn’t understand his right to remain silent, and he couldn’t protect it, so therefore he gave a full confession on tape and just went straight to juvi, and then went into the courts.

They did release him to his parents, but I said to him afterward—because I was his advocate—I said, “Honey, why didn’t you ask for a lawyer? Why didn’t you ask for help?” He said, “Hey, I’m just a kid, and there aren’t any lawyers at my school. And anyway, how would I pay for one?” So, that’s his level of thinking. Fourteen years old. He could not protect himself. That’s the case I made with the court psychologist. I intervened on his behalf and got him put into a program that would rehabilitate him from the crime he committed, rather than put him in juvenile hall, which wouldn’t change anything. So, I really believe in the right to remain silent and to not incriminate yourself, and I’m going to teach it no matter what. 

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