It’s no secret that law enforcement agencies — nationally and locally — feel the heat of public criticism over officer-involved shootings and resulting deaths.
The first agenda item of a Thursday event at Tacoma’s Hotel Murano drives the point home: “The problem with misunderstood police shootings.”
The one-day “Force Science” training course, sponsored by Tacoma’s largest police union and the state’s largest law-enforcement lobbying organization, tries to deconstruct moments fueled by adrenaline and subject them to sober analysis.
“If the public knew about this and the science behind it, we wouldn’t have a lot of the second-guessing going on,” said officer Jim Barrett, president of Tacoma Police Union Local 6.
The local, which represents the agency’s rank-and-file officers, is co-hosting the event along with the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs.
If the public knew about this and the science behind it, we wouldn’t have a lot of the second-guessing going on.
Tacoma police officer Jim Barrett
The presentation comes from the Force Science Training Institute, a national organization based in Illinois. Force Science leaders, particularly founder Bill Lewinski, have become national go-to experts for media coverage about police shootings.
Lewinski has been criticized as well as endorsed by U.S. Justice Department officials, according to a 2015 profile in The New York Times, headlined, “Training Officers to Shoot First, and He Will Answer Questions Later.”
The profile notes that Lewinski has testified in more than 200 legal cases involving police shootings over the past decade, defending officer actions.
The story notes that federal officials have questioned the science behind Lewinski’s methods; but it also describes apparent endorsements of those methods. After a 2014 settlement with the Seattle Police Department over excessive force, federal officials agreed that officers could go to Lewinski for training.
The News Tribune sought comment for this story from Force Science vice president Scott Buhrmaster, and asked, along with other questions, who would be presenting at Thursday’s event. Buhrmaster did not respond by the end of Tuesday.
Tacoma Detective Chris Tracy, vice president of the local, said Force Science training digs into the mechanics of reaction time and perception in tension-filled incidents.
“You’re suddenly presented with a situation where somebody is potentially going to kill you,” he said. “In the time that I’m now having to react to what I’m seeing, I’m going to have a make a whole bunch of decisions. I’ve got a gun, and I’m going to have to unholster. Sometimes I’ve got multiple safeties on my holster. I’m gonna be fighting with all that kind of stuff.
“Maybe the person who just displayed the threat may have decided that was a bad idea. They’re gonna turn and decide to run. But my brain is still reacting. I’m still trying to catch up to the past moment. What you’re going to be able to perceive is different than what a witness would say or a body cam would say. It doesn’t mean anybody’s lying. It just means that perception under enormous stress may distort the incident, because of the massive amount of adrenaline that’s being dumped into the system.”
Boiled down, the Force Science philosophy — according to Tracy and the outline of lecture topics at the Tacoma event — holds that viewing a shooting incident over and over on a mobile phone video isn’t the same as acting and reacting in split-seconds of real time.
“Split-split seconds,” said Barrett, a 21-year Tacoma department veteran, currently assigned to the department’s shooting range and associated training.
He described a standard exercise involving student officers and dart guns. In the scenario, the student is told to “cover” an instructor posing as a bad guy, also wielding a dart gun.
“At one point, the instructor just comes up with it and fires,” Barrett said. “You see the darts cross each other in the air. It shows that even with the handgun pointed in a draw and direct fashion at a person, that the action of the other person — their decision to act and bring the gun up on target and fire — you can’t react fast enough to prevent what is occurring.”
Force Science founder Bill Lewinski has been criticized as well as endorsed by U.S. Justice Department officials, according to a 2015 profile in The New York Times, headlined, “Training Officers to Shoot First, and He Will Answer Questions Later.”
The overview of Thursday’s Force Science presentation promises a similar approach, with greater detail. Topics include studies of perception under stress, and more controversial situations, such as incidents involving offenders shot in the back.
Barrett noted that topics covered in the seminar, such as shell casing evidence, are equally valuable for homicide investigations and other incidents that don’t involve an officer firing a weapon. Department personnel regularly attend weeklong training sessions conducted by Force Science.
“Our homicide unit detectives are going to those,” Barrett said. “Our internal affairs detectives are going to those. The information they gather is used not just in officer-involved shootings. There’s a lot of the science behind it that can be used and is being used in everyday investigations.”
Tacoma police were embroiled in recent controversy after the fatal shooting of Puyallup Tribal member Jacqueline Salyers in January. Police were seeking Salyers’ boyfriend, a wanted felon, before the incident.
Salyers was shot after driving her car toward one of the officers, according to recently released records. Family members questioned the police account and accused involved officers of wrongdoing. Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist recently found the shooting was justified.
It’s my job as a council member to make decisions based on facts. That’s why I’m interested in learning as much as I can from as many perspectives as I can.
Tacoma City Councilman Anders Ibsen
Mindful of that incident, as well as a recent disagreement with Mayor Marilyn Strickland over her public statements about the Salyers shooting, union leaders invited her and City Council members to attend the Force Science event, along with local media.
As of Tuesday, said Barrett, only City Councilman Anders Ibsen had agreed to attend.
“I’m just interested in learning as much as I can,” Ibsen said Tuesday. “It’s my job as a council member to make decisions based on facts. That’s why I’m interested in learning as much as I can from as many perspectives as I can.”