A series of startling shootings by police, including one this week of a Florida therapist wounded by police gunfire while helping an autistic man, have been captured in graphic detail on video, prompting renewed demands to retrain and reform America’s police departments.
Two of the shootings fueled a violent response: Black military veterans Micah X. Johnson and Gavin Eugene Long staged ambush-style attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, respectively, that left eight officers dead in the span of 11 days.
Johnson was explicit about his reasons for targeting police, Dallas officials said: He told police negotiators that he was seeking vengeance for recent police shootings of African Americans.
Some recent shootings of black men indeed seemed avoidable, according to some members of a panel of experts assembled by The Washington Post to analyze the shootings captured on video. One common mistake, the panel said: Police failed to employ standard tactics intended to de-escalate the encounters and take suspects safely into custody.
However, the experts also identified instances in which the officers were potentially seconds away from injury, although they may have appeared safe to the untrained eye. Understanding these nuances, the experts said, could help guide society to appropriate reforms and improve relations between police and the communities they serve.
“Sometimes everything you need to know is in the video, like the incident in South Carolina last year, where the officer shot [Walter Scott] in the back,” said David Klinger, a criminologist with the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
“That was heinous. But a lot of times, there is a backstory we don’t know about. And the public doesn’t have the training that an officer has. There are cues and aspects to the encounter [the public] may have missed, even if there is a video.”
Since January 2015, The Washington Post has been tracking fatal police shootings. So far this year, police across the nation have shot and killed 537 people — a rate that is on track to match the 990 people fatally shot by police last year, according to The Post’s analysis. Video-recording of such incidents is on the rise. So far this year, 116 of the shootings have been captured on video, compared with 85 at this point last year.
For this story, The Post asked experts to review videos of the two fatal encounters that appeared to inspire Johnson and Long: The shooting of Alton Sterling on July 5 in Baton Rouge and the shooting of Philando Castile on July 6 in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.
The Post also asked the panel to review two earlier incidents that sparked controversy: the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods on Dec. 2 in San Francisco and Tamir Rice on Nov. 22, 2014, in Cleveland.
The experts also examined a fifth incident, in which videos captured some of what happened before and after Monday’s nonfatal shooting of behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey in North Miami, Fla.
The panel included Klinger; Stacy Lim, a training instructor with the Los Angeles Police Department; Geoffrey Alpert, a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina; and Ron McCarthy, former director-at-large of the National Tactical Officers Association.
Both Klinger and Lim were involved in fatal shootings — determined to be justified — while serving as police officers in Los Angeles decades ago. Both cases involved armed assailants.
The experts said assessments were difficult in some cases, because the moments leading up to the shootings — crucial to understanding those incidents — were not always captured on video. In the Sterling shooting, for example, the experts said a key moment — the deployment of a Taser — was captured on audio but not video, and may have been overlooked in public discussions of the case.
Klinger said he heard the sound of the Taser, then an officer saying, “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”
“They are giving him directions, and he isn’t following them,” McCarthy said. “So they are forced to take him to the ground.”
Klinger and the other experts also spotted what they called crucial errors that suggest a need for better training. Too often, they said, officers rushed in with guns raised when they should have held back and taken cover. Communication — with suspects and between officers — was sometimes poor. And too often, officers rejected or abandoned the use of less-than-lethal options — such as pepper spray or beanbag projectiles — far too early.
While activists are calling for better and more extensive training, the experts said quick changes on the ground are unlikely. For nearly a century — since the Wickersham Commission of 1929 — allegations of abusive police tactics have been quelled by forming task forces or blue-ribbon committees to study the issue.
Those panels have produced dozens of reports, spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and produced near-identical recommendations. Six show up repeatedly in the most high-profile reports, including “Who Is Guarding the Guardians?” which was issued in 1981 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and last year’s report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The six recurring recommendations are:
● Adopt a community policing program. Officers should spend less time in patrol cars and more time on horse or foot patrols to increase interactions and improve communications with the communities they serve.
● Train and retrain all officers in de-escalation skills, such as taking cover and negotiating rather than rushing in with force.
● Use mock scenario or role-play exercises to teach officers when they must shoot and when to withhold fire and use less-than-lethal tactics.
● Increase diversity so that police departments more closely mirror the communities they serve.
● Communicate more effectively with the news media and the public.
● Improve the psychological screening of recruits.
“We know what needs to happen next,” said Alpert, a policing expert who has written or co-authored half a dozen of these reports. “But we keep studying the question instead of doing something about the answers we’ve arrived at.”
The lack of follow-through stems in part from the fragmented nature of American policing, Alpert and others said. The nation has 18,000 police departments. Effective reform would require state and local politicians and the many police chiefs to choose a reform plan and stick with it; that would include providing a continuous stream of funding.
But change takes time, and half of U.S. mayors are in office for two years or less. Police chiefs serve for an average of three years. When new leadership moves in, the plans of the old guard are often tossed out.
“Everyone wants their own legacy,” Alpert said. “Local control has gone haywire.”
Changes in federal funding also have played a role in upending reform efforts. In the 1990s, the U.S. Justice Department provided generous grants to help local departments convert to a community-policing model.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, those grants dried up. They were replaced with initiatives that helped militarize local police forces and prepare them for fighting the terrorism threat.
Steven Rich contributed to this report.