By now you’ve probably seen the video below, which shows former South Carolina state trooper Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones after pulling him over for a seatbelt violation. Groubert asked Jones to show his license, then opened fire when Jones ducked into his truck to retrieve it. Groubert has since been fired, and now faces felony assault charges that could bring a 20-year prison sentence.

Video from the dashboard camera of former South Carolina state trooper Sean Groubert shows him firing several shots and injuring an unarmed man during a routine traffic stop. Groubert was fired and has been charged with assault. (S.C. 5th Circuit Solicitor's Office)

Let’s first state the obvious: This shooting was completely and utterly without justification. Jones did nothing wrong. He was pulled over because of a dumb law, did what he was told, and was subsequently shot for it. Groubert should never be a police officer again. Both he and the state of South Carolina should not only pay Jones’ medical bills, but a substantial sum of money for Jones’ pain and suffering.

All of that said, watch the video again. Does Groubert look like a cold-blooded killer? I doubt he got out of his car intending to shoot Jones. It looks more like Groubert was terrified, possibly jumped to some conclusions about Jones based on his race and appearance, and reacted out of fear. Which is to say that this looks less like a rogue cop and more the product of poor training, possible racial bias, and a cop who has been conditioned to see threats where none exist.

When cops are caught on video administering an extended beating to someone who is clearly incapacitated, I’m all for throwing the book at them. But this was a split-second decision. If Groubert’s actions were due to poor or inappropriate training, poor hiring practices by the South Carolina state police, or a police culture that conditions cops to see every interaction with a citizen as potential threat, sending him to prison isn’t going to change any of that. Individual cops who abuse their authority should certainly be held accountable, and a system that consistently held them accountable would be something of a deterrent. But focusing only on the individual cop in a case like this lets the police agency that hired and trained him off the hook.

Yesterday I wrote about another police shooting, the killing of John Crawford in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart. I suggested that the incident may have been due to the sensationalization of mass shooting incidents, and the misperception that such incidents are common. After my post went up, the Guardian reported that indeed, the officer who shot Crawford had recently attended an a “pep talk” for police about responding to calls that may involve an active shooter.

The police officer who shot dead a young black man in a Walmart store in Ohio as he held an unloaded BB rifle had less than two weeks earlier received what prosecutors called a “pep talk” on how to deal aggressively with suspected gunmen.

Sean Williams and his colleagues in Beavercreek, a suburb of Dayton, were shown a slideshow invoking their loved ones and the massacres at Sandy Hook, Columbine and Virginia Tech while being trained on 23-24 July on confronting “active shooter situations”.

“If not you, then who?” officers were asked by the presentation, alongside a photograph of young students being led out of Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012. A caption reminded the trainees that 20 children and five adults were killed before police arrived . . .

A set of 11 slides from a presentation given to officers in the July session was made public by special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier, who presented the slides and other evidence to a grand jury in Greene County, which on Wednesday declined to indict Williams on criminal charges.

Piepmeier signalled that the slides may have been important to the decision. “A question I have, and I think a jury would have, is how are the officers trained to deal with a situation like that,” he told reporters.

He described the presentation as “almost like a pep talk for police officers,” which informed them: “You have to go after these things, you can’t ignore them”. They were told to rid themselves of the mindset that “it’s a bad day to be a cop” when confronting people who “have used, are using or are threatening to use a weapon to inflict deadly force on others” . . .

“We should be saying ‘This is the day I took my oath, trained and prepared for my entire career,’” said one of the slides, which were prepared by the Ohio police officer training association and based on FBI protocol, according to Piepmeier.

Another slide told officers to consider that such an “active threat” was “in a building with the person I love the most” and then decide whether they would want police to wait outside for backup or “enter the building and find the threat as fast as possible”.

The police were taught to keep in mind that “the suspect wants a body count” and therefore officers should immediately engage a would-be gunman with “speed, surprise and aggressiveness” to prevent them from inflicting injuries or deaths.

After training like that, is it any wonder why the police failed to give Crawford an opportunity to surrender his “weapon?”

Back to Groubert, the South Carolina state police have publicly stated that his actions aren’t consistent with the training they provide to officers. Perhaps that’s true. But that’s also what a police agency would say if it were attempting to shield itself from liability. We may find out exactly what sort of lethal force training the agency provides during Jones’ lawsuit.

But Groubert’s actions are consistent with and the predictable consequence of a false narrative pushed by law enforcement leaders and organizations and abetted by some in the media: that policing is getting more dangerous by the day. In truth, on the job police fatalities have been on a downward trajectory since the mid-1990s, and last year was the safest year for cops in a half century. And that’s just if you’re going with raw numbers. If you look at fatalities rates, 2013 was likely the safest year since the early 1900s. (I use likely because it’s difficult to get precise figures on the total number of police officers over the years.) Yet we still see a steady stream of assertions from police officials that they are “at war,” or that the job is more dangerous than ever. (There has been an increase in fatalities this year, from last year. But again, last year was the safest year in modern policing, and this year is still on track to be one of the safest.)

Despite these figures, not only do we continue to overstate the dangers of policing, there’s also an emerging faction within the law enforcement community encouraging cops to use more force more often. The theory driving this faction is that too many cops hesitate before pulling the trigger, and that cops are unnecessarily dying as a result. Here’s one example of the philosophy at work from the magazine Tactical Life:

What many police officers never consider, and few instructors teach, is the existence of a wide psychological gap between the theory and practice of training and the jarring reality of actually engaging in a violent, life-and-death encounter.I am referring to are the obstacles—some easily articulated and others subconscious—your brain sets up to prevent you from pulling the trigger on a fellow human being, even when deadly force is justified and necessary. Awareness of this gap, and possessing the skills to overcome it, may be the difference between life and death.

Here’s another, from Police magazine:

We must develop a warrior’s mindset to prepare ourselves to fight and defend life at a second’s notice, without warning or hesitation.

We have to develop what the martial arts masters call “mind of no mind.” This simply means we must not think or second-guess ourselves, but allow our bodies to “instinctively” respond to any threat with the appropriate level of force without any conscious consideration.

Last year, the police supplier Law Enforcement Targets, Inc. was caught sending police departments target practice cutouts of childen, pregnant women, and the elderly. The justification for the targets is that pregnant women, children and the elderly can be violent, too, and so police officers should overcome any compunctions about killing them. The cutout series was called “No More Hesitations.” Just after that was reported, Sonoma County, Calif. Dep. Erik Gelhaus overcame his hesitation when he shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez. The boy was holding a toy gun when Gelhaus shot him. The deputy was cleared of any wrongdoing in July.

Among older and retired police officials I’ve interviewed, there’s a consensus that deadly force training for cops has moved away from an emphasis on deescalation and conflict resolution. One police trainer told me a few years ago that much of the training today focuses on how to justify force after it has already been used — in other words, not how to avoid shooting people, but how to protect yourself and the department from liability once you have. Another problem: In many departments, ongoing training in the use force just isn’t a priority.

In its damning report on the Albuquerque Police Department last April, for example, the Justice Department noted that the city’s police “too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in their use of firearms,” “often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious body harm,” and that this was caused by serious deficiencies in training. In fact, the DOJ report found that officers who did use improper deadly force were often held up as heroes or examples within the department. Just two months earlier, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported that a new philosophy had been implemented at the New Mexico state police academy:

As the New Mexico State Police and the Albuquerque Police Department have come under scrutiny in recent months for a rash of officer-involved shootings, the man who sets the tone for training police recruits in the state has instituted a curriculum that puts less restraint on officers in deciding when to use deadly force.

“Evil has come to the state of New Mexico, evil has come to the Southwest, evil has come to the United States,” said Jack Jones, director of the Law Enforcement Academy, when asked about the new approach.
The academy trains recruits for police departments across the state. Some agencies, such as the state police and the Albuquerque department, have their own training programs, but the basic training courses are established by Jones’ academy, according to the Department of Public Safety’s deputy secretary, Patrick Mooney.

In September, the state’s eight-member Law Enforcement Academy Board, which is appointed by the governor and chaired by the attorney general, voted unanimously to change the New Mexico Administrative Code to give complete control over the curriculum to Jones . . . These changes were necessary to prepare new police officers to work in a more dangerous world, [Jones] said.

No, it isn’t a “more dangerous world.” By most any measure, the United States is less dangerous than it’s been since the 1950s. More:

The New Mexican filed a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act for a copy the academy’s new curriculum, but Jones said he doesn’t plan to release it because criminals could use the tactics taught to cadets against them.

“I’ll burn them before you get them,” he told The New Mexican . . . 

“When I went to high school, two people would have a fistfight, and it would be over,” Jones said. “Today in high school, two people have a fistfight and then somebody comes to the guy’s house the next day and shoots him. … You have to be prepared for the violence.”

A month after the New Mexican article ran, Albuquerque police shot and killed James Boyd, an unarmed homeless man.

Sean Groubert’s use of deadly force came during a traffic stop. It’s worth noting that the threat of an ambush during a traffic stop has become a particularly potent narrative in the law enforcement community. And it’s true, there have been several such high incidents this year, all of which received plenty of high-profile coverage. But that sort of coverage doesn’t put those incidents in their proper statistical context, and thus can also distort the way police perceive threats.

I went through this year’s officer fatalities at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund site, and found less than 10 such incidents. (I found six that definitely fit the description of “shot during a traffic stop,” and a couple others that could arguably be included.) So less than 10 incidents. Out of how many? That’s tough to say, but it’s a very large number. In 2011, the Justice Department estimated there were over 1 million law enforcement officers in the U.S. Not all of those officers make traffic stops, but even if  only half of them do, that’s just 10 fatalities out of a half million officers. (For comparison, the U.S. overall homicide rate is 4.7 per 100,000 people.) If we break it down according to risk per stop, a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey estimated that 17.8 million Americans had been pulled over that year. Given that some had inevitably been pulled over more than once, the figure for total stops is probably a bit higher.

The biggest risk to officers conducting traffic stops is actually the possibility of getting struck by another car. Yet law enforcement groups and media outlets continue to play up the threat of someone opening fire on police on the side of the road. On its website, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration conflates the more substantial threat of getting hit by a car with the much rarer threat of violence and cautions, “Every stop for a traffic violation has the potential for danger.” Police websites repeat the mantra that “there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop,” and hold up anomalous incidents as if they were routine. Police magazine recently ran an article with a subheading which warned that “Pulling over a motorist can result in a simple citation or a raging gun battle,” complete with a photo of a motorist clutching a handgun just out of the officer’s view. In a 1997 amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the the National Association of Police Organizations argued that “It is not uncommon for routine traffic stops to escalate into a violent situation.”

But it is uncommon. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Criminal Science found that, “Despite anecdotal accounts that show particular instances of danger confronted by law enforcement officers, there are few research findings or statistics to support the assumption of police dangerousness during traffic encounters.” Looking at data from 1988 to 1998, the study found that in the most violent years, one in 4.6 million traffic stops resulted in the killing of a police officer. The average over the period was 1 in 6.7 million. Traffic stop data is hard to quantify, so the authors looked at a range, using several sources of data. Those figures assumed the lowest number of traffic stops, so they represent the riskiest possible scenario. Using a middle-range estimate, the average risk fell to one in 13.4 million stops over the 10-year span. Using the most inclusive data set for traffic stops, the risk fell to one in 20.1 million.

That study is 13 years old, but both the crime rate and the number of annual officer fatalities have dropped significantly since then, so it seems safe to assume it’s significantly less frequent today.

None of this is to say that police shouldn’t take sensible precautions when pulling people over. We should also try to outfit police with effective bulletproof gear so that in the unlikely event of violence, they’re protected. But we need to stop conditioning cops to think that every stop could be a firefight waiting to happen, or more broadly that every interaction with a citizen carries the potential for violence. The police are supposed to protect and serve us, not approach us with fear and suspicion. And we certainly need to stop encouraging cops to shoot people more quickly.

So sure, we could Sean Groubert to prison.. But we should understand that until we address these more fundamental problems about training, hiring, and police culture, there will be more like him.