Earlier this month in Salt Lake City, police officers walked a suburban street looking for a 13-year-old boy with autism. His mother had just told police that the teen might have a gun, hated cops and was experiencing a psychological break.
Less than 20 minutes later, one of the officers shot the boy after a short foot chase despite a colleague telling him earlier she didn’t want to get into a shoot-out with an emotionally disturbed kid.
“If it’s a psych problem and she (the mother) is out of the house, I don’t see why we need to approach in my opinion,” an unidentified female cop tells her male colleague in a video released by Salt Lake City late Monday, later adding: ”I’m not about to get into a shooting because he’s upset. Sorry.”
The teen survived, but the incident is just the latest in a string of high-profile, use-of-force encounters fueling an ongoing national debate sparked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Other such incidents this year include the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin; the fatal restraint of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York; and the response by Aurora, Colorado, police to a mistaken case of a stolen vehicle during which police forced a woman and four girls out of their car at gunpoint to lay face-down on the ground.
In almost all such cases, officers say they acted consistent with their training, a common defense used against excessive force allegations. But experts told USA TODAY that law enforcement training is often outdated and promotes a react first, think later mentality — ultimately validating officers’ decisions even when they appear to defy logic.
“The officer makes that decision in the heat of the moment, and then their supervisors and you and me and everyone else looks at it afterwards,” said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor.
Alpert said he’s never seen a police officer admit to acting unreasonably in any of the thousands of police shootings he’s reviewed over the past four decades. “Of course they’re going to say that [they were following their training], wouldn’t you?”
Slowing Down the Clock
Police scholars for decades have studied why some law enforcement encounters with civilians turn violent.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable in the high-stakes context of policing. But experts said current training methods exacerbate the odds of violence by instilling in officers a fear that their lives are at constant risk. To protect themselves, they’re taught to make snap judgments. This “culture of urgency,” the experts said, leads officers to react with immediate violence whether the situation warrants it or not.
In his book, “You See a Hero, I See a Human Being,” Detroit police officer-turned-civil rights lawyer David Robinson argues that officers often create life-threatening situations because they react out of a sense of urgency instead of calmly evaluating circumstances before reacting.
Robinson pointed to the 2014 fatal shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
Cleveland Police officer Timothy Loehmann shot the 12-year-old Black boy seconds after police arrived. Officers said Rice reached for his waistband. A prosecutor later cleared Loehmann of criminal charges, saying he had reason to fear for his life “given the high-stress circumstances and his police training.”
Had the officers asked the dispatcher for more information, Robinson said, they might have learned that Rice was playing in a park with what was likely a toy gun. They also could have stayed inside their patrol car and used a megaphone to talk to Rice and determine what he was doing.
“They put themselves in the dangerous situation, so they shouldn’t be able to avail themselves of that so-called justification,” Robinson said. “You see this pattern over and over again in these incidents. It almost seems like the cops get excited to catch the bad guy, and thinking and discretion sort of goes out the window.”
After the Aurora, Colorado, incident where officers forced Brittney Gilliam and four girls ages 6-17 to the ground before handcuffing Gilliam the two older girls, interim police chief Vanessa Wilson said that the officers did follow protocol. In cases of stolen vehicles, Wilson said, standard tactics include drawing weapons and requiring all occupants exit the vehicle.
But she acknowledged the need for officers “to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves.”
Gilliam was incensed in particular about how the police treated the children.
“There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way,” Gilliam told KUSA. “You could have even told them, ‘Step off to the side, let me ask your mom or your auntie a few questions, so we can get this cleared up.’ There was different ways to handle it.”
In a cell phone camera video of the incident, a passerby recorded one of the girls crying and asking for her mother while another girl wailed.
Police said Gilliam’s license plate matched that of a stolen vehicle. But the missing vehicle was a motorcycle, not a car, and the license number was issued in a different state.
Aurora Police declined to comment on the case to USA TODAY, saying that it is still under investigation. Department officials forwarded a copy of Wilson’s statement from August. In it, she said she had already directed leaders within the agency to “look at new practices and training.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo took more drastic measures earlier this month, when he decided to fire four officers who in April shot a suicidal man 21 times. Nicholas Chavez, 27, was on his knees, bleeding from previous wounds when he grabbed an officer’s stun gun that had been deployed and couldn’t be used again.
Police union leaders in Houston insisted that, based on the officers’ training, they had no choice but to shoot. Acevedo disagreed, saying those fears were unrealistic with more than two dozen officers on the scene. He said the officers had little regard for Chavez’s life.
“This is a matter of judgment, and if you’re that fearful, with 28 officers, of a man that’s been wounded already, then I don’t need you as a police officer,” Acevedo said.
Scrambling to Catch Up
Another complicating factor is that, while society’s understanding of mental illness has evolved over the last half-century, law enforcement training hasn’t, said W.D. “Dan” Libby, a retired police chief and sheriff who now testifies as an expert in use-of-force cases.
“For about the past 10 years now, law enforcement has scrambled to change the way they deal with those situations,” Libby said. “Some are improving, but there are others out there still trying to catch up.”
Just like union officials in Houston, Rochester Police Union President Michael Mazzeo said the officers involved in Prude’s death were following their training.
Video footage of the incident shows Prude ranting incoherently and at one point telling officers he had coronavirus. Officers said they put a spit hood over his head to keep him from getting bodily fluids on them. After that, at least three officers pinned him to the ground until he stopped moving or breathing.
Prude was taken to a hospital and died a week later. A Rochester area medical examiner ruled his death a homicide by asphyxiation.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice warned as early as 1995 that applying pressure to someone’s back while the person is restrained and lying on the ground could be deadly. The subdued person will find it harder to breathe and will instinctively struggle and move more in an attempt to breathe. Officers in turn tend to interpret that as resistance, and respond by applying more pressure.
In Prude’s case, the result was deadly. But that, Mazzeo says, was not the officers’ fault.
“An officer doesn’t have the ability to go off-script,” Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club Union, told the USA TODAY Network’s Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “They have to follow protocol and do what they are trained to do.”
Police in Rochester have yet to outline what changes, if any, they will make to their training in light of Prude’s death. A spokeswoman for the department did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office exonerated officers in a case that bears resemblance to Prude’s. In 2017, Whittier, California, police killed 26-year-old Jonathan Salcido while trying to restrain him during a schizophrenic episode. They handcuffed him, placed him face-down on the ground and piled on top of him.
“Because the officers used objectively reasonable force to overcome Jonathan’s resistance to their lawful duty of detaining him for his own safety, they did not commit an assault under the color of authority,” the DA’s Office concluded.
Although it may seem counterintuitive that officers can legally kill a man while restraining him for his safety, Alpert said, they are trained to treat threats and physical violence with force of their own.
“So even if they’re going there to try to protect him, and if he starts fighting or he has a knife or he has a gun,” Alpert said, “that becomes a separate event.”
In the Salt Lake City case, police were called to the scene just hours before a requirement took effect mandating the use of de-escalation tactics before deploying deadly force.
The shooting happened after the boy’s mother, Golda Barton, called 911 to get police to help her take her son, Linden, to the hospital. Linden has autism and was acting out.
Barton said her son had threatened someone earlier that day with either a BB or a pellet gun. In the video released Monday, one of the responding officers told Barton as they stood outside her house that they would have to treat the gun — whatever it was — as a real threat.
When police approached the home, Barton’s son, Linden, ran from the back door. The officers chased him through the backyard, over a fence and onto a sidewalk. One of them yelled for the teen to get on the ground before firing multiple shots. The officer then shouted for Linden to show his hands.
“I don’t feel good,” Linden said, as he lay curled on the ground. “Tell my mom I love her.”
Salt Lake City Police did not answer USA TODAY’s question about whether the officer who fired was following department training and policy. But in a statement Monday, the department said all officers in the department receive 40 hours of crisis training.
“That is still part of an open investigation by the protocol team as well as internal affairs and the civilian review board,” the department wrote in a statement.
In light of this shooting, though, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in an interview with USA TODAY that she’s looking at “a number of ways that our police department can better serve our residents who are on the spectrum or have sensory needs, including expanding our training.”
USA Today reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reporter Gary Craig contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police in use-of-force cases cite training as defense; it’s outdated