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Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Authorities in Richland County, South Carolina, are investigating a video that surfaced Monday showing a uniformed officer aggressively confronting a high school student. Local station WIS-TV reports that county sheriff's deputies are investigating the incident, which took place on Monday at Spring Valley High School, according to school officials. The video, which appears to have been recorded on a cellphone by a classmate, shows a white male officer standing over a black female student sitting at her desk; moments later he grabs the student and flips her on her back. After dragging her across the floor, the officer says, "Hands behind your back—give me your hands." The video has no additional context as to what led to or followed the altercation.
"Parents are heartbroken as this is just another example of the intolerance that continues to be of issue in Richland County School District Two, particularly with families and children of color," a local black parents group wrote in a statement responding to the video.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told WIS-TV that the school resource officer (SRO) was responding to a student who was refusing to leave class. "The student was told she was under arrest for disturbing school and given instructions, which she again refused," Lott said. "The video then shows the student resisting and being arrested by the SRO."
The video is the latest in a series of disturbingly violent altercations involving school cops. As Mother Jones first reported in July, there have been at least 29 incidents in the United States since 2010 in which school-based police officers used questionable force against students in K-12 schools, many of which caused serious injuries, and in one case death. Data on use of force by school cops is lacking even as the number of officers on campus has ballooned over the past two decades, with little training or oversight.
Update, 6:15 p.m. EDT: Here is a statement released by the school district, via local TV reporter Megan Rivers:
Update, October 28, 2015, 1:36 p.m. EDT: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced on Wednesday that the officer in the video, identified as deputy sheriff Ben Fields, was fired from his post. Lott and school district leaders have criticized the violent encounter. Lott said he did not think race played a role in the incident, explaining that the deputy had dated an African American woman for "quite some time." He also said the student in the video should be held responsible for disturbing the classroom, though her behavior did not justify what the deputy did.
Protesters march in San Francisco in December 2014.
A new investigation from the Guardian gives a detailed look at the deep flaws in the FBI's database on fatal police shootings. The inadequacy of the federal data, which is built from information voluntarily reported by police departments, has come into view as the Guardian and the Washington Posthave tracked officer-involved killings in 2015. FBI Director James Comey recently called the federal data "embarrassing and ridiculous," and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced a new program aimed at better tracking civilian deaths at the hands of police.
The Guardian examined the FBI's justifiable homicide data for the decade spanning from 2004 to 2014 and found:
In 2014, only 244—or 1.2 percent—of the nation's estimated 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported a fatal shooting by their officers.
Several high-profile deaths, including those of Eric Garner in New York, and Tamir Rice and John Crawford in Ohio, were not included in the FBI's count, as the police agencies involved did not submit their data for those years or report those incidents to the FBI. The NYPD, for example, did not submit data for any year during this period except for one, in 2006. Still the FBI's count did not match up with the NYPD's own data from that year, which the NYPD publishes in a separate annual report.
The FBI lists 32 ways of classifying the incidents based on the circumstances—but only one denotes killing by a police officer: "felon killed by police." There is no category for cases where an officer killed someone who was not a felon. (See Mother Jones'previousreporting on the FBI's classification of justifiable homicides.)
A rise in the number of police shootings corresponded with a rise in agencies reporting their figures, obscuring any potential trends over the decade reviewed.
The Guardian included a chart showing the lack of reporting annually by states on fatal police shootings. Two of the nation's most populous states, Florida and New York, barely reported any data at all:
Police in riot gear confront a man in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 11, 2014.
After a year in which killings of unarmed suspects by the police have become a major national issue, activists, law enforcement experts, and political leaders have all stressed the importance of introducing more and better training for officers. Police departments across the country have begun to re-evaluate how they teach cops to use physical force, defuse tension with suspects, approach the mentally ill, and check their own unconscious biases. But what do we really know about police training as a solution? Will it be effective? Here are some of the key questions:
What specific steps have police departments taken? A recent survey by the DC-based Police Executive Research Forum revealed that the majority of an officer's training on use of force consisted of firearms and defensive tactics. "We spend much less time discussing the importance of deescalation techniques and crisis intervention strategies," Chuck Wexler, the group's executive director, wrote in August. The Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed in response to Ferguson and other controversial police shootings, urged that "the need for expanded and more effective training has become critical." Its top recommendations to law enforcement agencies include making classes on crisis intervention mandatory for basic recruits and officers in the field, and forming "training innovation hubs" between universities and police academies.
In 2012, Washington state's police academy introduced cadets to a new curriculum that emphasized trainings in crisis intervention, building social skills, and critical thinking—a shift from its previous boot camp approach. The NYPD is currently retraining its officers on de-escalation, communication, and minimizing use of force. In early September, Cleveland introduced plans to ramp up training that teaches officers how to respond to suspects who may have mental illnesses—a change prompted by the city's recent settlement with the US Department of Justice following a federal investigation into the Cleveland PD.
After the fatal police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, the DoJ announced in May that it would train Pasco officers for a year in order to "enhance trust and communication between the community and the police department." And following a record number of officer-involved shootings in 2010, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department overhauled its training curriculum, which now includes instruction on implicit bias and "reality-based trainings" focused on appropriate use of force.
How do we know whether these kinds of reforms will help reduce officer-involved shootings? Some departments that have introduced training reforms, such as those in Las Vegas and Maryland's Montgomery County, say the changes have lowered problematic use-of-force incidents. Yet researchers have little data on potential impacts with regard to use of force, mental-health crisis intervention, and building community trust. "We know virtually nothing about the short- or long-term effects associated with police training of any type," Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan wrote in a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.
In a report commissioned by the National Research Council in 2004, Skogan and others found that while it had long been assumed "that more and better police training leads to improved officer performance," there were "scarcely more than a handful of studies on the effects of training," and that "research on the effects of training content, timing, instructor qualifications, pedagogical methods, dosage, and long-term effects is virtually nonexistent." In the decade since, Skogan says, "there has not been much progress."
The lack of rigorous scientific assessments on police training programs means that in areas like crisis intervention or hostage negotiations, "we're flying by the seat of our pants," says Dave Klinger, a former officer and a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. That can be dangerous for both the officers and the communities they serve, he adds.
Why isn't there more research available on these kinds of training programs? The argument that policing should be rooted in science is nothing new, but translating academic research into practice on the streets is complicated territory. As researchers at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy explained in a 2012 paper, what works at one department may not work in another. Scientists and police departments might also disagree, they said, on how to measure an agency's effectiveness or define what "good policing" looks like. "The worlds of the practitioner and the scientist operate on vastly different timelines," they wrote, "with police chiefs believing that they need quick solutions, and academics believing that without adequate deliberation, the quality of the science might be compromised."
What does all of this cost? Officers spend hundreds of hours training both in the academy and out in the field, costing an average of $1.3 million per academy, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Municipal police agencies, for example, spent an average of $2.2 million on academy training in 2006, with basic recruit training taking up an average of 883 hours in the classroom and 575 hours in the field, according to the latest available data. Certified state training academies spent an average of $3.6 million per academy in the same year.
Why don't we know more about what training works? Part of the answer is that ultimately it's hard to know whether an officer's behavior during any given scenario was directly affected by training that he or she received. There have also been some "serious methodological limitations" in past research on training, Skogan found in his 2004 report. It's also hard to isolate the effect of training from other factors that could influence an officer, such as his or her workload, stress, or other factors influencing the operations of a police department and its personnel.
Lorie Fridell, a criminologist at the University of South Florida, says she has been thinking about how to better measure racial or other implicit bias in policing since 1999, when she wrote a book on the subject. She says it's been "incredibly challenging" to come up with effective approaches. Fridell runs a training program that teaches officers to recognize and check their implicit bias, and she plans to conduct a controlled study on the effects of the training to determine how an officer's attitude and skills may have changed as a result. But the study won't be able to show how the training affected an officer's behavior on the streets, she explains, because measuring bias in that setting would require pinpointing the motive behind an officer's actions in any given situation.
Activist Art McCoy holds a photo of Tamir Rice before a 2014 protest march at Cudell Park in Cleveland.
Update, 1:45 p.m. EDT: In the hours since two new investigations into the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice concluded that a Cleveland police officer's actions were "reasonable," outrage has spread on Twitter and protesters have taken to the streets. Some called on authorities to redefine what is legally "reasonable."
Activists in Cleveland and elsewhere saw the reports as a sign that it's unlikely Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann will face criminal charges for his actions. As demonstrations took place in cities such as Cleveland and Oakland, several high-profile figures weighed in:
Sending support to Tamir Rice's loved ones. Too many black families are mourning the loss of a child. We need to change that reality. -H
Meanwhile, a police union attorney for Frank Garmback, the officer who drove the squad car near Rice before Loehmann opened fire, told Mother Jones that Garmback has decided that he will not testify before the grand jury.
Garmback is still considering submitting a written statement to Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty, according to his lawyer Michael Maloney.
"While we are not facing a strict deadline at the moment, it is clear we have to advise the prosecutor of our intentions fairly soon," Maloney said. He declined to comment further on questions about whether Loehmann would testify or submit a statement soon.
Late on Saturday night, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office released conclusions from three additional investigations into the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a police officer at a Cleveland park last November.
Two of the reports, written by police use-of-force experts, determined that the actions of Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann, who fatally wounded Rice within a few seconds of arriving at the scene on November 22, were "objectively reasonable" under federal case law and did not violate the Fourth Amendment. A third investigation reconstructed the shooting scene at the Cudell Recreation Center and examined how quickly the police car was moving when it pulled up to Rice.
Here are the key takeaways from the reports, and questions that remain almost a year since Rice's death:
The fact that Rice was a kid, or that his gun turned out to be fake, are "irrelevant" in determining whether Loehmann's actions were reasonable under federal law. According to use of force experts S. Lamar Sims and Kimberly Crawford, the available evidence shows Loehmann could not have known at the time of the shooting that Rice was a boy with a toy gun. Therefore Loehmann acted reasonably—as defined by previous US Supreme Court decisions—when he fired his weapon at Rice, Sims and Crawford concluded. And while key details in the 911 call—that Rice was "probably a juvenile" waving a gun that was "probably fake"—were not relayed to the officers, they "cannot be considered," Crawford wrote.
Whether Loehmann and the officer who drove the squad car, Frank Garmback, used appropriate tactics also fell outside the scope of Sims and Crawford's investigations, they said. Garmback pulled the police vehicle to within several feet of Rice, and Loehmann fired shots within two seconds.
"To suggest that Officer Garmback should have stopped the car at another location is to engage in exactly the kind of 'Monday morning quarterbacking' the case law exhorts us to avoid," Sims wrote. While it could be argued that the officers escalated the situation "by entering the park and stopping their vehicle so close to a potentially armed subject," Crawford added, that speculation has "no place in determining the reasonableness of an officer's use of force."
The reports do not discuss the fact that Loehmann and Garmback did not administer first aid while Rice lay bleeding. Surveillance footage of the incident showed Loehmann and Garmback stood around for about four minutes without attempting to give any medical attention to Rice. When Rice's sister approached, Garmback tackled her to the ground. Later, an FBI agent arrived and began to tend to Rice's wound before an ambulance took him to a hospital. Rice died the next day.
A fundamental principle of policing is that once a threat has been eliminated and a scene secured, an officer's first priority is to aid an injured person, Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina studying policing, told Mother Jones in May. "At that point, the officer and his medical kit might be the only thing between the suspect and death," said Stoughton, who who previously served as a police officer in Florida for five years. "It's not only an ethical requirement, but almost certainly a departmental imperative to do what they can to save the life of the suspect. The failure to do that is really disturbing."
The officers still aren't talking to investigators. Both Loehmann and Garmback have declined to give statements to investigators or the county prosecutor, under the advice of their lawyers. In June, their attorney Michael Maloney told Mother Jones that the officers "have not ruled out the possibility" of providing a written statement to the prosecutor. They have not decided whether they will testify before the grand jury.
It's unclear whether Loehmann will face criminal charges. A total of four investigations have now been made public in the wake of Rice's death, none of which are intended to draw conclusions about whether officer Loehmann should be charged. As county prosecutor Timothy McGinty explains, all reports will be reviewed by a grand jury, which will then determine whether Loehmann will face criminal charges.
The officer who drove the car may face scrutiny, too. Thus far, the investigation into Rice's death has focused on Loehmann, and it remains unclear whether the actions of Garmback will warrant a separate criminal or departmental investigation.
Stoughton, the law enforcement expert, toldMother Jones, "It was a ludicrous way to approach a scene where you've been told that there is a person with a gun who has been aiming it at bystanders. I would expect the officers would park at a safe distance and walk up, using cover and concealment, and try to initiate communication at a distance. That's the 'three Cs' of tactical response."
It's unclear when a grand jury will take up the case. The new documents, along with the initial probe into the shooting led by the county sheriff's office, will be presented to a grand jury as it decides whether to indict Loehmann, McGinty said in Saturday's press release. McGinty's office declined to comment further on the grand jury process. It remains unclear whether a grand jury has been impaneled and when a hearing will take place.
Officers involved in the 2014 shooting of a homeless man in Albuquerque were told to wait two days before speaking with investigators.
Last Friday, in a courthouse in New Mexico, special prosecutor Randi McGinn asked police psychologist William Lewinski whether he advised investigators to wait several days before interviewing an officer involved in a shooting. McGinn was asking because two Albuquerque police officers shot and killed a homeless man on March 16, 2014, in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, and they had been told to wait two days before giving a statement. The lag in time seemed odd to McGinn, who is pursuing murder charges against the officers.
Lewinski, founder of the research group Force Science Institute, is a controversial figure among prosecutors like McGinn. Recently, he came under fire for publishing studies that critics said were not subject to peer review, and for using those studies in his work as an expert witness when testifying on behalf of officers involved in shootings. Lewinski responded to McGinn's question by saying, "That's what the professionals and the experts in law also state." He added that "if you can eliminate bias, memory aids such as walking through a scene, looking at video—the things that are currently used in the police practice—do enhance memory."
The same day McGinn was interviewing Lewinski in court, cops working one state away, in Arlington, Texas, were dealing with fallout from a police trainee's fatal shooting of 19-year-old Christian Taylor. Arlington's police chief explained to reporters that the two officers involved had not yet been interviewed due to a standard department procedure, and that he expected the officers to submit their statements in 7 to 10 days. (Investigators interviewed one of the officers on Monday.)
Albuquerque and Arlington are not outliers. For years, departments in states like Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon, Texas, and Wisconsin have required a waiting period of at least two days. In Dallas, 72 hours must pass. In Baltimore, where six police officers have been charged for their involvement in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a union contractcompels cops to wait 10 days before speaking with investigators.
In the aftermath of controversial police shootings, from Michael Brown to Tamir Rice and Samuel Dubose, the public has repeatedly seen thatan officer's account—"I almost got run over by the car" or "I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan"—can have big implications for a case, swaying internal investigators, prosecutors, and grand juries as they determine whether a police shooting was legal or justified. It is unsurprising, then, that over the past year the question of how long officers should wait before giving their accounts has been fiercelydebated. Policing experts have raised a number of issues, including, most importantly, the validity of the science—promoted often by Lewinski—behind delaying interviews.
Local officials and union attorneys who embrace the so-called 48-hour rule say stress can interfere with an officer's ability to recall details. "The science behind how people remember things, particularly those that are involved in a high-stress, adrenaline-infused situation, has shown that memories can often be inaccurate if they are immediate," Sean Smoot, a police union attorney who represents officers in Illinois, testified to the US Commission on Civil Rights in April.
When the civil rights commission pressed Smoot for data supporting his claim, he cited the work of Lewinski and the Force Science Institute. In an April 2014 Force Science newsletter, Lewinski wrote, "The overall benefit of waiting while he or she rests and emotionally decompresses far outweighs any potential loss of memory." What's more, he said, "Delay enhances an officer's ability to more accurately and completely respond to questions."
But the science shaping rules about when officers should be interviewed, several policing experts warn, is inconclusive at best, and shaky ground on which to base investigations with potentially criminal outcomes. In fact, a 2010 experiment conducted by University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey Alpert found that an officer's recollection of threats at the scene actually weakened slightly over time. The scientific conclusions about when officers should be interviewed after a shooting, Alpert says, "remain blurred."
In response to Smoot's testimony, Samuel Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, reviewed a meta-study of psychological research on the relationship between stress and memory. The 2008 study concluded that "there is little evidence to support the view that emotional stress is bad for memory," Walker wrote. "Police unions and their advocates have made false and self-serving claims about the scientific evidence on the impact of trauma on memory."
When I asked Lewinski about the findings, he referred me to the recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's psychological services section. "That prestigious and knowledgeable group disagrees strongly with Dr. Walker," Lewinski said in an email. (The association's guidelines on officer-involved shootings don't quite line up with Lewinski's 48-hour recommendation; they state that "officers should have some recovery time before providing a full formal statement," ranging from a few hours to several days, and that "an officer's memory will often benefit from at least one sleep cycle prior to being interviewed leading to more coherent and accurate statements.")
The science isn't the only concern that policing experts have raised in recent months: In her line of questioning last week, McGinn suggested the delay could give officers an opportunity to review video or "consult with their peers who were involved before they ever give a statement." Walter Katz, a Los Angeles-based attorney focusing on police accountability, told me that "there's always the concern about either contamination or having statements which are essentially fabricated." AndMcGinn and others have asked if the delays amount to special treatment a regular citizen wouldn't be afforded. (Union officials have pointed out that due process for ordinary civilians does not provide enough protection for law enforcement officers.) In the fragile atmosphere that tends to follow police shootings, such suspicions could well corrode public trust.
What's more, rules delaying interviews also overlook the fact that officers may prefer to get their interviews out of the way, says David Klinger, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "In the absence of sound scientific evidence, why make them wait?"