COLUMBIA, S.C. – After two more police shootings, a USC law professor who’s an expert on police use of force says a big part of the problem is the training that officers get. Seth Stoughton is a former officer himself. He says police academies drill into cadets’ heads the danger they’ll be facing, which gives those officers an inaccurate view of people they deal with, sometimes leading to officers overreacting.
He thinks police training needs to change. “Often, I think officers are unreasonably perceiving these threats because they have been trained to perceive and expect threats,” he says.
In the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, it’s reported that he told the officer that he was a concealed weapons permit holder and that he did have a gun. Stoughton says officers are taught how to handle that situation.
“They might ask the motorist to get out of the car while the weapon stays in the car, say in the glove box,” he says. “They might have the motorist stay in the car, particularly when the weapon is on the motorist. Sometimes they might ask to separate the motorist from the weapon. For example, if the motorist is carrying the weapon in the back of their waistband, they might ask the motorist to lean forward while they, the officer, retrieve the gun and hold on to it during the course of the interaction.”
He says there are three questions to keep in mind after any police shooting.
“One, what actually happened? What are the facts, as objective as we can be? What are the facts of that situation? Two, what did the officer actually perceive? Because sometimes officers can make mistakes. They can perceive things that didn’t happen or they can fail to perceive things that did happen. And finally, if the officer’s perceptions don’t match the reality of what happened, were the mistakes reasonable? Was it reasonable to think that someone was going for a weapon when, in fact, they weren’t? That will make all the difference, because if the officer’s mistakes were reasonable, then the use of force is going to be legally justified. If the officer’s mistakes were unreasonable–if no reasonable officer in that situation would have perceived someone going for a weapon, or would have perceived that there was a deadly threat there–then the use of force will not be justified. So, to a very great extent, it comes down to the officer’s perceptions and whether those perceptions are reasonable.”
He wants to stress that he knows, from personal experience, that officers have dangerous jobs and they do face threats. But he thinks their training can be changed to give them a more realistic perception of that threat, which should decrease their use of force.
“Officers need good tactical training so that they don’t put themselves into danger unnecessarily or put themselves into more danger than the situation requires,” he says. “When an officer creates a dangerous situation unnecessarily, they may end up using more force than the situation may have called for to get out of the danger that they put themselves into. So better tactical training is one approach.”
Another is better social interaction training, so officers can assess someone’s words and actions better so they’ll have a better idea of who is, and who isn’t, a potential threat.
Another is more training on how to work in groups. When more than one officer is involved, one may be shouting to someone to get on the ground, while another officer is shouting, “Put your hands up!” Whichever the person does, one of the officers will perceive the suspect as not following his command. He says there are also cases where one officer is on one side of a suspect pulling on one arm, while another officer is on the other side pulling on the other arm. Each officer feels the tugging caused by the other but thinks the suspect is resisting, so the struggle escalates when it’s really the officers causing it.
“Better training on tactics, on strategic social interactions, on actually using force when multiple officers are present, on making informed threat assessments–all of that could help address some of the more questionable uses of force that we’ve seen,” he says.
But he says it’s difficult to get police academies to change their training. Some may not think there’s a need for change, while others are governed by commissions that decide curriculum, making change difficult.