Across the country, activists are demanding that police stop shooting unarmed people — particularly young black men.
In Los Angeles County, an investigation by NPR member station KPCC in Pasadena found that one-quarter of the more than 375 people shot by police over a five-year period were unarmed. Black people were fatally shot at three times their proportion of the population.
Using deadly force is the toughest decision a cop will make. And as angry protests have swelled over police shootings, some departments like Los Angeles’ are providing new de-escalation training. They’re encouraging officers to take cover and create distance, when they can, to give them more time to better assess what’s going on.
At the Los Angeles Police Department’s training academy, fresh-faced recruits step in front of a giant TV screen. It’s a force option simulator, a sort of video game that presents them with scenarios where they have to decide what to do.
In one scenario, an officer stops a vehicle that has no license plate and approaches from the right side. A woman in the driver’s seat greets the officer.
It seems like a pretty standard car stop. The friendly woman smiles broadly as she leans over to look for her car registration inside the glove compartment.
“It’s in here somewhere,” she says — before pulling out a gun and firing.
Over and over, recruits are presented with armed suspects. It gets their adrenaline flowing.
Training Sgt. Bobbie Riggs teaches recruits to control their fear, and pull the trigger when necessary.
“We don’t want our officers to get shot at first,” Riggs says. “You don’t have to wait to get shot at before you can use deadly force, because we would have a lot of dead officers.”
In fact, under the law, police officers don’t need to wait to see a gun before they shoot someone. They need reasonable belief someone is armed and about to attack.
At the academy, recruits are told to look for clues of a weapon. It starts with the call – did someone report gunfire? Then, are there bulges in the suspect’s pockets? Do they keep touching part of their clothing, as if to check on something concealed?
A failure to follow commands, hidden hands and a furtive movement mean it may be time to use deadly force.
But KPCC’s analysis found those clues don’t always add up to a weapon. Between 2010 and 2014, police officers in LA County shot at least 54 people they thought were armed — but turned out not to be.
One recruit is told he waited too long to shoot a man who grabbed a gun the police officer didn’t notice sitting on a nearby bench.
“This is like a tie,” says trainer Anthony Jackson. “He gets a shot at you. You get a shot at him. Maybe you both get hit. We can’t have ties. You have to protect yourself.”
But Jackson also says the shooting could have been avoided entirely, if the recruit had grabbed the suspect earlier — before he got to the gun.
“You have to recognize what’s going on, and react a little faster, OK?” Jackson tells the recruit.
Shooting someone is a very personal decision, says former officer Gil Contreras.
Back in the 1980s, Contreras was on patrol in the Watts neighborhood when he came face to face with a man with a bat who was threatening to kill him.
Contreras loaded a round into his 12-gauge shotgun. His mind raced with thoughts.
“One of them was,’Geez, this is my guy, this is the guy that I kill in the line of duty. This is him, standing right in front of me, right here, right now,’ ” he recalls. “And I wasn’t afraid.”
Contreras prepared to fire, when something surprising happened.
“His face went soft, he dropped the bat and he just looked confused to me,” the former police officer says.
Cops will tell you they actually don’t pull the trigger on a lot of people they could legally shoot. In Los Angeles, they are reinforcing de-escalation training.
At one recent LAPD class, beat cops watch body cam video of a murder suspect charging at an officer in Ohio.
“Get your hands up. Get your hands up right now. Stop, stop right there,” the policeman shouts.
The officer, a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran, continues to back up as the suspect rushes him, begging the cop to shoot him.
“I don’t want to shoot you, man. I don’t want to shoot you,” the policeman shouts.
At the last minute, the suspect stops.
It’s extraordinary restraint that won the officer praise from the public.
But it’s a hard sell among cops, says LAPD Capt. John Tippett.
“I’m not sure I would have shown the same restraint,” he says. “It was pretty obvious that the guy intended on harming the officer and even if he didn’t have a gun, he was probably going to try to get the officer’s gun away from him.”
Even knowing the man surrendered, Tippett and many other police say the risk was just too great.