No one seems to really be studying the problem of bad police shootings in the context of what’s known about human performance and safety systems. There’s a body of knowledge and scientific theory on that that’s very far ahead of the pop psychology that informs most undergraduate courses, police training, and Dave Grossman lectures. This knowledge has come from several fields: beginning with military mishap investigators, a system of investigation has been developed that’s been used by aircraft accident investigators, other transport investigators, nuclear accident investigators and other sober professionals.
The results these groups achieve speak for themselves. Military aviation accidents are at or near historic lows, despite a high optempo in recent years. Airline accidents have become so rare as to be incapable of statistical analysis — each one is an outlier, frequently featuring a strange and previously unseen and unimagined chain of causation (indeed, some accidents have been caused by human-factors problems instilled by responses to previous accidents). Meanwhile, private aviation hasn’t gotten much safer — year in and year out, about 300 accidents claim about 500 lives.
Everyone in aviation knows what airlines do that general aviation operators do not do, and how it produces commercial aviation’s maximal record of safety.
But we certainly haven’t seen a similar reduction in police shooting deaths — we think. We have to say think because these data points, unlike aviation accidents, are poorly collected.
There are a number of reasons police shootings are not like aviation mishaps. For example, the police often face a deadly, armed adversary. The aviation mishaps are, almost always, accidental. (Sometimes, looking at one, you think the pilot was asking for it — flying visually into bad weather is a major contributor to small-plane deaths, for example, and it’s just stupid). But both are characterized by chains of events and of decisions that either end well, or don’t. The aviation case has been beaten down from something incredibly risky before WWII to something safer than taking a bath in your own house today.
The way to begin that is with systematic data collection and examination. It’s unlikely to happen for a number of reasons. Unlike aviation, there’s no one governing body for police. And unlike accident investigations, which are non-adversarial (and their product is inadmissible in courts, to keep them that way) police shootings often trigger adversarial proceedings (and reinforce the us v. them mentality and in-group morality of the police and their managers).
Still, just as a gunfighter studies good and bad shoots for tactical lessons, we should study them for judgment and decision-making lessons. The improvements that came in air safety have come in part because pilots were willing to examine judgment and work on judgment skills, after it became clear that improving stick-and-rudder skills above a certain threshold was not preventing accidents (which more usually are failures of judgment than of skill). Likewise, the shooting that gets you in the paper and not in a good way is more likely to result from judgment error than from lack of shooting skill. But everyone in the community (cops and civilian carriers) who works on his skills — and that’s a small subset of the people who ought to do so — ought to be working on judgment drills as much as on ball-and-dummy or response drills.
Here are some assumptions that underly this concept:
- No officer wants or intends to shoot a hostage, bystander, other citizen, or (perhaps especially) another officer. (Chris Dorner and Lon Horiuchi are not typical of law enforcement; they’re sick puppies who squeaked through the selection process, to the everlasting regret of their agencies).
- No officer intends to shoot an unarmed, non-threatening, or immobilized suspect. (The nature of suspects being what it is, we’ll concede the want and recognize that policemen are generally above acting on that temptation).
- Shootings of folks who ought not to be shot do occur. While they are rare in a well-run department, in a nation of 330 million and a world of billions, they do occur.
- There are identifiable errors in judgment that lead to many if not most of these shootings.
- The errors can be departmental (bad training or bad policy) or individual in nature.
- Adversarial proceedings and placement of blame detracts from the purity of evidence and the honesty of testimony. (Put another way: once the lawyers get into it, it’s all lies from that point).
- Only a dispassionate examination by disinterested parties with significant subject-matter expertise can produce an untainted result. Think of the National Transportation Safety Board, or its military or foreign analogues. (The NTSB is actually modeled after the old Army Air Corps independent accident investigation process).
- The goal needs to be understanding, not blame.
- There is no such body of disinterested parties at this time.