“LAPD shoots homeless man!” The video went viral. Opinions and solutions to the obvious problem of police shooting poor homeless people were offered by everyone.
“Body cameras! That would stop these types of senseless killings.”
“Body Cameras” is once again the rallying cry by virtually everyone from every venue.
All seem to agree that equipping police officers with body cams will end the debates about whether force used was justifiable or not. The theory is that since there will be a recording of the incident, everyone will immediately be able to see what the police officers saw and all who view the video will be of one collective mind and agree on whether the use of force was justified or not.
This almost totally uncontested belief is at best misunderstood and, at worst, utter nonsense. While I agree that body cameras are a good idea and should be employed by law enforcement, few understand their many inherent limitations.
How could there be limitations if everything is on camera? Well, let’s examine a few, using this incident as an example.
Everything is not on camera: A camera lens sees sometimes more and often times less than the human eye.
Pre-judgment: All too often people only see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. And they will either consciously or unconsciously ignore what they don’t want to see and disregard what they don’t want to hear. This is true on all sides by the way—cops and cop haters alike.
But real investigations involve facts, not prejudiced and biased beliefs. So let’s look at the facts that are evident on the video now.
As you watch, listen—really listen—to what is being said. You clearly hear someone—a rookie police officer, as it happens—shouting “GUN.” Without the opportunity for me to enhance the audio portion using Special Agent Timothy McGee’s NCIS technology I can’t be certain exactly what words were used. However, one of the officers appears to be yelling, “He’s got my gun.” It also sounds like someone is saying, “Drop the gun!” But without question, the word “gun” is definitely used several times. Now why would the cops say that? As an intricate plot to justify shooting a poor defenseless homeless man for absolutely no reason? Of course not. But the real question is: What did the other police officers hear? Or think they heard?
Different camera angles mean different viewpoints: Even if there were body cameras on each officer (and there were on two), it appears that immediately preceding the gunfire, four officers were trying to control the resistant and combative subject (clearly visible on the CCTV video, below). This means there would be four different angles, perspectives, and assessments to evaluate and, whether inconvenient or not, each perspective for the same scenario may, and probably will, be significantly different.
Perceptual distortion: There’s a difference between reality and what the video picks up. What video doesn’t take into account is that the eyes and ears of people under high stress and in fear of their (or someone else’s) life will not operate like a camera. I’ve seen it countless times: pundits on the tube replaying a police shooting, pausing it, watching it in slow motion, discussing as a group under absolutely no stress, and then expressing their opinions on what the officers should or should not have done. That’s not only unrealistic and unfair, it’s stupid.
There are books, research and institutions that have studied things like this for years. The Force Science Institute—in my opinion, the best at studying use-of-force incidents— has addressed perspective, perceptual narrowing, auditory exclusion and the psychological and physiological realities of life-and-death encounters for the past ten years. An absolute must read is Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman’s book On Combat. Grossman addresses these same realties and the best cameras in the world will never be able to describe, clarify or explain that side of a lethal force experience.
In this case, the time between I hear the word “gun” for the first time and by the time the first shot is fired, less than four seconds has elapsed. That’s fast. Now think of what was going on for the officers during those four seconds.
At least one (the rookie officer) is aware that his gun is being taken. He knows if the gun comes out the subject can shoot and kill him and several other officers in two or three seconds. He has to decide what to do and decide—now!
A second officer hears “gun” comments while wrestling and trying to control the subject. He can’t see both hands, his stress level skyrockets, his heartbeat races to perhaps 200 bpm, he experiences massive perceptual narrowing all while trying to find the threat, if there is one, before he and others are murdered.
The third and fourth officers have their own unique angles, perspectives and stress-induced selective hearing. Gun? Whose gun? Where is it? What’s he doing with it? What exactly did I just hear? I gotta protect myself and everyone else! He’s turning towards me!
All of that, four perspectives, under high stress, believing a gun is out and ready to be used, a decision needing to be made, with massive perceptual limitations, all in under four seconds? You try it!
A second threat: Notice the second person picking up the police baton? Notice his stance? That is an aggressive attack stance. One strike to the head with a baton could cause death and/or serious bodily injury—the definition of deadly force. Two officers reacted quickly. They didn’t overreact, they moved in a split second, brought him to the ground and secured him professionally—under high stress.
Bystanders and witnesses: Involved, emotional, biased, and many of them lying and inciting. All experiencing their own stress-induced perceptions affected by bias and eventually contaminated by the words used by others.
Listen to what is said by the many in the crowd. Name calling. Vile profanities. Judgment. Lies and/or inaccuracies about what just happened in front of them. The problem is that all of this results in a crowd that could get out of control. And the police? Professional, controlled, focused.
Later they are asked to recall what they saw—under oath. Will what they heard in the aftermath affect what they actually saw occur? Undoubtedly! Will they lie? Not intentionally perhaps. But reality has been altered by misinformation, bias and perhaps the desired outcome. Separate them and see what you get from the ten eye witnesses. You’ll have ten versions of the exact same incident.
All will believe that their recitation is the accurate one, but all will be at least somewhat wrong. This is true on the law enforcement side as well. But these realities are virtually never addressed in the media.
In our Street Survival Seminar we address these issues at length. Police officers certainly need to know the limitations of memory and recall. They need to understand how stress will affect perception.
The thing is, I don’t know all the facts of this case. I read the police were questioning the subject about a theft or robbery. What I do know is the officers were attacked, and, yeah, “attacked” is the right word. The now deceased subject (who we now know had a violent history) came out of the tent at the officers and swung at them multiple times. He failed to comply. He resisted the officer’s attempts to control. In other words, he escalated the situation.
In the end the police didn’t simply shoot a “homeless” man. I believe whoever fired his weapon was responding to what he believed to be an immediate and deadly threat at the moment he pulled that trigger reluctantly. And when all the videos, from every angle are eventually released, evaluated and weighed in the light of day, people will still see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, and believe what they want to believe.
Cameras will not fix this issue. Taking a deep breath and calmly ascertaining the facts to create a more accurate perception of reality is the only way forward. In doing this, video can be an extremely valuable tool.