This Isn’t the Training Our Police Officers Need

Last week the Houston Police Officers’ Union invited controversial psychology professor William Lewinski to conduct training seminars for 140 of its officers. Unfortunately it won’t be the sort of training that will rebuild community trust in law enforcement or save lives. Quite the opposite.

Lewinski’s publications and seminars are popular in law enforcement circles, but unfortunately his “training” doesn’t teach police officers how to better serve their communities. Instead, he teaches them to shoot first and often, and then provides them with the tools to justify those shootings after the tragic fact.

In his study on officer reaction times, Lewinski concludes that a cop can’t afford to wait until he sees a gun in order to react to its presence. (In other words, “If I see the gun, I’m already dead.”) In another study, Lewinski takes 4,000 words to explain why it’s almost always reasonable for a cop to shoot someone in the back. And in his testimony before the President’s Task Force on Policing, Lewinski laid out ten reasons why the footage from body cameras is not to be trusted.

In other words, if a cop stops you and you are unarmed, in Lewinski’s world it’s perfectly justifiable for that cop to shoot you in the back and blame “muscle memory” or “inattentional blindness” to explain away any incriminating video evidence in the ensuing investigation.

Lewinski is fond of likening shooting scenarios to baseball games. As he told deputy sheriffs in Los Angeles, “a batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at.” Of course, the analogy collapses once we realize that the consequence of a late swing is a foul tip to the cheap seats in right field, and not, say, the senseless execution of an unarmed citizen by an agent of the state.

Tragically, this sort of thing happens all too often. Man shot for reaching for the driver’s license he’s just been asked to produce. Man shot for failing to produce driver’s license. Man shot twice in the back while running away. Man shot ten times while seeking assistance after a car accident. Man shot. Man shot. Man shot.

Lewinski’s work appears either on his own website or in publications like Police Marksman magazine, and never in peer-reviewed psychology journals. The Justice Department concluded that his findings “lack foundation and reliability.” The American Journal of Psychology has derided his work as “pseudoscience.”

Lewinski and his training regimen are a particularly extreme example of a perverse and all too common law enforcement attitude that perceives civilians first and foremost as enemy combatants. It’s a world where every gesture is a threat, where every unseen hand is brandishing a gun, and where “to protect and serve” is just something that’s painted on a cruiser door.

If we ever hope to change the way police interact with vulnerable communities, we must redesign officer training. In a recent survey of 281 law enforcement agencies nationwide, the Police Executive Research Forum determined that on average officers receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours of defensive tactical training, only eight hours of de-escalation training, and only a negligible amount, if any, of training on how to handle the mentally ill. If all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, then everything looks like a nail. And if all you have is a gun, then everyone looks like a target.

We have to turn those numbers around if we ever hope to reform law enforcement culture, and the President’s report on 21st Century Policing is an excellent place to start. Police departments need to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people they are sworn to protect. Law enforcement agencies must adopt zero-tolerance policies towards racial profiling, and to increase training in implicit bias, use of force, de-escalation techniques, and how to approach people in states of mental distress. Most fundamentally, officers need to begin thinking of themselves as guardians who serve their communities rather than as warriors who occupy them.

None of that is likely to happen as long as police departments continue to listen to William Lewinski and his ilk.

Mark Humphries is the Writer and Content Developer for the ACLU of Texas.