The recent police shootings of African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota have reignited the debate over use of deadly force. That was on the mind of a black community leader in Washington state as she strapped on a gun belt and took aim inside a state-of-the-art training simulator for police.
At the Washington State Patrol Academy in Shelton, Corporal Lori Hinds guides a pair of visitors into what looks like a walk-in video game. Inside five, large video screens form a 300-degree computer-generated environment.
The actors in the video scenarios are different races. But this program isn’t designed to measure bias. Instead it’s meant to test an officer’s de-escalation tactics and decisions about when to use deadly force.
On this day Karen Johnson, Ph.D. is about to experience the highly realistic simulator. Today she is Trooper Johnson.
Different scenarios, different results
Johnson is a founding member of the Black Alliance of Thurston County -- a group created after a white Olympia police officer shot and wounded two African-American brothers. She’s also a member of a newly formed legislative task force on police deadly force.
As Johnson steps into the shoes of a police officer, the scenario she responds to is a noise complaint in a neighborhood. The life-like scene shows a bearded man revving his motorcycle in his garage as an annoyed neighbor looks on. He then picks up a hammer and things quickly get out of hand.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” says a voice in the video simulator.
“No problem,” Johnson says. “Just relax. Could you put your weapon down for a moment please, we just want to have a chat. Nice bike by the way. Is that a Harley?”
Moments later: gunshots.
The man puts down the hammer and pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and starts blasting away. In the scenario Officer Johnson has been shot dead.
Even so she gets some praise from Corporal Mitchell Bauer, one of the academy trainers.
“You did a really good job in this scene of acknowledging that he did have a weapon in his hand right away, you did try to initiate a conversation and you tried to do a little bit of de-escalation by commenting on his motorcycle which is very, very good things that we’re looking for,” Bauer says.
In the next scenario, the officer must confront a despondent man in a pickup truck who’s just been fired from his job. This time within seconds of arriving on the scene Johnson pulls her gun and shoots after a citizen suddenly warns her the man is armed.
And Johnson immediately realizes her mistake.
“When says, ‘oh, he’s got a gun,’ there still isn’t a reason to shoot at that point because I haven’t validated whether or not that’s true,” Johnson says.
De-escalation over deadly force
It’s split second decisions like these that officers have to train for. And in this day and age, newly minted officers know they’re going to be under the microscope -- especially if they resort to deadly force.
Bauer says it’s a constant topic of conversation with new recruits.
“They have been watching the news, they’ve been watching things unfold throughout America and that is something that comes in; in every class they ask those questions. ‘How is this going to look if this happens?’” Bauer says.
Bauer says what he tries to impart on new troopers is they must be willing to use deadly force if necessary. But whenever possible their goal should be to de-escalate. New troopers are also now trained in crisis intervention. And starting this year all current troopers will be trained in implicit or unconscious bias. For example, how a white officer might view a black person differently.
When it’s my turn in the simulator, I confront a mentally ill homeless man who’s trespassing on a vacant lot. As soon as I show up he unleashes a profanity-laced tirade. He then reaches into his bag and pulls out a knife.
“Sir, can you put down the knife please,” I say.
Soon he’s slowly advancing toward me with the knife. I have him at gunpoint.
Again, I tell him, “Please put down the knife sir.”
But I don’t shoot. Afterwards Corporal Bauer debriefs the scenario with me.
“Could you have shot this person legally and been justified?” Bauer asks.
“Probably so,” I respond.
“Probably so, right,” Bauer says. “But once again and I mentioned this earlier, just because you’re justified at doing something doesn’t mean you have to do that.”
Washington state has perhaps the most protective law in the nation for police officers who use deadly force. To convict an officer of wrongfully killing someone requires a finding that the officer acted in bad faith and with malice.
Johnson would like to see that law changed. But she says that alone is not the answer.
“We have to really have a collective approach to this,” she says.
Hours before we went through the simulator, the news broke of the shooting of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police. As we sat in the car ready to leave the State Patrol academy, Johnson was thinking about Sterling’s family.
“Here we go again,” she says. “What is it going to take to stop the killings, stop the narrative to be about public trust, public safety, public accountability. What is it going to take.”
Johnson hopes the legislative task force she’s on is able to come up with some answers.