Could training stem police shootings? Las Vegas is a test

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Could training stem police shootings? Las Vegas is a test
In this June 10, 2015 photo, Rondha Gibson cries while visiting the grave of her husband, Stanley, in Boulder City, Nev. In December 2011, three years before many Americans began questioning police use of deadly force in the wake of incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, New York and Baltimore, local leaders had just started acknowledging two decades of shootings by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers. But the killing of Stanley Gibson, cornered by police in a tan stucco apartment complex he apparently mistook for his own, was a flash point. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 10, 2015 photo, Rondha Gibson, left, is comforted by her sister, Cheryl Chester, before visiting the grave of her husband, Stanley Gibson, in Boulder City, Nev. "They say that things happen for a reason, that his death helped a lot. Well that hasn't helped me," says Rondha, who keeps her husband's bullet-riddled leather jacket in a living room shrine. "They can say we believe in training, we believe in all this and that, but at the end of the day they are trained for the cops to go home." (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 10, 2015 photo, Rondha Gibson visits the flag- and flower-adorned grave of her husband, Stanley, in Boulder City, Nev. Stanley Gibson, a 43-year-old Army veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was killed by a Las Vegas police officer in 2011. (AP Photo/John Locher)
This circa 2002 photo provided by Rondha Gibson shows her and her husband, Stanley, who was killed by a LasVegas police officer in 2011. In the aftermath of his death, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department became the first in the country to complete a "collaborative" Justice Department review. "They say that things happen for a reason, that his death helped a lot. Well that hasn't helped me," says Rondha, who keeps her husband's bullet-riddled leather jacket in a living room shrine. "They can say we believe in training, we believe in all this and that, but at the end of the day they are trained for the cops to go home." (Rondha Gibson via AP)
In this May 12, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police officers take part in a training exercise in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department began four-hour annual sessions of reality-based training for all officers starting in 2011, after the shooting of Stanley Gibson. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this May 12, 2015 photo, a Las Vegas police officer takes part in a training exercise in Las Vegas. The city has tested many changes as the first police department in the country to complete a "collaborative" Justice Department review. Some critics said it did not go far enough. But shootings by officers, which peaked at 25 in 2010, declined to 13 in 2013 and 16 in 2014. In 2015, through mid-June, Metro officers shot three people, killing one. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 9, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police officer Dave Milewski looks at the computer in his cruiser while working on a swing shift in downtown Las Vegas. Milewski, a native Chicagoan who's patrolled here for more than eight years, says, "If you do the job the right way, you have nothing to worry about." (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 9, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police officer officer Dave Milewski hops over a brick wall while searching for a man allegedly involved in an assault with a deadly weapon in downtown Las Vegas. Milewski recounts the only time he fired his gun on duty - two shots that missed a woman trying to run down him and his partner. Milewski says he didn't recognize that threat until it was bearing down on him, despite countless nights responding to calls in tough neighborhoods. "You have weeks where every night you're drawing your gun," he says. "You just never know." (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 9, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police Sgt. Jason Johansson holds up a knife allegedly used in an assault with a deadly weapon in downtown Las Vegas. After the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Gulf War veteran Stanley Gibson by police in 2011, Las Vegas rewrote its use-of-force rules and ramped up training to de-escalate tense encounters - that could offer lessons as other departments confront questions about how to stem shootings by police. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 9, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police Sgt. Jason Johansson, left, and officer Dave Milewski, center, search around a truck during an investigation into an alleged assault with a deadly weapon in downtown Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 9, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police officer Dave Milewski covers the body of a homeless man found behind a business in downtown Las Vegas. Police said there didn't appear to be any trauma on his body. (AP Photo/John Locher)
In this June 9, 2015 photo, Las Vegas police Sgt. Jason Johansson stands in the doorway of an apartment during an investigation into an alleged assault with a deadly weapon in downtown Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Chart shows police responses to a survey on investigations into firearms use; 2c x 5 inches; 96.3 mm x 127 mm;
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — By 2 a.m., nearly five hours had ticked by since Stanley Gibson's last call.

"I want to come home," the 43-year-old Gulf War veteran told his wife, Rondha, his voice edged by post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Rondha Gibson did not know where to find him until a white Cadillac, bathed in spotlights, filled her television screen. "Local man shot by Metro police," a headline announced.

"I think that's my husband you guys killed," she recalls telling the dispatcher who answered her 911 call.

On that night in 2011, local leaders had just started acknowledging two decades of shootings by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers. But Gibson's death was a flash point.

Las Vegas, now the first department in the country to complete a "collaborative" Justice Department review, has rewritten its use-of-force rules and ramped up training to de-escalate tense encounters. Some criticized it as not enough. But shootings by officers, which peaked at 25 in 2010, declined to 13 in 2013 and 16 last year. Through mid-June, Metro officers shot three people, killing one. Even critics credit the decrease at least partly to new training.

Shootings by police recently led Ohio officials, dismayed that the state requires just four hours of annual police training, to recommend a ten-fold increase. A Missouri panel recommended training encouraging police to increase distance between themselves and suspects, though some critics say stepping back could heighten risk.

Debate continues over how to stem shootings.

"I think what has happened is the culture has changed now, as a result of the training and as a result of the policy, that you have officers who are ... essentially avoiding situations where they have to make that split-second decision," says William Sousa, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Others are skeptical, including Rondha Gibson, who won a $1.5 million settlement from Las Vegas police.

"They can say we believe in training," Gibson says. "But at the end of the day they are trained for the cops to go home."

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Policing experts say training often falls short.

A 2008 survey of more than 300 departments found one-third limited deadly-force training to requalifying in shooting skills, without focusing on judgment or tactics. More than three-fourths did not share findings from police shooting investigations with trainers.

That raises serious "concerns about how prepared many police officers are" for encounters where they might use deadly force, concluded survey author Gregory Morrison, a professor of criminal justice at Ball State University.

More departments have embraced "reality-based training," using computer simulations or live scenarios. But there's little research on what works, Morrison said.

Meanwhile, calls for police to slow fast-moving confrontations and step back to defuse them have sparked tensions and concerns for officers' safety.

"How is it we can enter situations in a smarter way to create space between us and our adversaries?" says David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who, as a rookie officer in California in 1981, shot and killed a man who was attacking his partner. "I think if we train officers in sound field tactics and hold them to a high standard of performance, that we can reduce shootings."

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Critics long complained about aggressive policing in Las Vegas.

But in late 2011, The Las Vegas Review-Journal published an investigation detailing 115 killings by officers over two decades. Weeks later, Stanley Gibson, short of medication for his mental illness, called police, demanding an officer come to his home. Over the next 37 hours, officers found him wandering through traffic and throwing chips from a casino table. He was arrested, released, briefly hospitalized, then refused an ambulance.

Finally, police were called to an apartment complex next to one the Gibsons had moved to less than a month earlier, by a woman reporting two black men trying to break in.

Officers blocked Gibson's Cadillac. He ignored commands barked through bullhorns. Commanders devised a plan to fire a bean bag through the rear window and gas him out. But "a series of failures ensued," the Clark County District Attorney found. When the bag shattered a side window, an officer fired, striking Gibson four times.

Afterward, Metro and an arm of the Justice Department announced what they called "collaborative reform."

The resulting audit found many officers designated to deal with Las Vegas' sizable mentally ill population had gone nine years without recertification training. Las Vegas had a history of traffic stops leading to shootings, and errors in situations involving large numbers of officers. But the department did little to prepare for those unpredictable scenarios, a Justice consultant found. Officers were getting no instruction in de-escalating tense situations.

"We had to fix what we knew was not right," says Capt. Matt McCarthy, who leads the department's Office of Internal Oversight.

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Gunning across the pavement, a white SUV screeches to a stop.

A man in wraparound shades jumps out and forces his way into a black sedan, as a police cruiser pulls up off the rear bumper. Two Las Vegas officers crouch low, pistols drawn.

"Put the knife down!" one shouts. Slowly, the man steps out and he's taken into custody.

Then all the participants in this training scenario populated entirely by cops sit down to dissect decisions made during the mock confrontation.

"Do you think maybe it would've been better to get at least one car back to create a little ... more time and distance?", instructor Pete Crews asks.

The question is key given findings that Las Vegas police routinely failed to slow high-stakes encounters, resulting in "errors and fatalities."

When the review began, Metro was just rolling out reality-based training, four-hour sessions now required annually for all officers.

Las Vegas has since trained hundreds to deal with people with mental illnesses. It has struggled to incorporate de-escalation into other training.

Some instructors "expressed outright disapproval" of the new use-of-force protocol, the consultant found.

"When you have the trainers actually mocking the training, how seriously are the trainees going to take it?" said Andre Lagomarsino, a lawyer for the family of Trevon Cole, killed by an officer.

McCarthy acknowledges dissent, but says that problem was corrected.

Critics say training appears to have reduced shootings. Trainees are measured in praising its value.

Jason de la Garrigue, says such training reminds him of the split-second decisions of street patrol he largely left behind during five years on the vice squad. But he questioned its impact.

"I can't say it's going to help us reduce (shootings)," he says, "but it's a start."

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The radio in Dave Milewski's cruiser crackles: "Subject in a blue sedan fired one shot out of a vehicle at a residence."

This is no training scenario.

Pulling up alongside apartments with bars on second-floor windows, Milewski learns a man shot at a building. Residents describe a second man with a gun, running through a neighboring complex.

With evening light fading, officers' questions lead to a unit below the stairs — and the second gunman.

Only his long-barreled revolver turns out to be a BB gun that resembles a real weapon, but is perfectly legal.

It's a reminder of miscues training can't always anticipate.

"You run out and a cop sees you in a dark alley with one of those, you're getting shot," Lt. Dave Valenta says.

Back on patrol, Milewski recounts the only time he fired his gun on duty — two shots that missed a woman trying to run down him and his partner. That night, he says, he didn't recognize the threat until it was bearing down on him.

"You have weeks where every night you're drawing your gun," he says. "You just never know."

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AP National Writer Adam Geller can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller

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