Could training stem police shootings? Las Vegas is a test
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."