August 2, 2015

Bill Lewinski and the Always Justifiable Police Shooting

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The New York Times has recently run a profile of William J. Lewinski, the psychology professor law enforcement turns to when it needs a justifier for the unjustifiable. It is an interesting look at how police defendants pitch shoot-first advocacy as neutral science. Fleeing man shot in the back? It's a good shoot. Unarmed man shot in  car? That's also a good shoot. Unarmed man with his hand in his pocket shot as he complies with order to remove hand from pocket? You know that's a good shoot. Officers who change their testimony about how and why they shot? Again, no problem for Lewinski, whose pseudo-scientific approach appears sufficiently malleable to suit any fact pattern.

As Matt Apuzzo succinctly notes in his Times' piece:

His conclusions are consistent: The officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person. Even when shooting someone in the back. Even when witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer’s story.

Broadly speaking, Lewinski's testimony offers two avenues of escape from seemingly bad shootings. One is what I consider the Rodney King approach. In that case, video evidence showed officers surrounding King, who was lying prone on the ground. The officers repeatedly and viciously struck King again and again. The defense attempted to deconstruct the video; slowing it down until it lost all meaning. Pointing to slight movements (such as King lifting his head or shoulder while lying on the roadway) that were visible only when the playback was shown at a frame by frame clip, the defense argued that the officers were reacting reasonably to a perceived threat. The jury acquitted.