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.

As the Times article discusses in greater length, Lewinski approaches shooting scenarios with the same sort of thinking: isolate independent actions to establish the potential speed of particular actions -- such as pointing a gun and then turning away, or drawing a weapon in a car -- and then extrapolating the officer's potential assumptions. This allows Lewinski to avoid opinions about how the officer reasonably reacted to an event that he perceived was happening although it did not actually happen, or had already happened. Comparing it to hitting a baseball, Lewinski theorizes that officers have to commit to swinging before knowing with certainty whether it's a good pitch to hit. It's a catchy theory that would legitimize using deadly force whenever officers think that someone may soon begin the process of using force against them.

Notably, if not out of necessity, Lewinski does his own research and draws his own conclusions while steadfastly avoiding the peer review process critical to actual science. He provides research and training to local and federal officers and agencies, and is their go-to-guy when something goes awry. In other words, he has created quite the niche for himself, even though, as Apuzzo points out, scientists don't believe that his "science" is at all scientific.

Lewinksi's second defense theory is based on a theory called "inattentional blindness." It's worth pointing out that Arien Mack, one of two psychologists credited with thinking up the term, is quoted in the article as saying "I hate the fact that it’s being used in this way."

This theory is grounded on the idea that when the brain is so focused on one particular event, it blocks out all other data. Human nature, says Lewinski, causes people to devise facts to fill in the blank in one's conscious memory. Lewinski often falls back on this theory when independent evidence conclusively demonstrates that the officer's factual statements are inaccurate. Many people would call this sort of thing lying, but not Lewinski. Where it was undeniably clear that the officer's version was untrue, Lewinski would argue that his memory was simply overwhelmed by the enormity of one aspect of the circumstances. Or, as Roger Clemons might have said, even when the officer appears to be lying, he's just honestly "misremembering."

Put differently, the officer's testimony is always to be believed, when it fits. When it doesn't, then it's an honest mistake. Or, as California-based civil rights attorney John Burton says,

Whenever the cop says something that’s helpful, it’s as good as gold. But when a cop says something that’s inconvenient, it’s a result of this memory loss.

Burton pinpoints Lewinski's bias, which may be better termed as an agenda. A hired gun whose mission is to clear the officer, Lewinski assumes the truth of corroborating statements while rejecting those that don't fit the narrative. Much like a political talking head on a Sunday news show who represents a position, person, or party, he is not there to further the search for truth, he's there to sell an outcome and his tools are sophistry, mock science, and the public's desire to believe in their officers.

Given Lewinski's growing prominence in legal proceedings surrounding police shootings, a most unpleasant growth field, his tactics and arguments are worthy of closer scrutiny and a thorough scientific vetting.

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